Eleazar Kalir

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Eleazar ben Kalir (Hebrew: אלעזר בן קליר‎) was one of Judaism's earliest and most prolific of the paytanim, liturgical poets. Many of his hymns have found their way into festive prayers of the Ashkenazi Jews synagogal rite.

In the acrostics of his hymns he usually signs his father's name, Kalir. Eleazar's name, home, and time have been the subject of many discussions in modern Jewish literature, and some legends concerning his career have been handed down. It is now assumed that he had lived in Kirjath-sepher in the Land of Israel (Rosh to Brochos Siman 21).

His time has been set at different dates, from as early as the 6th century (basing the view on Saadiah's Sefer ha-galuy), to the end of the 10th century of the common era. Older authorities consider him to have been a teacher of the Mishnah and identify him either with Eleazar b. 'Arak or with Eleazar b. Simeon (See Ma'adanei Yom Tov to Brochos, ch. 5, gloss 5 where he discusses whether he was the son of Rashbi or another Rabbi Shimon). He has been confounded with another poet by the name of Eleazar b. Jacob; and a book by the title of "Kebod Adonai" was ascribed to him by Botarel.

Kalir's hymns early became an object of study and of Kabbalistic exegesis, as his personality was a mystery. It was related that heavenly fire surrounded him when he wrote the "Ve'hachayos" in Kedushah for Rosh Hashanah [1]; that he himself ascended to heaven and there learned from the angels the secret of writing alphabetical hymns; and that his teacher Yannai, jealous of his superior knowledge, placed in his shoe a scorpion, which was the cause of his death.

Modern research points to the probability that he and his teacher were Palestinian Jews; and since Yannai is known to have been one of the halakic authorities of Anan ben David, the alleged founder of Karaism, and must therefore have lived a considerable time earlier than he had, Kalir's time may be fixed with some probability as the first half of the seventh century.

Although much, perhaps most, of Qallir's work remains unpublished, Shulamit Elizur has published three volumes of his poetry, and continues to work on his work.


Sources and style

Kalir was the first to embellish the entire liturgy with a series of hymns whose essential element was the Haggadah. He drew his material from the Talmud, and from Midrash compilations, some of which latter are now probably lost. His language, however, is not that of his sources, but Biblical Hebrew, enriched with daring innovations. His predilection for rare words, allegorical expressions, and haggadic allusions make his writings hard to understand – some describe him as a "Hebrew version of Robert Browning". His linguistic peculiarities were followed by many a succeeding payyetan (Hebrew poetic liturgist); and they influenced to some extent even early prose, especially among the Karaites.

Some beautiful renderings of Kalir's poems may be found in the volumes of Davis & Adler's edition of the German Festival Prayers entitled Service of the Synagogue.

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