Et Shaarei Ratzon: A remarkable piyyut about the Binding of Isaac, for Rosh HaShanah
This article is to introduce people to the remarkable piyyut Et Shaarei Ratzon, which I will be discussing with the Rabbinical Assembly in September 2022. See here for the text of the piyyut and two English translations.
Of the thousands of piyyutim written over the centuries, only a very small fraction are still recited regularly in any contemporary synagogues. Over the past 800 years, the piyyut "Et Sha'arei Ratzon Le-hipateach," which retells the story of the Binding of Isaac, has become one of the best known and most beloved piyyutim in the Sephardic and Mizrahi traditions.
No one can explain definitively why some piyyutim attain great popularity in many different liturgical traditions, while others are neglected and fade into history. However, some of "Et Sha'arei Ratzon"'s distinctive features may have been factors in its massive popularity, including its clear language, its unusually emotional content, and the poet's own unconventional twists on the story of the Akeidah. In addition, its popularity may have been fueled by its presumed connection to events in the life of the paytan.
"Et Sha'arei Ratzon" was written by Judah ben Samuel ibn Abbas, a paytan from Fez in the 12th century who lived and wrote in many different places in the Arabic world, including present-day Morocco, Syria, and Iraq. Our information about him comes primarily from two sources: the anti-Jewish writings of his son, Samaual ben Judah ibn Abbas (Samau'al ibn Yahya al-Magribi), who converted to Islam, and a brief reference in Sefer Tahkemoni of Al-Harizi, in a poem listing and describing the major poets of his day.
It has been suggested that the elegiac nature of the poem "Et Sha'arei Ratzon" was influenced by the events in ibn Abbas's own life -- that like Abraham, Abbas had a fraught relationship with his own son. The Israeli literary scholar Judah Ratzaby notes that it makes little difference to us whether the composition was actually a result of ibn Abbas's son's apostasy, or whether it was perceived as such by the public, who saw within the piyyut the "sacrifice" that befell the poet as a father.
Like most piyyutim of the period, "Et Sha'arei Ratzon" is based on midrashic material. Many lines in the piyyut have analogues in midrashic collections, including Breishit Rabbah, Tanhuma Breishit, and Sefer HaYashar, as well as lesser known works. See the Appendix at the end of this essay for a list of the major midrashic analogues to each stanza of the piyyut.
Stylistic features of the piyyut
The poem is highly dramatic and emotional. While many piyyutim allude to Biblical events, this is one of the few that tell a complete story in chronological order. Only the first and last stanzas are addressed directly to God (only 14% of the piyyut), while all other stanzas are devoted to telling the story. (Piyytim being liturgical poetry, it is not surprising that most of the content of most piyyutim is addressed to God. This is also true about other piyyutim that are based on the Akedah. For example, Im Afes Rova Ha-Ken, a piyyut about the Akedah that is recited in the Ashkenazic tradition on Tzom Gedaliah, includes 6 of its 16 stanzas addressed to God, or 37%.) An additional factor that heightens the drama in "Et Sha'arei Ratzon" is Ibn Abbas' predilection for dialogue. Of the twelve middle stanzas in the piyyut, only three are fully narrative; other stanzas include the words of God, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, the servants, and the angels.
The piyyut's clear and comprehensible Hebrew may have been another key to its longevity; unlike many piyyutim, the basic meaning of "Et Sha'arei Ratzon" can be understood without a commentary, and its Midrashic allusions are not too elliptical to be comprehended. Unlike most Ashkenazic paytanim and the early paytanim from Eretz Yisrael, ibn Abbas generally refers to characters and concepts by their simple names, rather than by complicated and obscure "kinu'im" (epithets). (Ratzaby, 308-309)
Retelling the story in the piyyut
While the bulk of "Et Sha'arei Ratzon" is derived from earlier Midrashic sources, ibn Abbas chooses these midrashim selectively and manipulates them so that the piyyut presents a distinctive perspective on the story of the Akeidah. In particular, ibn Abbas raises the stature of Isaac, lowers the stature of Abraham, and calls attention to the friction between them. While the bulk of the piyyut takes place in the distant past, the poet makes subtle allusions to the conditions of his own generation's worshippers.
