Yigdal Elohim Chai (Praise to the Living God) has a special role in Jewish prayer. It’s one of a very few medieval hymns (piyyut) in the daily morning liturgy. Its author may be Daniel Ben Yehuda Dayan (c. 1400). Yigdal is one of many poems based on Maimonides‘ list of core principles of Jewish faith (c. 1168).
Synagogue Shabbat services often end with the singing of Yigdal. One popular tune is adapted from the work of British cantor Max Lyon, a.k.a. Leoni (c. 1770). The tune inspired several Christian spinoffs — including one expressing a theology forbidden by Yigdal.
Yigdal shares its unique place in Jewish liturgy with another medieval piyyut: Adon Olam. Fans of Adon Olam love its blending of big philosophical vision with personal spirituality. It’s better, they say, than Yigdal’s dogmatic legalism.
Once upon a time, I bought into the rivalry between these two hymns. But no more! Yigdal, too, has a philosophical heart. Below, I share my discovery, in the tradition of piyyut. Here’s a rhythmic introduction and a rhyming translation!
Thirteen’s a lucky number
in Judaism, they say.
The measure of God’s compassion
is expressed in thirteen ways;
the principles of our belief
in thirteen propositions as we pray.
Add them together, get twenty-six:
Gematriya of Yahweh.
And so the mysterious author
Of Yigdal Elohim Chai
sings Praise to the Living God
in thirteen rhyming couplets.
Each pair one statement of the creed
written by the philosopher Maimonides;
the twenty-six line poem a testimony
to the Holy One’s Infinity.
Infinite in being, comprehension, dedication;
infinite in acts beyond imagination.
Three couplets name God’s nature;
three teach us to know the Divine;
three explain the evolutionary ethical plan;
one takes our minds beyond time’s span.
Some call it a creed expressed in song,
but a closer look shows they are wrong.
It’s philosophy all the way: Listen!
You’ll hear it before long!
Meet the living presence, the sacred One;
past present future, here and never gone.
One and there’s no other One like this One;
subtle, infinite, complete, unbroken.
It has no body, no comparison;
unique in uniqueness in unison.
Primordial, primary, unbegotten;
before the creation, the origin.
Matrix of being and each created one
senses its wonder in deep attraction.
Its energy flows to its precious ones;
we’re creatures of glory, beauty and love.
Let us learn from Moses in his wisdom;
open to awareness, sound and vision.
Truth is all around, open and listen
to prayer and to dreams, in devotion.
The one will never change, faith unshaken;
no creature will ever be forsaken.
It surveys the world’s hidden dimension;
sees all that we do before it is done.
Pushes everyone to transformation;
good over evil, in evolution.
Our healing will result in perfection:
justice, nonviolence and connection.
One day the dead will rise for reincarnation;
time’s an illusion, live into the One!
Image: Martin of Sheffield