Akedah and Martyrdom

For Rosh HaShana 5778

עוקד והנעקד והמזבח – These words are the refrain of a poem chanted 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 momentous event of the Binding of Isaac. They draw the readers’ attention and force them to focus on the singularity, deep pain, and desolate loneliness of the moment. At that moment, there are only two people in the whole world. Abraham and Isaac. No one else is aware of what is soon about to take place. Sarah was never told that her husband plans to slaughter her only child, the one she bore him when she was ninety years old, and the two pages are waiting at the foot of the mountain. On top of the mountain there are only Abraham and Isaac, father and son, devoutly religious man and a young innocent child, slaughterer and sacrifice. It is a terrifying image: a knife-wielding man looming over a small, helpless body of a child, who with hands and feet bound together, is curled un 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 the altar, which seems to be a representation of a blood-thirsty and cruel deity, one who demands human sacrifices, and so 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. 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, 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 tarnished reputation of the poet as the father of a son who converted to Islam and then 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 that beautiful poem, 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 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. 
  3. Only the first three and last three of the fourteen stanzas are chanted, 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 the tenth and eleventh stanzas solo. These are the stanzas which describe Isaac’s dialog with his father and his concern for his mother, and seeing people crying at that point is not a rare sight. The congregation then resumes with the cantor the reading of the last three stanzas, and the cantor then repeats the last stanza.

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

אמר אברהם: מה אעשה? אם אגלה לשרה, נשים דעתן קלה עליהן בדבר קטן כל שכן בדבר גדול כזה. ואם לא אגלה לה ואגנבנו ממנה בעת שלא תראה אותו תהרוג את עצמה, מה עשה? …אמר לה: “את יודעת, כשאני בן שלוש שנים הכרתי את בוראי, והנער הזה גדול ולא נחנך. יש מקום אחד רחוק ממנו מעט ששם מחנכין את הנערים, אקחנו ואחנכנו שם”,  אמרה לו: “לך לשלום”

[When Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac] 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. inaugurated]. 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. Abraham 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 lie to Sarah and tell her that he is going to train the child, or perform with him a rite of passage, 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 Abraham tells her that her cherished one, Isaac, needs to learn how to serve God, she answers:

לכה אדון, אבל אל תרחק

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 Abraham 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…”

Abraham answers with ambiguous words, not necessarily calming her fears:

ענה יהי לבך באל בוטח

He answered: let your heart trust God. 

The answer leaves her hanging. Does he mean that Isaac 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?

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

ויקרבו שניהם לעשות במלאכה

ויענה יצחק לאביו ככה

אבי הנה אש ועצי מערכה

איה אדוני שה אשר כהלכה

האת ביום זה דתך שוכח

They both approached to do the service,

When Isaac spoke to his father thus:

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

Where, master, is the lamb required by law?

Are you, on this day, forgetting your religion?

Whereas in the biblical story Isaac addresses his father before they reach the mountain, the poet keeps Isaac 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 Isaac, 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 Abraham’s future act. Isaac 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. 

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:

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 a 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.”

But the challenge to Abraham is not over yet. In the tenth and eleventh stanzas, the poet puts in Isaac’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 Isaac reminds his father that while sacrificing his child demands one moment of devotion, it will bring in its wake a life of sorrow and contempt. In the following few lines we find a full theological treatise, one which Sephardic Jews analyzed and reflected on every Rosh HaShana as they were preparing to blow the Shofar:

שיחו לאמי כי ששונה פנה

הבן אשר ילדה לתשעים שנה

היה לאש ולמאכלת מנה

 אנה אמצא לה מנחם אנה

 צר לי לאם תבכה ותתיפח

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.

ממאכלת יהמה מדברי

נא חדדה אבי ואת מאסרי

חזק ועת יקד יקוד בבשרי

קח עמך הנשאר מאפרי

ואמור לשרה זה ליצחק ריח

My words hum from the knife

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 Isaac’s fragrance”

Listening to the poetic Isaac talking his father, we are unsure whether he has accepted the verdict and is truly preparing to die, or if this is a last attempt to dissuade his father. Be it as it may, he addresses Abraham and an unknown audience, perhaps the witnesses of the persecutions of all generations, and asks them to inform his mother that the joy of her life has been put out. The poet expresses his disbelief that a loving God could demand such sacrifices of the Jewish people and not consider the tremendous pain caused by that demand. Isaac reminds Abraham 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 Abraham lies to Sarah, telling her that he is taking Isaac 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 one must conceal his actions from his own spouse, is it not a proof 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?”

The answers to these questions, subtly but painfully presented by the poet, suggest that God never wanted Abraham to take his son’s life. He wanted him to protest and refuse. Abraham had to understand that if he must 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. Isaac keeps mentioning this to him, first claiming that Abraham is abandoning his religion, and then explaining to his father the life-long implications of his actions.

Abraham’s dilemma is acknowledged in the ninth stanza:

הכין עצי עולה באון וחיל

ויעקוד יצחק כעקדו איל

ויהי מאור יומם בעיניו ליל

והמון דמעיו נוזלים בחיל

עין במר בוכה ולב שמח

[Abraham] prepared the firewood with might

Then bound Isaac as one would a ram

Daylight turned for him into night

Rivers of tears streaming from his eyes

Eye bitterly crying but heart rejoicing

Here Isaac is already bound, in a fetal position, hands and feet bound together. Until Isaac’s dialog in the next stanza, Abraham 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 Abraham’s heart, 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, Abraham and Isaac 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 Isaac addresses his father, many tears are shed, and when, towards the end Isaac is redeemed, a sigh of relief undulates through the crowd.

The choice of this poem, from among many other liturgical pieces written about the binding of Isaac, is not coincidental and has 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 Abraham 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 consider all factors before committing suicide, or causing pain to himself or others, 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 HaShana.

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