Isaac at the center
Whereas other Avodah piyyutim, and most midrashim, see Abraham as the central character in the Akeidah, it is clear that ibn Abbas places Isaac at the center of the story. Isaac's speeches take up two full stanzas and more than half of another; his two full stanzas towards the end of the poem represent its dramatic peak. (In many Sephardic synagogues, these two stanzas are given as an honor to a respected elder in the community, further emphasizing their centrality to the poem.) Abraham's speeches, however, are fewer, shorter, and concentrated at the beginning of the poem; he never speaks in the piyyut's second half. In two of Abraham's three speeches, he speaks deceptively: he tells Sarah that he is taking Isaac for religious training, and he tells Isaac that God will provide a lamb for the offering. This is quite a contrast to Isaac's speeches, which are emotional, heartfelt pleas.
The refrain of the poem, "Oked ve'ha'ne'ekad ve'hamizbeach," clearly intimates three focal points of the story - Abraham, Isaac, and the altar that would develop into the Temple in Jerusalem. Unlike other liturgical references to the Akeidah (like that in the Zikhronot section of the Rosh HaShanah Musaf) which do not even mention Isaac by name, "Et Sha'arei Ratzon" puts Isaac at least on equal footing with Abraham. The angels in the twelfth stanza request that the sacrifice be halted, not because of Abraham's merit, but because of Isaac's: "Al na yehi olam bli yareach," "Do not let the world be without the moon [a kinui for Isaac]."
Ambivalent presentation of Abraham
The dynamic between Isaac and Abraham also differs in this piyyut from its description in many midrashim. Ibn Abbas was certainly familiar with the many Midrashim in which Isaac proclaims his willingness to be slaughtered. (Examples include: Isaac's statement to Satan: "Al menat ken," "Nevertheless, I will go with my father" (B.R. 56:4); "Kol asher diber eleicha adonai avi e'eseh be'simcha uv'tuv lev," "Everything God has said to you, my father, I will do joyfully and willingly" (Sefer HaYashar 45b); "Im bachar bi, harei nafshi netunah lo," "If God has chosen me, then I hereby turn over my soul to Him" (Tanhuma 23); and the many midrashim in which Isaac requests that he be bound tightly so he will not invalidate the sacrifice (B.R. 56:5, Tanchuma 23, Sefer HaYashar 46b, Midrash Vayosha p.37).) In "Et Sha'arei Ratzon," however, these Midrashim either do not appear, or they are presented ambiguously. (See appendix below, stanza 11, re: "Ve'et ma'sari chazek"; according to Ratzaby's interpretation, this request in the piyyut demonstrates Isaac's fear and anger, rather than his willingness to be sacrificed.) Isaac's reaction in this poem is fatalistic, but he utters not a word of clear complicity or complacency. While in some midrashim, both Abraham and Isaac cry while their hearts rejoice at the opportunity to fulfill God's will (e.g., Sefer haYashar 46b), in this poem, only Abraham cries ("va'hamon d'ma'av nozlim bachayil"), so the ambivalence reflected in "ayin bemar bochah ve-lev sameach" applies only to Abraham.
Another place where Isaac's hesitance is demonstrated is in his question to Abraham in the sixth stanza, "Ha'at beyom zeh dat'cha shocheiach?" "Have you forgotten your custom/rite on this day?" This can be understood both as an innocent question (per Ratzaby, p. 316), and as a biting put-down: have you forgotten that slaughtering me is contrary to the principles by which you abide?
Of the two verses at the end of the poem which are devoted to Isaac's speeches, one concerns his mother, and the other concerns his father. The lack of parallelism in these stanzas is notable. The tenth verse, in which Isaac anticipates Sarah's sorrow at hearing the news of the Akeidah, is addressed not to Abraham, but to the general public (the verb "sichu" is a second person plural imperative). In the eleventh stanza, Isaac gives Abraham three specific instructions, one of which (the instruction to collect his ashes) refers to Sarah. While Isaac spends an entire verse on his mother's sorrow, he does not mention the sorrow his father will feel upon losing a son. His words to Abraham are distant and task-oriented. He saves his empathy for Sarah, not for Abraham. The ashes are for her to keep, not for him.
