Akedah - Torn Between Emotion and Devotion

Torn Between Devotion and Emotion

The theological dilemma of the Akedah

עוֹקֵד וְהַנֶּעֱקַד וְהַמִּזְבֵּחַ. These words are the refrain of a poem chanted immediately preceding the blowing of the shofar by all Sephardic communities, from the Iberian Peninsula to North Africa, from Iran to Jerusalem. The meaning of these words is: He who bounds; He who is bound; The Altar.

Those three Hebrew words encapsulate the tremendous theological and emotional tension of the Binding of Yitzhak. They draw the reader’s attention to the deep pain and desolate loneliness of the Akedah. At that moment there are only two people in the whole world. Avraham and Yitzhak. No one else is aware of what is soon about to take place. Sarah, according to the Biblical narrative, was not told that her husband is planning to slaughter her only child and was probably resting in her tent far away[1]. The two servants accompanying Avraham were waiting at the foot of the mountain and so only two people are on top of Mount Moriah. Avraham and Yitzhak, father and son, slaughterer and sacrificial lamb, a devoutly religious man and a young innocent child.

It is a terrifying image: a knife-wielding man looming over a small, helpless body of a child, whose hands and feet are bound together. The child is curled up on top of a pile of firewood, about to be slaughtered and burned.

They are alone only on the human plane, though, for they are joined by the altar, which seems to be a representation of a deity who demands human sacrifices. The poem zooms in on the three tragic protagonists in their total isolation: He who bounds, he who is bound, and the altar.

The poem was written by Rabbi Yehudah (Abu-Al-Baqqa Yahya) ben Shemuel ibn Abbas[2]. There is only fragmented information regarding his life, but it is known that he was a contemporary of the great poets of the Golden Age in Spain, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (1075-1141) and Rabbi Moshe ibn Ezra (1058-1138), and that he passed on, at the earliest, at 1167. It is not clear if he ever lived in Al-Andalus, and he was probably born in the Maghreb, or North Africa, and visited Aleppo and Iraq. He is the only non-Spanish poet whom Yehudha Al-Harizzi included in his essay on the Jewish poets of Spain. As we shall see, his poem about the Akedah is a powerful theological debate about the balance between religious devotion and human interaction with God, and since his son Shemuel converted to Islam, there were those who suggested that the poem is a eulogy for his son. This theory is questionable because the father did not know of his son’s conversion until shortly before his death, and I believe that the conversion of the son was a result of the theological struggles of the father, described in the poem.

The fact that the poem is still part of Sephardic liturgy around the world, despite the fact that the poet’s son converted to Islam and allegedly attacked Judaism, is a testament to the more flexible nature of the authors of Sephardic prayer books, as well as to the mesmerizing hold of the poem on the reader.

There are several tunes for this beautiful poem[3], as well as different practices for chanting it. The following practices are all part of the diverse tapestry which is commonly referred to as Jerusalem Sephardic practice:

  1. The whole poem is recited together by cantor and congregation. The cantor repeats the last stanza.
  2. The cantor reads the first and last stanzas. The other stanzas are chanted by qualified members of the congregation. In most Sephardic synagogues there is no choir, but some members, vetted for their musical talent or revered status, are invited to take part in chanting. Being named to read one of these stanzas is a coveted honor, and I have personally witnessed in my first position as a cantor[4] two men fighting over that honor.
  3. Only the first three and last three of the fourteen stanzas are chanted by the whole congregation, and the rest is read quietly. The cantor repeats the last stanzas.
  4. The congregation and the cantor chant together the first nine stanzas in one tune. The cantor then switches to a more solemn and mournful tune and chants solo the tenth and eleventh stanzas, which describe Yitzhak’s dialog with his father and his concern for his mother. It is an emotional moment and it is not rare to see people crying at that point. The congregation then resumes with the cantor the reading of the last three stanzas, and the cantor repeats the last stanza.

Where is Sara?

In the third stanza, the poet seems to embellish the biblical story, by adding a conversation between Avraham and Sarah, probably on the night before the journey. That conversation is first imagined in the Midrash[5]:

אָמַר אַבְרָהָם: מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה? אִם אֲגַלֶּה לְשָׂרָה, נָשִׁים דַּעְתָן קַלָּה עֲלֵיהֶן בְּדָבָר קָטָן כָּל שֶׁכֵּן בְּדָבָר גָּדוֹל כָּזֶה. וְאִם לֹא אֲגַלֶּה לָהּ וְאֶגְנְבֶנּוּ מִמֶּנָּה בְּעֵת שֶׁלֹּא תִּרְאֶה אוֹתוֹ תַּהֲרֹג אֶת עַצְמָהּ, מֶה עָשָׂה ...אָמַר לָהּ: "אַתְּ יוֹדַעַת, כְּשֶׁאֲנִי בֶּן שָׁלוֹשׁ שָׁנִים הִכַּרְתִּי אֶת בּוֹרְאִי, וְהַנַּעַר הַזֶּה גָּדוֹל וְלֹא נֶחֱנָךְ. יֵשׁ מָקוֹם אֶחָד רָחוֹק מִמֶּנּוּ מְעַט שֶׁשָּׁם מְחַנְּכִין אֶת הַנְּעָרִים, אֶקָּחֶנּוּ וַאֲחַנְּכֶנּוּ שָׁם", אָמְרָה לוֹ "לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם

[When Avraham was told to sacrifice Yitzhak] he thought “what am I going to do? If I tell Sarah, [she will not be able to decide what to do because] women are slow to decide even when dealing with a minor issue, how much more so with such a major decision. If I do not tell her and steal the boy form her, when she will not find him she will kill herself.” What did he do? …he told her, “You know that I have come to know God when I was three years old, and this boy has already grown up and has not been educated yet [lit. dedicated]. There is a place, not too far from here, where young boys are educated [lit. inaugurated], let me take him there.” She answered, “Go in peace.”

In the Midrashic version, Sarah, the hidden protagonist, is revealed, but for only a brief encounter. Avraham contemplates whether he should tell his wife Sarah, the mother of the unsuspecting sacrifice, about the divine commandment, and eventually rules against it. He decides to tell Sarah that he is going to perform an act of ח.נ.כ. with Yitzhak. This root has a double meaning of either educating the child through a rite of passage or dedicating him to God as a sacrifice. Sarah is described in the Midrash as unsuspecting, and she give her curt approval.

In the poem, the author takes the conversation to a new depth by adding several words to Sarah’s response. When Avraham tells her that her cherished one, Yitzhak, has to learn how to serve God, she answers:

לְכָה אָדוֹן, אֲבָל אַל תִּרְחָק

Go, master, but do not go too far.

It is as if her heart, a mother’s heart, senses the ominous danger. Her plea with Avraham refers not only to physical distance, but to religious extremism as well. “When you perform the rituals in your service of God,” she tells him, “do not go too far…”

Avraham answers with ambiguous words, not necessarily addressing her subconscious fear:

עָנָה יְהִי לִבֵּךְ בְּאֵל בּוֹטֵחַ

He answered: let your heart trust God.

The answer leaves her hanging. Does he mean that Yitzhak will return sound and safe, as she wants? Does it mean that God will do with him as He wishes, leaving her no choice but to accept the divine verdict?

Yitzhak Questions His Father

Later, as Avraham and Yitzhak approach the mountain alone, Yitzhak asks his father a seemingly innocent, but truly chilling question: “where is the sacrificial lamb?[6]” The poet rewrites this question, turning it into a piercing theological debate:

וַיִּקְרְבוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת בִּמְלָאכָה

וַיַּעֲנֶה יִצְחָק לְאָבִיו כָּכָה

אֲבִי הִנֵּה אֵשׁ וַעְצֵי מַעֲרָכָה

אַיֵּה אֲדוֹנִי שֶׂה אֲשֶׁר כַּהְלָכָה

הַאַתְּ בְּיוֹם זֶה דָּתְךָ שׁוֹכֵחַ

They both approached to do the service,

When Yitzhak spoke to his father thus:

Father, here are the fire and the wood for the altar

Where, my master, is the lamb required by law?

Are you, on this day, forgetting your religion?

In the biblical story Yitzhak addresses his father before they reach the mountain, but he simply asks where is the sacrificial lamb. The poet, by contrast, keeps Yitzhak silent until his engagement in the process of building the altar. In the bible, the question is almost theoretical, but in the poem, it dawns on Yitzhak, as he is preparing for the offering of a sacrifice, that something is terribly wrong. He addresses his father as “master” and the subliminal message of the question: "have you forgotten your religion?" is directed not at the lack of a sacrificial lamb but at Avraham's plans. Yitzhak is asking him: “How can you prepare yourself to offer me as a sacrifice? Wouldn't such an act violate your belief system?”

This question reflects the author's struggle with the phenomenon of voluntary martyrdom which has become prevalent in Europe during the crusades. Not only did Jews sacrifice their lives to avoid being captured and converted to Christianity, they also took the lives of their children.

Is Martyrdom Desired?

This is attested to in the Daat Zeqenim commentary on the Torah, anthologized from the writings of Jewish German scholars of the 12-13th centuries[7]:

There was one rabbi who slaughtered many children at the time of the decrees [i.e. the Crusades] because he was worried that they will be forced to convert to Christianity. There was another rabbi there who was very upset with him and called him a murderer, but he did not pay heed. The [opposing] rabbi said, “If I am right, that rabbi will suffer a cruel and unusual death”, and so it was… later the decree was nullified, and [it turned out that] had he not killed those children they would have been saved.

