The Yom Kippur Piyyut of unknown origin: "ki anu ame-cha" (For we are Your nation) through Oxford Hebrew manuscript mahzorim'

Tuesday, 20 September, 2022 - 8:20 pm

MS. Marshall Or. 7 (1334).pngOne of the most well-known piyyutim, of unknown origin, in the High Holidays machzor (prayer book), is known as: ‘ki anu amecha’ (for we are your people). It is recited five times on Yom Kippur, during each of the five prayers: evening service, morning service, mussaf, mincha and ne’ilah, and appears each time in the machzor just before the confession. The piyyut is traditionally sung as a joyous song and in unison, as opposed to being led by the chazzan, as with other piyyutim. In the ‘Companion to the Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, by Raymond Apple, published by the United Synagogue in 1964, it describes this piyyut as follows: ‘Based on a number of Biblical expressions, ‘Ki anu amecha’ confidently asserts that there is a personal bond between G-d and His people. More notable than the words, however, is the popular joyful tune.’ The wording of piyyut reads as follows:


כִּי אָֽנוּ עַמֶּֽךָ וְאַתָּה אֱלֹקֵֽינוּ

1. For we are Your people; and You are our G-d.

אָֽנוּ בָנֶֽיךָ וְאַתָּה אָבִֽינוּ

2. We are Your children; and You are our Father.

אָֽנוּ עֲבָדֶֽיךָ וְאַתָּה אֲדוֹנֵֽנוּ

3. We are Your servants; and You are our Master.

אָֽנוּ קְהָלֶֽךָ וְאַתָּה חֶלְקֵֽנוּ

4. We are Your congregation; and You are our Portion.

אָֽנוּ נַחֲלָתֶֽךָ וְאַתָּה גוֹרָלֵֽנוּ

5. We are Your inheritance; and You are our Destiny.

אָֽנוּ צֹאנֶֽךָ וְאַתָּה רוֹעֵֽנוּ

6. We are Your flock; and You are our Shepherd.

אָֽנוּ כַרְמֶּֽךָ וְאַתָּה נוֹטְרֵֽנוּ

7. We are Your vineyard; and You are our Keeper.

אָֽנוּ פְעֻלָּתֶֽךָ וְאַתָּה יוֹצְרֵֽנוּ

8. We are Your work; and You are our Creator.

אָֽנוּ רַעְיָתֶֽךָ וְאַתָּה דוֹדֵֽנוּ

9. We are Your dear ones; and You are our Beloved.

אָֽנוּ סְגֻלָּתֶֽךָ וְאַתָּה אֱלֹקֵֽינוּ

10. We are Your treasure; and You are our G-d.

אָֽנוּ עַמֶּֽךָ וְאַתָּה מַלְכֵּֽנוּ

11. We are Your people; and You are our King.

אָֽנוּ מַאֲמִירֶֽיךָ וְאַתָּה מַאֲמִירֵֽנוּ

12. We are Your distinguished ones; and You are our Distinction.


In this piyyut, there are twelve verses, with a repetition of two halves of sentences: ‘for we are Your people’ and You are our G-d.’ In this essay, I would like to present where this piyyut is derived from, explore the piyyut in its various versions through the machzorim held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library and try to decipher a reason for the variants, thereby offering insight and a deeper understanding of the piyyut and why it is placed in such an elevated position, just before the confession – a central part of the Yom Kippur prayers. In addition, I will make a tentative argument when this piyyut may have been expanded in its latest form and who the possible influences were for its expansion.


Midrash origin


The piyyut is not constructed in the form of an acrostic, suggesting it an early piyyut from possibly before the 6th century. It thus also has no name of an author indicated in the piyyut, offering no clue as to who composed it or expanded it. The piyyut, however, is not completely an original piece of work, as the wording and style is derived from the midrash rabbah on Song of Songs 2:16: ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his, who herds among the lilies.’ In this midrash, four of the verses in the piyyut can be found, though in reverse order. The order in the midrash is similar to the verse: ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his’ - first from G-d to man and then from man to G-d. In the piyyut, it is in the reverse: first, ‘we are Your people’ – from man to G-d, and then, ‘You are our G-d’ - from G-d to man. In the midrash, each verse is also followed by a supporting scriptural source. The midrashic text states:


1. He is G-d for me, and I am a nation for Him. He is G-d for me, “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2). I am a people and a nation for Him, as it is stated: “Pay attention to Me, My people, and listen to Me, My nation” (Isaiah 51:4).