References to tragic inter-group relations
An analysis of ibn Abbas's space priorities for the piyyut points us to another oddity: two of the fourteen verses in the poem explore one particular midrash, that the two servants who are told to wait with the donkey correspond to the oppressors of the Jewish people. This midrash (found in Breishit Rabbah and other sources; see appendix, stanzas 4-5), suggest that Abraham’s words to the servants, "shvu lachem poh im ha-chamor” (“stay here with the donkey”), should be understood through wordplay to mean “am ha-domeh la-chamor" (“the nation that resembles a donkey.” The Hebrew word עם can mean “with” or “nation,” depending on how it is vocalized.) The special focus on this one midrash seems strange, especially when we note that the midrash is not mentioned in all texts, and it is not usually considered one of the most important aspects of the story of the Akeidah. In Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, a midrashic text that also devotes disproportionate space to this tradition, the character of Ishmael is clearly a symbol for Islam (his wife is named Fatima, the name of one of Muhammad's daughters), and one scholar believes that the character of Eliezer serves as a symbol for Christianity. When Abraham tells Ishmael and Eliezer that they are "the nation[s] that are compared to donkeys," the author expresses his anger at the pain that those nations caused Jews over the centuries. It is possible that, like the author of Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer, ibn Abbas uses this midrash to present his reaction to anti-Jewish persecution. The theme of persecution is addressed later in the piyyut as well, when Israel is referred to as "Edah so'arah un'gu'ah," "the storm-tossed, stricken people." Some have seen the poem’s angry focus on the relationship between Jews and other religions in light of Abbas’s son’s conversion to Islam, which presumably was influenced by, and also contributed to, conflict between the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Even today, the piyyut Et Sha'arei Ratzon Le-Hipateach is one of the emotional high points of the Rosh HaShanah service in Sephardic and Mizrahi synagogues. While most piyyutim have faded out of the liturgy entirely, and most of those that are still said have faded into the background of the service, Et Sha'arei Ratzon endures in a position of prominence. We can assume that its survival is not a fluke, but a consequence of the fact that many generations of Sephardic Jews recognized its special charm and resonance.
Appendix: Midrashic material in the piyyut
2: The first line of the second verse refers to Abraham's ten trials, mentioned in Pirkei Avot 5:3 and alluded to in B.R. 56:11. Ratzaby posits that "haben asher nolad lecha misarah," "the son who was born of Sarah," could be an allusion to the fact that Muslims believe that Ishmael, rather than Isaac, was the bound son; this line is inserted into the piyyut to make it completely clear that the son is Isaac. (Ratzaby, p. 314) Another plausible explanation is that this line alludes to B.R. 55:7, in which God's instructions to Abraham develop from the most general to the most specific. One of Abraham's responses in the Midrash is, "This one is the eldest of his mother, and this one is the eldest of his mother." (55:7)
The last line of the second verse, which refers to "the mountain where glory unto thee will shine," alludes to the midrash, found in many collections (inc. B.R. 56:2, HaYashar 44a, and Tanhuma 23), that God told Abraham which mountain to ascend by means of a special cloud or light. This is the first of several points of correspondence between the poem and the account of the Akeidah in Sefer HaYashar. The latter work, which is written in Biblical Hebrew, often quotes long sections of the Tanakh verbatim; at the beginning of the Akeidah story, Sefer HaYashar quotes God's command to Abraham, but with the addition of the words "asher yireh lecha bo sham anan uch'vod adonai," ". . .on one of the hills upon which you will see a cloud and the glory of God." While many other midrashim include this detail, it is not included within God's command except in this piyyut and in Sefer HaYashar.
3: In the third verse, Abraham deceives Sarah by telling her that he is taking Isaac away to learn about "the service of heaven." This idea is found in "Midrash Zo hi she-ne'emrah b'ruach ha-kodesh" (2a-b), from the Cairo Geniza, as well as in Tanchuma (22) and Sefer HaYashar. Of all of these, the account in Sefer HaYashar corresponds most closely with the piyyut. Sarah's response to Abraham's request includes the words "Al tarchik et beni me'alai," "don't take my son too far away from me"; this is very similar to her words in the piyyut, "aval al tirchak." In addition, in both the piyyut and in Sefer HaYashar, Sarah's answer is followed by Abraham's response; this is not the case in the other sources.
4-5: The fourth and fifth verses refer to the Midrashim of "Am Hadomeh lachamor," found in B.R. 56:2, Tanchuma (23), Tanchuma Buber (46), and Sefer HaYashar (45b). In all of these sources, while Abraham and Isaac can see God's presence on the mountain, the two servants (usually understood as Eliezer and Ishmael) do not see it. Through a pun, Abraham's words "Shvu lachem po im hachamor," "Stay here with the donkey," are read as "Am hadomeh lachamor," "the donkey-like nation" (in all versions except HaYashar).