Yitzhak Asks: Can You Face the Consequences?

But the challenge to Avraham is not over yet. In the tenth and eleventh stanzas, the poet puts in Yitzhak’s mouth a gut-wrenching farewell speech in which he forces his father to consider the consequences of the act he is about to perform. The poet skillfully weaves Midrashic elements into a new narrative, in which Yitzhak reminds his father that while sacrificing his child demands one moment of devotion, it will bring in its wake a life of sorrow and regret. In the following few lines we find a full theological treatise, one which Sephardic Jews analyzed and reflected on every Rosh Hashanah as they were preparing to blow the Shofar:

שִׂיחוּ לְאִמִּי כִּי שְׂשׂוֹנָהּ פָּנָה

הַבֵּן אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְתִשְׁעִים שָׁנָה

הָיָה לְאֵשׁ וּלְמַאֲכֶלֶת מָנָה

אָנָה אֶמְצָא לָהּ מְנַחֵם אָנָה

צַר לִי לְאֵם תִּבְכֶּה וְתִתְיַפֵּחַ

Tell my mother that her joy’s sun has set

The son she bore after ninety years

Has been consumed by knife and fire

Where can I find consolation for her, where?

I feel for my mother, who will cry and weep.

מִמַּאֲכֶלֶת יֶהֱמֶה מִדְבָּרִי

נָא חַדְּדָה אֲבִי וְאֶת מַאְסָרִי

חַזֵּק וְעֵת יְקַד יְקוֹד בִּבְשָׂרִי

קַח עִמְּךָ הַנִּשְׁאָר מֵאֲפָרִי

וֶאֱמֹר לְשָׂרָה זֶה לְיִצְחָק רֵיחַ

From the knife my words hum

Please sharpen it, dad, and my ropes

Tighten them, and as the fire consumes my flesh

Take with you what is left of my ashes

And tell Sarah, “This is Yitzhak’s fragrance”

As we listen to Yitzhak talking to his father in the poem, we understand that he does not accept the verdict and that this is a last attempt to dissuade his father. Yitzhak addresses not only his father, but the victims and witnesses of the persecutions of all generations. He asks them to inform his bereaved mother that the joy of her life has been put out. The poet expresses his disbelief that a loving God would demand such sacrifices of Avraham, of the Jewish people, or of any human being.

The poet intensifies this feeling of discord by using the word ריח – smell or fragrance, when speaking of Yitzhak’s ashes. On one hand, the word connotes the sweet smell of a baby cuddled in his mother’s lap, symbolizing the deep love and connection between the two, and on the other, it reminds the reader of the biblical concept of ריח ניחוח – the smell of the sacrifices’ burnt flesh and bones which is meant to appease God. Yitzhak reminds Avraham that upon returning to his tent he will have to reveal the truth to Sarah and then, for the rest of his life, deal with her shock, pain, and accusations. When we couple this with the third stanza, in which Avraham hides the truth from Sarah by telling her that he is taking Yitzhak for a rite of passage, the full spectrum of the theological debate emerges.

The poet poses tough questions to himself and to the readers: “How do you know that your actions please God?”; “If people have to conceal their actions from their own spouses, is it not an indication that the deed is wrong?”; “Are you always aware of the full consequences of your religious actions?” and, most importantly “Does God want people to suffer and die for His Name’s sake?”

Akedah Misunderstood?

The answers to these questions, subtly but painfully presented by the poet, suggest that God never wanted Avraham to take his son’s life. He wanted him to protest and refuse. Avraham had to understand that if he has to lie to Sarah, for fear that she would not be able to handle the divine command, it means that he should not follow that command. Yitzhak keeps mentioning this to him, first claiming that Avraham is abandoning his religion, and then explaining to his father the life-long implications of his actions.

Avraham’s dilemma is acknowledged in the ninth stanza:

הֵכִין עֲצֵי עוֹלָה בְּאוֹן וַחָיִל

וַיַּעֲקֹד יִצְחָק כְּעָקְדוֹ אַיִל

וַיְהִי מְאוֹר יוֹמָם בְּעֵינָיו לַיִל

וַהֲמוֹן דְּמָעָיו נוֹזְלִים בְּחַיִל

עַיִן בְּמַר בּוֹכָה וְלֵב שָׂמֵחַ

[Avraham] prepared the firewood with might

Then bound Yitzhak as one would a ram

Daylight turned in his eyes into night

Rivers of tears streaming from his eyes

Eye bitterly crying but heart rejoicing

Here Yitzhak is already bound, in a fetal position, hands and feet bound together. Until Yitzhak’s dialog in the next stanza, Avraham is the only active figure. He performs his duties mechanically, as he did in the past with the many altars he erected, but this time something is different. The light of the day has turned into darkness. Is it the darkness of Avraham’s eyes, the darkness of religious fanaticism, or the realization that bleak future awaits him? His heart and eyes disagree on their reaction to the whole process. The eyes, perhaps representing emotion, stream tears, while the heart, representing faith, rejoices in the fulfilment of the divine commandment.