2. He is a father to me, and I am a son to Him. He is a father to me, “For You are our Father” (Isaiah 63:16). I am a son to Him, “My son, My firstborn, Israel” (Exodus 4:22).


3. He is a shepherd to me, “Shepherd of Israel, listen” (Psalms 80:2). I am His flock, “you, My flock, flock of My pasture” (Ezekiel 34:31).


4. He is my guardian, “Behold, the Guardian of Israel does not slumber and does not sleep” (Psalms 121:4). I am His vineyard, as it is stated: “For the house of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 5:7).




The anonymous author of the Yom Kippur piyyut adapted this midrashic text and expanded it to include not just the four original verses found in the midrash, but, in the printed edition of the Ashkenazic machzor, eight additional sentences, making a total of twelve verses. The eight additional verses are:


1. we are Your servants; and You are our Master.

2. we are Your congregation; and You are our Portion.

3. we are Your inheritance; and You are our Destiny (go-ra-le-nu).

4. we are Your work; and You are our Creator.

5. we are Your dear ones; and You are our Beloved.

6. we are Your treasure; and You are our G-d.

7. we are Your people; and You are our King.

8. we are Your distinguished ones; and You are our Distinction.




The expansion of the sentences, however, vary amongst the versions, as found in the manuscripts of the medieval machzorim at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. They differ in the number of verses, and also the selection of the particular verses, though the original four verses found in the midrash are present in all the versions. We will present a survey of the variants of the piyyut as found in eleven Oxford manuscripts:


MS Bodley Or. 167 (1275-1325)


In German machzor from Cologne, MS Bodley Or. 167 (1275-1325), the piyyut contains fourteen sentences. It adds three additional verses, not found in the printed version, omits one verse, and changes the ending of one verse. The three additional verses are:


1. We are Your garden (ga-ne-chah); and You are our Guardian (shom-re-nu).

2. We are Your hope (ko-ve-cha), and You are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu).

3. We are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Pride (ge-o-ne-nu). 

In addition, it a. omits the repetition: ‘we are Your people,’ found in the printed version before: ‘You are our King;’ b. places ‘You are our King’ - instead of ‘our G-d’ - after ‘we are Your treasure; c. omits the repetition ‘You are our G-d.’


MS Canonici Or. 140 (1270 – 1280)


In German machzor, MS Canonici 140 (1270 – 1280), it has only eight sentences, with three added in the margin: ‘we are Your flock; and You are our Shephard,’ ‘we are your treasure; and You are our Relative (kro-ve-nu),’ and ‘we are Your dear ones; and You are our Beloved.’ This makes eleven verses all together. It is the only version that includes: ‘Relative’ (kro-ve-nu). Also, it omits: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer (go-a-le-nu),’ but includes ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha); and You are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu).’


MS Reggio 2 (1291 – 1325)


In German machzor, MS Reggio 2 (1291 – 1325) it has nine sentences. It omits: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer’ (go-a-le-nu), but includes ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha); and You are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu).’


MS Michael 619 (1320-1330)


In Ashkenazi machzor, MS Michael 619 (1320-1330), it has twelve sentences. It includes: ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha); and You are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu).’ It also uses the word: ‘portion (ma-nat-cha),’ instead of ‘portion (chel-ke-cha).’ It omits, however: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer (go-a-le-nu).’


MS Bodley Or. 501 (1326-1375)


In German machzor, MS Bodley Or. 501 (1326-1375), it contains eleven sentences, while omitting the following: ‘we are Your garden; and You are our Keeper (not-re-nu),’ ‘we are Your congregation;’ ‘we are Your cleaving; and You are our Pride;’ ‘You are our Destiny,’ ‘we are Your people; and You are our King.’ It includes, however: ‘we are Your hope; Your are our Deliverer.’


