Yah Ribon Alam: Ineffable Breath of Life, Master of Time and Space.
So begins a most famous Aramaic piyyut (liturgical poem). Author Israel Najara studied Kabbalah in 16th century Safed. Aramaic words recall famous phrases from the Zohar, book of Jewish mysticism. Tradition assigns the song to Shabbat, day of spiritual elevation.
But is Yah Ribon a mystical poem? Let’s examine the evidence.
The author of Yah Ribon
In his own lifetime, Rabbi Israel Najara (1555-1625) was a famous master songwriter. He wrote poems, songs, and prayers in Hebrew and Aramaic, borrowing rhythms from Turkish, Spanish, Greek and Jewish traditions. Often, he would write lyrics set to particular popular songs. People were already singing these songs, he reasoned. So, let them enjoy more spiritually meaningful words!
Najara’s family of origin were refugees. They refused to convert to Catholicism, and so were expelled from King Ferdinand’s Spain in 1492. His father found work as rabbi of Damascus. There, Najara was born, raised, and educated. As young adult, Najara settled in Safed, a center of Kabbalistic study. The Ottoman empire welcomed Jews, so Safed seemed safe. But, the Sultan wished to see Jews well-distributed through the empire. So, in 1579, he tried to undermine the large Jewish settlement in Safed. Najara and his family left. Eventually, they settled in Gaza, where Najara worked as rabbi.
How does a master poet cope with the challenges of migration? By writing a poem, of course!
Escape from a Fiery Furnace: Echoes in Yah Ribon
In his own life story, Najara recognized the outline of the book of Daniel. He saw Daniel’s challenges echoed in his. One king insisted Jews worship his God. Another king supported Jews — but badly. Still, in Daniel’s story, things turned out well. Najara wished the best for his community, too.
Daniel served the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The King commissioned a golden religious statue. But Daniel’s Jewish friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow to it. So, the king threw the men into a fiery furnace. But they survived.
Nebuchadnezzar was awed by Daniel’s God. He sent out a royal proclamation: The signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me I am pleased to relate. How great are God’s signs; how mighty God’s wonders! God’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and God’s dominion endures throughout the generations (Daniel 3:32-33).
Daniel in the Lions’ Den: Also in Yah Ribon
Nebuchadnezzar was overthrown by Persian King Darius. Darius loved Daniel and respected Daniel’s Jewish practice. But Darius yielded to political pressure. He required all citizens to pray to him. Daniel broke the law to pray to his own God. Darius had no choice — he threw Daniel into the lion’s den. Daniel survived.
Darius rejoiced and decreed: Everyone must fear Daniel’s God: For He is the living God who endures forever; His kingdom is indestructible, and His dominion is to the end of time; He delivers and saves, and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, for He delivered Daniel from the power of the lions (Daniel 6:27-28).
These two stories hold the basic outline of Yah Ribon. Najara quotes them, sticking closely to their original Aramaic, when he writes: God, You are the King of kings. I am pleased to proclaim your mighty deeds and wonders…Save your flock from the mouth of lions!
Poetic Structure of Yah Ribon
As a prayer, Yah Ribon could not be simpler. Najara presents a message in five points, moving from praise to petition. (1) God, You are the highest! (2) It’s great to praise you! (3) Creator, you are still active in the universe! (4) Save us from our enemies! (5) Rebuild the temple, so we can sing your praises in Jerusalem!
Najara probably had a specific tune in mind. But no living person knows what it was. Theoretically, we could sing Yah Ribon to almost any tune. Each stanza has four rhyming lines. Every line has four accented syllables. A short chorus appears four times.
But we don’t sing Yah Ribon to just “any” tune. Its Aramaic language showcases its middle eastern roots. We respect those roots with Iraqi, Yemeni, and Arabic tunes.
Is Yah Ribon Mystical?
Kabbalah reveals the inner life of God. Dynamics of cosmic spiritual forces. Secrets of the universe before creation. Nothing in Yah Ribon hints at these themes.
Yah Ribon’s unfamiliar Aramaic language lends an exotic feeling to the piyyut. But its Aramaic vocabulary is not exotic. Almost all biblical Aramaic has its roots in a few chapters of Daniel and Ezra. These words and phrases find their way into the targumim, authorized Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible. The same terms show up in the Zohar. None of them are unique to mystical literature.
In 15th century Safed, the Kabbalists invented the Kabbalat Shabbat service. (Now, it is standard Friday night liturgy.) In Kabbalat Shabbat, they included their favourite mystical piyyutim. For example, Lecha Dodi, celebrating divine forces in alignment. And Ana BeKoach, revealing hidden names of God. But they did not choose Yah Ribon.
Still, lovers of Yah Ribon sing it on Friday nights. No, not in the Kabbalat Shabbat service. But over dessert! How did this happen? By association with the sweetness of the song? Or in response to Najara’s reputation? After all, the story goes, he was quite fond of Arabic pop music. And his more serious colleagues disapproved. Maybe dessert is just the right time to celebrate Najara’s unique blend of gravity and whimsy!
Image: A mythical map of four holy cities (Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron). Drawn by an anonymous 16th century artist.