As I have mentioned earlier, the chanting of this poem in Sephardic synagogues is awe-inspiring and almost ecstatic. The congregants identify with the dilemmas of the protagonists, Avraham and Yitzhak, who are mentioned in the Torah, and especially Sarah who is ignored in the biblical narrative. When the cantor performs solo the two stanzas where Yitzhak addresses his father, many tears are shed, and when towards the end Yitzhak is redeemed, a sigh of relief undulates through the crowd.

Sephardic Theology

The choice of this poem, from among many other liturgical pieces written about the binding of Yitzhak, is not coincidental and had tremendous influence on the course of Sephardic history. It is very probable, in my opinion, that Rabbi Yehudah Shemuel ibn Abbas’ theological questions and his refusal to accept an image of a wrathful God who demands human sacrifices, whether from Avraham at Mount Moriah or from Jews in France and Germany during the crusades, led to the conversion of his son to Islam. However, the poem remained in the Sephardic prayer book and conveyed the message that one must take into account all factors before acting in God’s name.

This theological position, infused into the Sephardic psyche for centuries, was probably one of the major factors in the decision of Iberian Jews to leave Spain and Portugal, or to superficially convert, rather than remain there and become martyrs. It was a decision which was later denounced by historians and scholars as stemming from weakness, but as a matter of fact it was well informed and rooted in generations of theological debates, delivered to many by means of this poem read on Rosh Hashanah.

The reading of the poem immediately before blowing the shofar frames the experience in the context of complex relationships between God and the individual, and between that individual and other humans. It is not just the vertical line connecting heaven and earth, calling upon humans to confess and repent before God, lest they will be punished, but also the horizontal axis, reminding humans that no action is taken in a vacuum and that they have to consider the full impact of their religious and personal decisions upon others. The poem forces the readers to think of repentance as a process which is not reserved only for transgressions, but as one meant for deeds they consider acts of religious devotion. In addition, the poem elevates the congregants to a position of power, from which they can accuse God for being too cruel and demanding, and therefore ask for pardon. Indeed, the atmosphere in the synagogue between the reading of the poem and the blowing of the shofar is electrifying and emotional, making the shofar an unforgettable experience.

[1] Or maybe not. See “Sarah’s Diaries” in my author page on Sefaria.

[2] Jefim Schirmann, “Poets contemporary with Mose ibn Ezra and Yehuda HaLevi (III),” in Studies of the Research Institute for Hebrew Poetry in Jerusalem, vol. IV (Jerusalem: Schocken Publishing House, 1945), 297-99..

[3] For the full text of the poem as well as for audio recordings of the different traditions, see http://old.piyut.org.il/articles/1169.html

[4] Yefeh Nof Sephardic synagogue, Jerusalem.

[5] Midrash Tanhuma, Warsaw edition, on Genesis 22:1.

[6] Genesis 22:7.

[7] דַּעַת זְקֵנִים מִבַּעֲלֵי הַתּוֹסָפוֹת, בְּרֵאשִׁית פֶּרֶק ט: וּמַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַב אֶחָד שֶׁשָּׁחַט הַרְבֵּה תִּינוֹקוֹת בִּשְׁעַת הַשְּׁמָד כִּי הָיָה יָרֵא שֶׁיַּעֲבִירוּם עַל דָּת. וְהָיָה רַב אֶחָד עִמּוֹ וְהָיָה כּוֹעֵס עָלָיו בְּיוֹתֵר וּקְרָאוֹ רוֹצֵחַ וְהוּא לֹא הָיָה חוֹשֵׁשׁ. וְאָמַר אוֹתוֹ רַב, אִם כִּדְבָרַי יֵהָרֵג אוֹתוֹ רַב בְּמִיתָה מְשֻׁנָּה. וְכֵן הָיָה, שֶׁתְּפָסוּהוּ גּוֹיִם וְהָיוּ פּוֹשְׁטִין עוֹרוֹ וְנוֹתְנִין חוֹל בֵּין הָעוֹר וְהַבָּשָׂר. וְאַחַר כָּךְ נִתְבַּטְּלָה הַגְּזֵרָה, וְאִם לֹא שָׁחַט אוֹתָן הַתִּינוֹקוֹת הָיוּ נִצּוֹלִין.