MS. Canonci Or. 95 (1326-1375)


In German machzor, MS. Canonci Or. 95 (1326-1375) it has the largest number of fifteen sentences, including also: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer’ (go-a-le-nu), and: ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha); and you are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu).’


MS Marshall Or. 7 (1334)


In Western Ashkenazi machzor, MS Marshall Or. 7 (1334), it has fourteen sentences including: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer (go-a-le-nu).’ It substitutes: ‘we are Your inheritance (na-cha-lat-cha)’ with: ‘we are Your portion (chel-ke-cha),’ before ‘You are our Destiny,’ among other differences.


MS Canonici Or. 141 (1375-1425)


In Ashkenazi machzor, MS Canonici 141 (1375-1425), it has twelve sentences, and includes: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer’ (go-a-le-nu), and ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha); and You are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu).’ Uniquely, in this manuscript, ‘we are Your distinguished ones; and You are our Distinction’ does not appear as the final verse, but, rather, as the ninth verse.


MS Marshall Or. 42 (1376-1400)


In German machzor, MS Marshall Or. 42 (1376-1400), fol. 114-5, it has nine verses in the main text. It includes: ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha); and You are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu),’ but omits: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer (go-a-le-nu),’ ‘we are Your dear ones; and You are our Beloved,’ and ‘we are Your distinguished ones; and You are our Distinction.’ These three sentences are however added on the margin, making a total of twelve verses.


MS Huntington 484 (1440-1460) and MS Canonici Or. 18 - Italian


In Northern Italy Machzorim, MS Huntington 484 (1440-1460) and MS Canonici Or. 18 (1450-1500), it has six sentences:


1.     for we are Your people; and You are our G-d.

2.     we are Your children; and You are our Father.  

3.     we are Your servants; and You are our Master.

4.     we are Your flock; and You are our Shepherd.

5.     we are Your vineyard; and You are our Keeper.

6.     we are Your inheritance; and You are our Destiny.


We are Your congregation


Only MS Bodley Or. 167 (1275-1325), Marshall Or. 7 (1334), MS. Canonci Or. 95 (1326-1375) it includes: ‘we are Your congregation.’ The rest of the manuscripts omit this phrase.


We are brazen-faced; and You are merciful and gracious


In the piyyut, there is an additional four sentences that are not part of the original text in the midrash, but added as part of the development of the text into a piyyut. It states:


1.     We are brazen-faced; and You are merciful and gracious.

2.     We are stiff-necked; and You are slow to anger.

3.     We are full of iniquity; and You are full of compassion.

4.     Our days are like a passing shadow; and You are the same and Your years will not end.


These four verses give the piyyut the context as an introduction to the confession that follows the piyyut in the machzor. They are, however, not in the same theme as the other verses: while the piyyut is principally about the intimate unconditional relationship between the Jewish people and G-d, the additional four verses are about rupture with G-d through sin. Despite this, in the majority of the versions, including the Italian version, the additional four verse are simply added to the end of the piyyut. In Canon. Or. 95, (1326-1375), in the margin, the Hebrew letter ‘shin’ (because) is added, implying that it is meant to be read with a conjunction. The meaning then is: ‘we are Your distinction’ (the final verse in the piyyut) ‘because’ despite us being ‘brazen-faced,’ you are compassionate and gracious. The same is the case with the sentence: ‘we are full of iniquity; and You are full of compassion.’ In this theme, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) comments on this phrase: however full of iniquity we are, it is of a finite nature, as mere human beings, whereas You are of infinite compassion.


Brazen-faced, but not so brazen-faced


Alternatively, it is meant as an introduction to the following confessional piyyut:


Our G-d and G-d of our fathers, let our prayer come before you and do not ignore our supplication. For we are not so brazen-faced and stiff-necked to say to you, G-d, our L-rd, and G-d of our fathers, “We are righteous and have not sinned.” But, indeed, we and our fathers have sinned.


