Sketching Out Blog: Sketches of art, watercolor, photos, recipes, books, interviews, Jewish topics, and Highland Park, New Jersey

Sephardi Piyut of Rosh Hashana

Many of the piyutim (liturgical songs) that we sing at Congregation Etz Ahaim on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are beautiful, memorable melodies, but one that stands out in particular is Et Sha’arei Ratzon (see the piyut on Sefaria). The poem was written by R. Yehuda ben Shmuel Ibn Abbas in the 12th century; it is a haunting retelling of the Akeida, the story in which Avraham brings his son Isaac as a sacrifice and then he is stopped by an angel. The repeated verse that most remember is “Oked veHanekad VeHamizbeach” – “the binder, the bound, and the altar.” Here is Avraham the binder bringing his son the bound on the altar – a scary, hard to explain, difficult to comprehend episode in the Torah. It seems like we too on Rosh Hashana are coming before God; like for Avraham, it is the “Et Sha’arei Ratzon” – the time of the gates of grace or desire. The Akeida is part of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashana.

My husband explained some of the midrashim of this song. The first is a lie that Avraham tells Sarah, that he is taking Yitzhak (Isaac), her beloved only son, to study Torah. In the next, Avraham, Yitzhak (Isaac) and his servants are approaching the mountain, but at some point the servants are told to stay behind because, according the English translation in the Sephardi siddur, they are not “spiritually worthy.” The Hebrew, however, calls them Hamor (may possibly be translated as donkey). When Isaac is taken to be sacrificed, he worries about his mother Sarah, how she will weep for him. The angels ask that Isaac be spared, that there shouldn’t be a world without a moon (i.e., without Isaac, who is compared to the moon).

The poet, who starts the poem with gates of “ratzon” (desire?) ends with gates of “rahamim” (pity, mercy) and a call for salvation.

Et Sha’arei Ratzon (Oked Vehanekad), sung at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, New Jersey, on Rosh Hashana, is a poem written by R. Yehuda ben Shmuel Ibn Abbas in the 12th century; it is a retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac.

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