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Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Poetry, Hebrew (Post-Biblical).

Poetry, Hebrew (Post-Biblical).

In speaking of post-Biblical poetry, we mean those poetical productions which have come down to us from the so-called Sopherite Age, i.e. from about B.C. 500 to A.D. 70. Productions written after this period are properly designated by the name Neo-Hebraic Poetry.

The divine service of the second Temple, under Ezra and his successors, was mainly a restoration, rather than a new institute; but the inspired material for liturgy was now more copious. The Psalms, several of which, like the melodious swan song of a departing inspiration, were written in the Ezra-Nehemiah time, formed of themselves a primary element. So, at the Feast of Tabernacles, the Asaphites chanted the Confitemini of the 118th Psalm (Ezra 3:10-11; comp. Nehemiah 12:24; 1 Chronicles 26:1). The titles given to some Psalms by the men of the Great Synagogue indicate a stated use of them at certain periods of week-day and Sabbath worship (comp. Mishna, Taamid, ad fin.; Sopherim, sect. 18; and the inscriptions for the Psalms in the Septuagint, evidently rendered from Hebrew ones). Thus Psalms 24 is called ψαλμὸς ...τῆς μιᾶς σαββάτου; 48, δευτέρᾷ σαββάτου; 94, τετράδι σαββάτου; 29. ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς; 38:περὶ σαββάτου; 111-119, Ἀλληλούϊα . The "fifteen Songs of Degrees" (שירי המעלות, Chald. שורא דאתאמר על מסוכין דתהומא, i.e. "the hymn which was said upon the steps of the abyss") were evidently liturgical, and probably derive their name from the fifteen semicircular steps at the Nicanor gate of the great court of the Temple, on which the Levites stood while singing them. So the Mishna (Succah, 5, 4):" On the fifteen steps which led into the women's court, corresponding with the fifteen songs of degrees, stood the Levites with their instruments of music, and sang." Besides, the Great Hallel (q.v.) and certain verses of Psalms were also used, as may be seen from the treatise Succah, 4:5.

The poetry of this period is preserved in four forms: of Tephillah, Berakah, Shir, and Mashal.

I. The Tephillah, or Prayer. Of this form we have the four collects offered by the high-priest on the Day of Atonement (q.v.), as preserved in the Jerusalem Gemara and Midrash Jelamdenu, and which run thus:

1. For Himself and his Family: "Lord, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed, I have sinned, I and my house. Pardon, O Lord, the iniquities and transgressions and the sins which I have committed and sinned before thee, I and my house, as it is written in the law of Moses, thy servant: for on that day will he atone for you to make you clean, from all your transgressions shall ye before Jehovah be cleansed" (Yomah, 3, 7).

2. For Himself and the Priesthood: "Lord, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed, I have sinned, I and my house, and the sons of Aaron, thy consecrated people. I beseech thee, Lord, to pardon the iniquities, transgressions, and sins which I and my house, and the sons of Aaron, thy consecrated people, have perversely committed, as it is written in the law of Moses, thy servant: for on that day," etc. (ibid. 4, 2).

3. For the People at large: "Lord, thy people, the house of Israel, have done perversely; they have transgressed, they have sinned before thee. I beseech of the Lord to pardon the iniquities, transgressions, and sins which thy people, the house of Israel, have perversely committed, and by which they have sinned and transgressed; as it is written in the law of Moses, thy servant: for on that day," etc.

4. When he came out from the Holy of Holies: "May it please thee, O Lord our God, and the God of our fathers, that neither this day nor during this year any captivity come upon us; yet if captivity befall us this day or this year, let it be to a place where the law is cultivated. May it please thee, O Lord our God, and the God of our fathers, that no want come upon us either this day or this year; but if want visit us this day or this year, let it be due to the liberality of our charitable deeds. May it please thee, O Lord our God, and the God of our fathers, that this year may become a year of cheapness, of fullness, of intercourse, and of trade: a year with abundance of rain, of sunshine, and of dew: one in which thy people Israel shall not require assistance one from another. And listen not to the prayers of those who go forth on a journey. And as to thy people Israel, may no enemy exalt himself against them. May it please thee, O Lord our God, and the God of our fathers, that the houses of the men of Saron may not become their graves."

II. The Berakah, or Benediction. The benedictory adoration of the name and dominion of God is a most proper and all-pervading element in the Hebrew liturgy. Many of their prayers begin and end with it. The berakahs at the close of the several books of the Psalms (Psalms 41:13; Psalms 72:18; Psalms 106:48) were probably added by Ezra, or the prophetical men of his time, on the final arrangement of the canonical Psalter (comp. on these doxologies Grä tz, in Monatsschrift fü r d. Judenthunt, 1872, 21:481 sq.). Those which accompany the prayers of the Shemoneh Esreh, or eighteen benedictions, comp. the art. (See LITURGY), are believed to be of the same period. Thus Maimonides: "These benedictions were appointed by Ezra the sopher, and the bethdin; and no man hath power to diminish from or add to them" ([Hilchoth Keriath Shena, 1, 7; and lilch. Tefila, 1, 11). "In the innumerable instances where, in the Mishna and Aboda, this form occurs, in which the everlasting name is hallowed, and the truth of the divine dominion is reverently confessed, it appears to have been the pious desire of the institutors of the synagogue ritual that supplication, with prayer and thanksgiving, should give a spirit and tone to the entire life of the people. Indeed, almost all the affairs of Hebrew life have the prescription of their appropriate benedictions" (comp. Berachoth, ch. 6-9; Rosh ha-Shanah, 4, 5; Tactmith, 2, 2, etc.).