The insertion of the phrase: ‘we are not brazen-faced,’ in the following piyyut, is then intended as a reconciliation with the above inconsistency between the main part of the piyyutki anu amecha’ and the last four verses: having said ‘we are brazen-faced; and You are merciful and gracious,’ it is followed by the sentiment that despite being ‘brazen-faced’ and having sinned, we are not so brazen-faced to say that we have not sinned. According to this, the additional four verses is intended as a transition and introduction to the following piyyut and confession.


Representing the tension between, firstly, the two sections of the piyyut ‘ki anu amecha,’ and, secondly, the apparent contradiction between the statement: ‘we are brazen-faced,’ and the statement in the following confessional piyyut: ‘we are not (so) brazen-faced,’ in some versions, the last four verses have been removed from the end of the piyyut ‘ki anu amecha’ and, instead, placed earlier, separately, ahead of the piyyut. This can be found in the following manuscript machzorim: German machzor from Cologne, MS Bodley Or. 167 (1275-1325), Western Ashkenazi machzor MS Marshall Or. 7 (1334) (fol. 189), and Ashkenazi machzor MS Michael 619 (132-1330).


In other manuscript machzorim, however, they appear inseparable to the end of the piyyutki anu amecha.’ This is how it is found in the following manuscript machzorim: MS Bodley Or. 501 (1326-1375), Ashkenazi machzor MS Canon. Or. 141 (1375-1425), German machzor MS Canon. Or. 140 (1270-1280), German machzor MS Reggio 2 (1291-1325), MS Marshall Or. 42 (1376-1400), and Northern Italian machzorim: Hunt. 484 (1440-1460) and MS Canon. Or. 18 (1450-1500). In the Italian machzorim, they are also placed as part of the piyyut ki anu amecha, but they don’t include the following juxtaposed confessional piyyut that states: ‘we are not brazen-faced,’ thus the problem seems mitigated.


Summary of history


In summary: the development of the piyyutki anu amecha’ appears as follows: the origin is unmistakably from the midrash in Song of Songs. In its earliest form, there are only four verses, in the Italian version, there are six. This may have been the first stage of the development of the piyyut from the midrash. In the thirteenth century, additional verses were added: initially, two or three more, making eight or nine, as can be found in the second half of 12th century German manuscripts, but then further expanded in the 14th century to have fifteen verses, as found in MS. Canonci Or. 95 (1326-1375). Initially, added in the margin, as can be found in two of the manuscripts, and then included in the main text. As indicated from most of the manuscripts, the final addition appear to be: ‘we are Your distinguished ones; and You are our Distinction.’ The three verses that did not seem to have survived into the printed version in the Ashkenaz machzor is: 1. ‘we are Your garden (ga-ne-chah); and You are our Guardian (shom-re-nu).’ 2. ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha), and you are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu).’ 3. ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Pride (ge-o-ne-nu).' 

Two meanings of the piyyut


From the variants in the manuscripts, there appears to be two interpretations of the piyyut: the first is derived from the context and juxtaposition in the machzor next to the confession. This suggests one who has sinned and asking for G-d to see us as a people desiring to repair the intimate relationship, as a child to a parent. A second interpretation reflects one who is righteous, as G-d’s treasured people, a nation of distinction and belovedness, without fault.


These two interpretations explain the reason for the two versions in the manuscripts, whether the final four sentences: ‘we are full of iniquity,’ etc. is part of the piyyut or not. As mentioned, in some versions, it was removed and placed before the piyyut. As a penitent piyyut, it makes sense for the additional four sentences to remain; as a piyyut reflecting the righteous, it makes sense to have it removed and placed separately.


Two songs


The two concepts of this piyyut are also reflected in the traditional melodies the piyyut is sung to. As mentioned, in the Ashkenaz tradition, the piyyut ‘ki anu amecha’ is sung to a joyful melody. In the Chabad tradition, there are, however, two tunes for this piyyut, reflecting the above two concepts. Between 1956 and 1964, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, would enter the synagogue in the early hours of Simchat Torah morning, distribute l’chaim to encourage the joy of the holiday and teach a new chassidic melody (niggun), most of which were sung in previous generations of chassidim, but forgotten over time. The second year in this series, in 1957, the Rebbe taught a melody to the piyyut ‘ki anu amecha.’ In 1964, seven years later, however, a second melody was taught to the same piyyut, introduced by saying that the first melody, taught in 1957, was a tune for the righteous – a joyous melody, while this one is one of stubbornness, reflecting a penitent.


