“Before the World was Made: Early Piyyut and the Afterlife of Pseudepigrapha”
by Yehoshua Granat
Orion Center Coffee Hour Presentation, January 23, 2007
My Presentation at the Orion Center (Before the World was Made: Early Piyyut and the Afterlife of Pseudepigrapha, 21/1/07) focused on a unique mode of describing the antemundane state of affairs, found mainly in two monumental early Piyyut compositions. These compositions comprise extensive descriptive sections which depict in detail the preexistent Torah as entailing within it multiple elements of the physical world (light, waters, ground and so forth), before their actual creation.
The preexistence of Torah as such is a theme well known from rabbinic sources; however, that the preexistent Torah encompassed the preexistent elements of the world to be created, is not explicitly asserted there, let alone presented in detail. On the other hand, some second temple texts deserve consideration at this point. 4 Ezra counts the various elements of the World as “thought” by God before their coming into being; the anaphoric structure of this passage clearly resembles one of our piyyutim, in which the preexistent Torah and God’s mind are presented as inseparable. Similar passages can also be found in Qumran texts (such as the Hodayot) which unsurprisingly highlight the themes of Predestination and Eschatology as derived from this concept. Another corpus worthy of attention is Philo’s writings, especially De Opficio Mundi: according to the middle Platonic theory they present, a world of Ideas had come forth within God’s mind before the creation of the physical world took place.
Our texts’ unique descriptions of a preexistent world incorporated within the preexistent Torah might be regarded hence as demonstrating the survival or “afterlife” in early piyyut of traditions known from second temple literature but not represented in the rabbinic sources. In any case, the examination of early piyyut texts vis ? vis Second Temple writings (alongside the evident rabbinic background of the piyyutim) can contribute to a fuller comprehension of these complex and intriguing texts.