III. The Shir, or Song, Chant (from shevar, שְׁוִר, Sansc. swar, swara, "a song;" the Arab. zabara, i.q. savara., whence zubar, like the Hebrew mizmor, of the same import), is a metrical composition, designed for chanting, and consisting generally of the strophe, antistrophe, and epode. We have a fine Biblical model in the fifteenth chapter of Exodus, on which see Kennicott and Lowth. Apart from the divine poetry of the Scriptures, there are but scanty remains of Hebrew songs of a date prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. In the Mishna and Gemara we come upon a few reminiscences of them, as in the treatise Succah, fol. 53, Colossians 1, where, in connection with the solemnities of the Feast of Tabernacles, we find the following chant:

THE PIOUS AND THE MEN OF RENOWN.

"O happy youth, devoted sage,

Who will not put to shame our age!

THE PENITENTS.

"O happy, also, is our age,

Which now atones for youth, not sage!

CHORUS.

"O happy be on whom no guilt doth rest,

And he who sinn'd with pardon shall be blest."

These songs were accompanied by the musical instruments of the Levites, who stood on the fifteen steps which led to the court of the women. Here is another, a sort of confession made by the Levites at the same feast. "When the Levites," says the Mishna, "reached the gate that leads out to the east, they turned westward, their faces being towards the Temple, and employed these words:

"Our fathers, here established by thy grace,

Had turn'd their backs upon thy holy place,

And to the rising sun they set their face;

But we will turn to thee, Jehovah God,

Our eyes are set on thee, Jehovah God."

Another fragment of a song has been preserved in the Mishna (Taanith, ad fin.), and was sung on the 15th day of Ab, when the collection of wood required in the sanctuary was finished. Then the maidens all went forth, arrayed in white garments specially lent them, that so rich and poor might be on an equality, into the vineyards around Jerusalem, where they danced and sung: "Around in circle gay the Hebrew maidens see, From them the happy youth their partners choose; Remember beauty soon its charms must lose, And seek to win a maid of fair degree.

"When fading grace and beauty low are laid, Yet her who fears the Lord shall praise await; God blessed her handiwork, and, in the gate, Her works have followed her,' it shall be said."

IV. The Mashal. This word, according to its Sanscrito-Shemitic root, denotes comparison or resemblance. "In the older Hebrew writings the word is applied to prophecy, to doctrine, to history in the loftier style, and to instruction given in a kind of poetic form, sometimes with the accompaniment of the harp or other music; because, in these various manners of instruction, material things are employed in the way of parallel or comparison, to illustrate those which are supersensible or spiritual. Hence mashal became a general name for all poetry which relates to the ordinary or every-day economy of life, with a still more specific application to a distinct epigrammatic saving, proverb, maxim, or reflection, carrying in itself some important principle or rule of conduct. The mashal, then, may be said to consist commonly of two elements: the thesis, principal fact or lesson, and the type, emblem or allusion by which it is explained or enforced. The latter may be one of the phenomena of nature, or an imaginary transaction in common life (parable); or an emblematic group of human agents (apologue); or of agents nonhuman, with an understood designation (fable). Sometimes the mashal takes a mathematical cast; and the doctrine or principle is laid down after a certain arithmetical proportion or canon, midah (Proverbs 6:16; Proverbs 30:15; Proverbs 30:18; Proverbs 30:21; Sirach 23:16; Sirach 25:1; Sirach 25:8-9; Sirach 26:5; Sirach 26:25; Sirach 26:27-28). When there is no image or allusion of these kinds used, the mashal becomes sometimes an acute, recondite, yet generally pleasant assertion or problem gryphos, the riddle,' or enigma;' in Hebrew, chidah, חידה (Judges 14:12); and sometimes an axiom or oracle of practical wisdom-massa, מִשּׂא, a burden,' a weighty saying, from masac, to bear;' and when conveyed in a brilliant, sparkling style of speaking it becomes melifsah, מליצה, the pleasant witticism or the pungent reproof. The remaining form of the mashal is the motto (apophthegm), where some moral is sententiously expressed without a simile, and generally without the parallelism, as we see in the mottoes of the Hebrew sages in the book Aboth." Of such mottoes, we mention the following of Hillel:

"The more flesh, the more worms;

The more riches, the more care:

The more wives, the more witchcraft," etc.;

or:

"Because thou madest float,

They made thee float:

In turn, who made thee float

Shall also float this having reference to a skull floating on the water;

or:

"Each one who seeks a name,

Shall only lose his fame;

Who adds not to his lore,

Shall lose it more and more;

Each one deserves to perish

Who study does not cherish;

That man shall surely fade

Who with his crown (i.e. of learning or merit) does trade."

A valuable relic of meshalim is preserved in a book known among us as The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, from which we will quote a few sentences: "Honor the physician before you require his aid" (Sirach 38:1). "Three things are contrary to all reason: a proud beggar; a rich man who denies it (lives and acts as if he were poor); and all old man who commits adultery" (Sirach 25:3-4). "A good wife is a good gift; such is granted to him who fears the Lord. A bad wife is a leprosy to her husband; let him divorce her, and he will be cured of his leprosy" (ch. 26). "Before you vow, consider the vow" (Sirach 28:23). (See PARABLE).

The non-Palestinian poetry of this time we pass over, it being written in Greek. See Delitzsch, Zur Geschichte der jü dischen Poesie, p. 17-29, 177 sq.; Etheridge, Introduction to Hebrew Literature, p. 92 sq.; Steinschneider, Jewish Literature, p. 35 sq.; Edersheim, History of the Jewish Nation, p. 349 sq., 559 sq.; id. The Temple, its Ministry and Services as they were in the Time of Jesus Christ, p. 246 sq., 270 sq., 286 sq. (B. P.)

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Poetry, Hebrew (Post-Biblical).'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/poetry-hebrew-post-biblical.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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