Date of influence


An indication of the influences and time of the expansion of the piyyut to include additional sentences, may be gleaned from the particular choice of selection of the sentences that were added when the piyyut underwent an expansion. This is particularly the case when looking at the final verse: ‘we are Your distinguished ones (ma’mirecha); and You are our Distinction (ma’mirenu),’ that was added, in almost all the versions, to the end of the piyyut. This verse is taken from Deuteronomy 26:17-18: ‘You have affirmed (he’emarta) this day that G-d is your G-d, in whose ways you will walk, whose laws and commandments and rules you will observe, and whom you will obey. And G-d has affirmed (he’emircha) this day that you are, as promised, G-d’s treasured people who shall observe all the divine commandments.’ The exact meaning of the term: ‘he’emarta’ and ‘he’emircha,’ however, is uncertain. The Talmud states in Berachot (6a):


Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak continues: Is the Holy One, Blessed be He, glorified through the glory of Israel? Rav Ḥiyya bar Avin answered: Yes, as indicated by the juxtaposition of two verses; as it is stated: “You have affirmed (ma’mirecha), this day, that the Lord is your G-d.” And the subsequent verse states: “And the Lord has affirmed (he’emircha), this day, that you are His treasure” (Deuteronomy 26:17–18). From these two verses it is derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: You have made Me a single entity [ḥativa] in the world. And because of this, I will make you a single entity in the world.


Despite this Talmudic interpretation, the exact meaning of ‘he’emarta’ and ‘he’emircha,’ remained uncertain in the 11th century. Rashi (1040-1105) comments: ‘the words: ‘he’emarta’ and ‘he’emircha’ are words for the meaning of which there is no decisive proof in Scripture. It seems to me, however, that they are expressions denoting “separation” and “selection”: “You have singled Him out from all strange gods to be unto you as G-d — and He on His part, has singled you out from the nations on earth to be unto Him a select people”.’ Rashi then offers a second meaning: ‘As far as this meaning is concerned, I have found a parallel (lit., a witness) to it where it bears the meaning “glory”, as in (Psalms 94:4): “All wrongdoers glory in themselves.”’ Ibn Ezra offers a third meaning: ‘he’emarta’ means ‘exalted.’ It is close in meaning to ‘amir’ (uppermost bough) in the verse (Isaiah 17:6): ‘In the top of the uppermost bough.’ Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) continues to cite yet a fourth interpretation from R. Yehudah Ha-Levi (1075-1141), who says that the word is related to ‘va-yomer’ (said). Its meaning is, you were so righteous that the Lord said He is your G-d. G-d likewise acted very righteously towards you that you said that you would be His own treasure. Ibn Ezra concludes: ‘He (R. Yehudah Ha-Levi) explained well. A reason for his agreement with R. Yehudah Ha-Levi is since the word ‘he’emarta’ is a hifil’ (caused to happen), which is more consistent with ‘to say.’ Nachmanides (1194-1270) offers a fifth meaning: that ‘he’emarta’ means ‘magnified:’ ‘you have thus magnified G-d and exalted Him, that He alone will be your G-d; you will in no way avow another G-d.’


While Ibn Ezra agrees with R. Yehudah Ha-Levi that it is derived from ‘said’ or ‘affirmed,’ Rashi contends, despite no parallel in the biblical text, it denotes: ‘separation’ and ‘selection.’ The use of the phrase ‘ma’mirecha’ and ‘ma’mirenu’ in the Yom Kippur piyyut, translated as ‘distinction,’ may suggest the interpretation, and thus the influence, of Rashi and his disciples on the expansion of the piyyut.[1]


Reasons for omission - censorship


While additions to the piyyut are understandable, due to additional similar phrases found in Song of Songs, Deuteronomy, and other places in the Torah, reflecting the unique relationship between the Jewish people and G-d, their subsequent omissions in the printed edition of the piyyut, however, require some explanation. This is particular the case regarding the sentences: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha); and You are our Redeemer’ (go-a-le-nu), and ‘we are Your hope (ko-ve-cha); and You are our Deliverer (mo-shi-e-nu),’ which are omitted in the printed edition. I would like to present a possible reason for these omissions. The first may have simply to do with censorship. As both include the phrase: ‘our Redeemer,’ although appearing in the second half of the sentences, they may have been omitted in Ashkenazic tradition, as not to offend in Christian Europe.




