Yanai (Payetan)

Yannai (Hebrew: יניי or ינאי‎) was an important payyetan who lived in the late fifth-early sixth century in the Galilee in Byzantine Palestine. Sometimes referred to as the "father of piyyut," his poetry marks the beginning of the Classical Period of piyyut that ranged from the fifth-eighth centuries.[1] He was the first poet of piyyut to sign his name in an acrostic, to use end-rhyme, and to wrote for weekly services (not just for the High Holidays and particular festivals). According to Laura Lieber, the liturgical form most associated with Yannai is the qedushta, which embellishes the first 3 blessing of the Amidah (a part of the Jewish prayer service).[2]

Although Yannai was renown and influential during his time (he influenced the poet Eleazar ben Kalir), by the Middle Ages, much of his poetry eventually disappeared from the prayer book. Excepting a few poems, Yannai's work was essentially lost until its rediscovery in the Cairo Genizah. Medieval rabbi Ephraim of Bonn records a story in which Yannai became jealous of the great success of his student Eleazar ben Kalir, and killed him by hiding a scorpion in his sandal, and for this reason Yannai's piyyyutim are not recited in prayers.[3] However, Ephraim himself cast doubt on the reliability of the story.[4] Modern scholarship does not accept the historicity of the story, due to both chronological considerations, and the fact that Yannai was praised by many later figures.

In terms of textual editions, in the early twentieth century, Mahzor Yannai and Menahem Zulay's "Liturgical Poems of Yannai" were published. Z.M. Rabinowitz's critical edition of Yannai has become the foundation for contemporary studies of the text. Recently, Laura Lieber's critical translation and study of Yannai's poems has opened Yannai's poems up for study to scholars working more broadly on ancient Judaism, Christian liturgy, late antiquity, and early Byzantine history.[2]

It is speculated that he may have composed the famous Unettaneh Tokef prayer. In 1938, Zulay published poems of Yannai collected from Geniza fragments.[5]

The following fragments remain to show his style:

  • אוני פטרי רחמתים: A ḳerovah for Sabbath ha-Gadol. It is said to include also הפלאת בלילה אז רוב נסים, found in the Passover Haggadah.
  • שיר השירים אשירה נא לידידי  : A shiv'ata for the seventh day of Pesaḥ. The middle portion is missing. It is designated as דרמושה (this reading must be substituted for the senseless לרמושה in the superscription), i.e., "bolt" or "beam" (δρόμος, otherwise called רהיט), and forms a sort of textual variation of Song of Songs, following the conception and interpretation of that book in the Midrash.
  • תעו אז בפתרוס: A silluḳ for Sabbath Shim'u, i.e., the second Sabbath before Tisha beAv.

Yannai, like his predecessor Jose b. Jose, is not as obscure in his vocabulary and in his metaphors as is Kalir, who is said to have been Yannai's pupil.


  1. ^ For an examination of the complexities in dating piyyut, see: Laura Lieber, “‘You Have Skirted This Hill Long Enough’: The Tension between Rhetoric and History in a Byzantine Piyyut,” Hebrew Union College Annual 80 (2009): 63–114.
  2. ^ a b Laura Lieber, Yannai on Genesis: An Invitation to Piyyut (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2010)
  3. ^ Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole, Sacred Trash : the lost and found world of the Cairo Geniza, Page 103.
  4. ^ Shadal, Mevo leMachzor Bnei Roma
  5. ^ Zulay, Menahem; Piyyute Yannai: Liturgical Poems of Yannai / Collected from Geniza-Manuscripts and Other Sources (Publications of the Research I Berlin Shocken 1938

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainGotthard Deutsch & H. Brody (1901–1906). "Yannai". In Singer, Isidore; et al. (eds.). The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link) Its bibliography:

  • Rapoport, in Bikkurei haIttim, 1829, p. 111;
  • idem, in Kerem Ḥemed, 1841, vi. 25;
  • Luzzatto, Mevo, p. 10;
  • Zunz, Literaturgesch. p. 28;
  • Landshuth, Ammude haAvodah, p. 102;
  • Harkavy, Studien und Mittheilungen, v. 106;
  • S. A. Wertheimer, Ginze Yerushalayim, ii. 18b.