October 23, 2009


From The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, edited by T. Carmi, pp. 87-88 (biographical note) and 221 (poem). However, we have slightly modified the translation here.

Yannai (sixth century), the first paytan (liturgical poet) of the classical period, lived in the Holy Land. He was virtually unknown until the 20th century, when I. Davidson discovered several of his compositions among the manuscripts in the Cairo Genizah. Subsequently, the research of M. Zulay led to the publication of over eight hundred poems, remarkable for their force, originality, and variety (from Editor’s Introduction). We have chosen this poem for its evocation of the mysteries of the prophetic experience.

The Celestial Fire

“Now an angel of the Lord appeared to Moses

In a blazing fire…”

A fire that devours fire

A fire that burns in things dry and moist

A fire that glows amid snow and ice

A fire like a crouching lion

A fire that manifests itself in many forms

An absolute fire that never expires

A fire that shines and roars

A fire that blazes and sparkles

A fire that flies in a storm wind

A fire that burns without wood

A fire that renews itself every day

A fire that is not fanned by fire

A fire that billows like palm branches

A fire whose sparks are flashes of lightning

A fire black as a raven

A fire curled like the colors of the rainbow!