A reason for the omission of the beginning of the phrase: ‘we are Your cleaving (de-ve-ke-cha),’ may be for two reasons: inconsistency with the overall theme of the piyyut, and theologically incompatible with the loftier level of union with G-d, expressed in the piyyut. This may be understood from the following study of the concept of ‘de-ve-kut’ (cleaving to the Divine) in Jewish thought, including Lurianic Kabbalah and the mystical work Tanya by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1740-1813).




The idea of man entering into a state of de-ve-kut (cleaving) with G-d is found for the first time in Deuteronomy 4:4, where it states: ‘while you, who held fast (ha-de-ve-kim) to the L-rd, your G-d, are all alive today.’ Similarly, in Deuteronomy 10:20: ‘You must revere G-d: only your G-d shall you worship, to hold fast (tid-bak), and by G-d’s name shall you swear;’ Deuteronomy 11:22 states: ‘If, then, you faithfully keep all this instruction that I command you, loving the L-rd, your G-d, walking in all G-d’s ways, and holding fast (u-le-dav-ka) to Him;’ and Deuteronomy 13:5 states: ‘It is the L-rd, your G-d, alone whom you should follow, whom you should revere, whose commandments you should observe, whose orders you should heed, whom you should worship, and to whom you should hold fast (tid-ba-kun).’ The term is also found in Joshua 23:8: ‘But hold fast (tid-ba-ku) to the L-rd your G-d as you have done to this day,’ and Jeremiah 13:11: ‘For as the loincloth clings (yid-bak) close to the loins of a man, so I brought close (hid-bak-ti) to Me the whole House of Israel and the whole House of Judah—declares the L-rd—that they might be My people, for fame, and praise, and splendor. But they would not obey.’




The basic meaning of ‘de-ve-kut’ (cleaving) is ‘love,’ as found in Genesis 34:3: ‘Being strongly drawn (va-tid-bak) to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden.’ The midrash also understands the phrase ‘de-ve-kut’ as synonymous with love. The midrash states (Genesis Rabba 80:7):


R. Shimon b. Lakish said: The Holy One, blessed be He, manifested His love to Israel with three expressions of love, devikah (cleaving), hashikah (love), and hafitzah (delighting in). Devikah: But you that did cleave (hadevekim) unto the L-rd your G-d (Deut: 4:4). Hashikah: The L-rd did not set His love (Hashak) upon you. Because you were more in number than any people, (Deut. 7:7). Hafitzah: And all the nations shall call you happy; for you shall be a delightsome (hefetz) land (Malachi 3:12). Here we learn them from the passage dealing with this wretch (Shechem). Devikah: And his soul did cleave (Gen. 34:3); hashikah: The soul of my son Shechem longs (hashekah) for your daughter (Gen. 34:8); hafitzah: Because he had delighted (hafetz) in Jacob’s daughter (Gen. 34:19). R. Abba b. Eliashiv added another two: ahavah (love) and dibbur (speech). Ahavaha: I have loved you (ahavti) (Malachi 1:2). Dibbur: Speak (dabberu) to the heart of Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:2). And we learn them from the passage dealing with this wretch: Ahavah: And he loved (vaya-ehav) the damsel (Gen. 34:3); dibbur:  And spoke (vayedaber) to the heart of the damsel (Gen. 34:3).


Maimonides expresses the same idea of love using the term ‘tied’ (ke-shu-rah) to G-d, understanding the whole of Song of Songs as a metaphor for the intense love between man and G-d. He writes in Mishneh Torah (laws of repentance 10:3):


What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love G-d with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of G-d. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick. [A lovesick person's] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. With an even greater [love], the love for G-d should be [implanted] in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded [Deuteronomy 6:5: "Love G-d...] with all your heart and with all soul." This concept was implied by Solomon [Song of Songs 2:5] when he stated, as a metaphor: "I am lovesick." [Indeed,] the totality of the Song of Songs is a parable describing [this love].