6-7: The sixth verse seems to be derived directly from the Biblical account, without major midrashic additions. In the seventh verse, the use of the word "kisei," "chair," is reminiscent of the midrash in Tanhuma Buber in which Abraham's altar is compared to God's throne (41).
8: The line "haben lehizavach ve'av lizboach" ("the son to be sacrificed... and the father to sacrifice") is the exact parallel of "And the two of them walked together - one to bind and one to be bound; one to slaughter and one to be slaughtered." (B.R. 56:2) The reference in the ninth verse to the weeping of Abraham has parallels in Breishit Rabbah (56:6), in which only Abraham cries, and in "Zo hi shene'emrah," in which both Abraham and Isaac cry (2b). The Breishit Rabbah account describes Abraham's emotional confusion with words that are very similar to the piyyut: "Ayin bocheh. . .af al pi chen halev sameach," "His eyes cried, but despite this, his heart was happy." An even closer parallel, however, comes once again from Sefer HaYashar, in which the exact words "Ayin bemar tivkeh ve'lev sameach" are used to describe the ambivalence of Abraham and Isaac. (46a)
10: In the tenth verse, Isaac reflects his concern over Sarah's projected sorrow upon hearing of his death. In both Tanchuma (23) and "Zo hi shene'emrah" (3a), Isaac expresses concern that, if Abraham relates the news to Sarah when she is on the roof or at the edge of a pit, she is likely to be so distraught that she will fall (or, in Tanhuma, that she will jump) and die.
11: The words in the piyyut "ve'et ma'sari chazek" are reminiscent of the tradition (brought in B.R. (56:5), Tanchuma (23), Sefer HaYashar (46b), and Midrash Vayosha (p. 37) ), that Isaac begged his father to bind him tightly, lest he make an involuntary movement that would invalidate the sacrifice. This is one of the Midrashim that most clearly demonstrates Isaac's willing participation in the Akeidah. The words in the piyyut could, however, refer to a slightly different Midrash, found in "Zo hi she-ne'emrah," that implies Isaac's hesitance at the deed - Isaac requests to be bound tightly lest he inadvertently thrust an arm or leg towards Abraham and be guilty of death for showing dishonor to his father. A similar idea appears in Ner Haskalim, a midrashic work preserved by the Jews of Yemen: "Chazek hakesher, shema ev'ot b'cha ve'evtol mikvodecha," "Tighten the knot, lest I kick you and diminish your honor." Ratzaby holds that the wording of the piyyut (especially the use of the word "chazek," which does not appear in the parallel midrashim) expresses a preference for the interpretation in Ner Haskalim. (Ratzaby, p. 312) Under this interpretation, ibn Abbas refers to Isaac's desire to be bound tightly not to demonstrate his excessive religious zeal, but to show that Isaac recognizes that he is unable to contain his extreme terror - and maybe even anger.
In the same stanza, Isaac asks his father to bring Sarah some of his ashes, so she will know what happened to him. This idea is also found in Sefer HaYashar (46b, including the exact words "zeh leyitzchak reiach"), Midrash VaYosha (p. 37), and Yalkut Shim'oni (247:101).
12: The idea that the angels prompted God to save Isaac is also found in B.R. 56:6, in which the knife is melted by the tears of the angels.
13: This stanza draws upon numerous midrashim that refer to the merit received by Abraham and Isaac's descendants as a result of the Akeidah.
With thanks to Dr. Marc Bregman, who guided me in this research project when I originally worked on it in 1994 at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Musical renditions of the piyyut: See https://www.nli.org.il/he/piyut/Piyut1song_010002400000005171/NLI (57 different renditions!) Also see Youtube (עת שערי רצון - YouTube) and Spotify (Spotify – Search).
Articles about the piyyut (in Hebrew):
scholarly analysis of the piyyut by Prof. Yehuda Ratzabi:
scholarly analysis of the piyyut by Prof. Shulamit Elitzur:
Israeli musician Ehud Banai comments on the piyyut: https://www.nli.org.il/he/discover/music/jewish-music/piyut/articles/personal-insight/cycle-of-year/et-shaarei-ratzon-about-the-poem).
 (Ratzaby, Judah, Mi-Ginzei Shirat haKedem (Jerusalem: Misgav Yerushalayim / Institute for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Heritage, 1981), p. 313. Note also that the chronology of Abbas’s son’s embrace of Islam is unclear, and at least one source suggests that it happened after his father’s death.)
 Visotzky, Burt, Reading the Book (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1991), p. 92. Pirkei De'Rabbi Eliezer, 30.