Sages and ways of G-d


In a case where ‘cleaving’ does not refer to ‘love,’ due to already having stated ‘love’ (a-ha-vah) explicitly, the midrash and Talmud acknowledges that ‘de-ve-kut’ can not literally mean ‘cleaving’ physically to G-d, but rather refers to cleaving to the scholars and sages. The midrash (Sifrei Devarim 49:2) states: ‘Is it possible to say this? Is He not “a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)? But it means: cleave to the scholars and sages, and I will account it unto you as though you cleave to Him.’ The Talmud (Sotah 14a),[2] similarly, states:’ cleave to His ways: do kindly actions, bury the dead, visit the sick, as did the Holy One, blessed be He.’ R. Shabtai Bass, in his commentary Siftei Chachaim, and R. Chaim ben R. Betzalel, brother of the Maharal of Prague, in his commentary Be’er Mayim Chaim,[3] on Deuteronomy 13:5, explain that this is a substitute for the impossible idea of cleaving to G-d himself. Sifrei understands the idea refers to merely refraining from idol worship, the result of which is that one is cleaving to G-d.[4]


Cleaving to G-d


Other commentators, however, explain ‘cleaving’ with G-d literally. Rabeinu Bechayei explains that it refers to the departure of the soul when it becomes ‘bound in the bundle of life,’ attached to G-d. This refers to the reward of the world to come. The commentary Shach on the Torah explains that ‘cleaving’ with G-d corresponds to the final word ‘one’ in the first passage of the Shema, whereby the soul becomes ‘consumed’ (mit-ba-le-a) in the Divine.[5] Rabbi Shneur Zalman in his Siddur writes also that ‘de-ve-kut’ with G-d is like that of the unity of Adam and Eve, where it states in Genesis 2:24: ‘they became one flesh.’[6] The attachment is such that man loses oneself as an independent being, becoming inseparable from G-d, similar to when a person ‘swallows.’[7] He writes this state is experienced in parts of the prayers and will be manifest in the messianic ear. This idea is also offered as an interpretation of the Talmudic explanation of ‘de-ve-kut’ as referring to emulating the ‘ways’ of G-d. It does not mean, however, that when one fulfils the obligation to be charitable, one is substituting an actual ‘cleaving’ to G-d, but, rather, the opposite: when one is in a state of ‘cleaving’ to G-d, as a result, one does kindness in the same way that G-d performs kindness: acting completely selflessly and even when not absolutely necessary, as there are others who can do the exact same kindness.[8]


Song of Songs 1:2


A similar dispute – literal or metaphoric - is found regarding the meaning of the opening verse in Song of Songs 1:2: ‘Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth, For your love is more delightful than wine.’ As with the term de-ve-kut, ‘kisses of the mouth’ in relation to the Divine is difficult to understand literally. Maimonides, as mentioned, sees this, as the whole of the Songs of Songs, as an expression of the intense love between man and G-d. .[9] Rashi comments that it refers to the revealing of the hidden mysteries of the Torah and the reasons for the mitzvot in the Messianic era. R. Moses Alshich, similarly, maintains that it refers to the attachment of the Divine with the soul, revealing the secrets of the Torah, thus causing the soul to depart. This is reflected in the language used to describe the death of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, that they died by the ‘mouth’ (kiss) of G-d. Additionally, this refers to prophecy, whereby the ‘breath of G-d’ attaches to the soul of the prophet through the medium of Divine speech, entering the mouth of the prophet. In all the above, it refers to the departure of the soul or the Messianic era.


One with G-d


The Zohar (Terumah) explains the idea of osculation - ‘neshikin’ - with G-d is an expression of becoming one with G-d: ‘There is no love which is a cleaving of spirit to spirit except by a kiss, and a kiss by the mouth, which is the spring of the spirit and its outlet. When they kiss one another, the spirits cling to each other, becoming one; thus, there is one love.’ In the 16th century R. Chaim Vital, in Etz Chayim, explains that the union of ‘kisses’ and ‘the attachment of spirit with spirit’ with the Divine occurs when one concentrates in the study of Torah (ChaBaD b’ChaBaD). This is also the view of the Tanya (chapter five): ‘This comprehension of the wisdom and will of G-d is a wonderful union, like which there is none other, and which has no parallel anywhere in the material world, whereby complete oneness and unity, from every side and angle, could be attained.’


Discrepancy in Tanya


There is, however, a discrepancy in the Tanya between the manuscript version and the printed version. In the manuscript version of the Tanya, in two places, it follows the view of the Etz Chayim that ‘kisses’ refers only to the study of Torah, while in the printed version the text is amended to include also ‘speech’ of Torah. We will present this discrepancy in more detail.


In chapter 45 of the Tanya, it writes:


To unite them in the Yichud Elyon (Higher Unity) of the light of the blessed En Sof, on the level of "kisses," which is "The attachment of spirit with spirit," as is written: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth," which means the union of the word of man with the word of G‑d, namely, the halachah. So, too, are coupled thought with thought, act with act, the latter referring to the active observance of commandments and, in particular, the act of charity and loving-kindness. For "chesed (kindness) is the [Divine] right arm," and this is, as it were, an actual "embrace," as it is written: "And his right arm doth embrace me," while the occupation in the Torah by word of mouth andconcentrated thought constitute (hen), as it were, actual "kisses."


Similarly, inchapter 46, the Tanya explains that ‘kisses’ refers to, both: ‘study’ and ‘speech:’


"And I am come down to deliver them," in order to bring them near to Him in true closeness and unity, with a truly soulful attachment on the level of "kisses" of mouth to mouth, by means of uttering the word of G‑d, namely, the halachah, and the fusion of spirit to spirit, namely, the comprehension of the Torah and the knowledge of His will and wisdom, all of which is truly one [with G‑d];


In chapter 49, the Tanya also refers to ‘kisses’ in the context ‘speech:’


But how does the attachment of spirit to spirit take place? To this end it is stated [further on]: "And these words shall be ... upon thine heart. And thou shalt speak of them...." As is explained in Etz Chayim that the union of "osculation" is essentially the union of ChaBaD with ChaBaD, that is, concentration in the Torah; while the mouth, as the outlet of the breath and its emergence into a revealed state, represents the category of speech engaged in words of the Torah, for "By the word that proceeds out of the mouth of G‑d doth man live." However, one does not fulfil one's duty by meditation and deliberation alone, until one expresses the words with his lips, in order to draw the light of the blessed En Sof downwards [even] unto the vivifying soul which dwells in the blood of man.. thus to raise them all to G‑d, together with the entire Universe and to cause them to be absorbed in His blessed Unity and Light, which will illumine the world and its inhabitants in a revealed manner— "And the glory of G‑d shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together...." For this is the purpose of the descent of all the worlds, that the glory of the Lord may pervade this world especially, in a revealed manner, to "change darkness to light and bitterness to sweetness," as has been explained above at length.




In the earlier version of the Tanya, in chapter 45 (43 in the British Library manuscript), instead of the word: ‘hen’ (they), referring to both, ‘thought’ and ‘speech,’ it states: ‘hu’ (it), in the singular - referring to ‘thought’ alone that constitutes “kisses.”In chapter 46, there is a similar variant. In the printed edition, after the words: ‘on the level of “kisses” of mouth to mouth,’ it states: ‘le-da-ber de-var Ha-shem’ (by uttering the word of G-d namely, the Halachah). In the manuscript version of the Tanya (chapter 44 in the BL manuscript version), instead of the prefix ‘lamed’ before the word: ‘da-ber’ (by uttering), it omits the word ‘da-ber’ (uttering) and prefixes the ‘lamed’ to the following word: ‘de-var,’ reading: ‘li-de’var Ha-shem’ (for the word of G-d). This variant rejects the idea that ‘kisses’ relates to ‘speech’ (le-da-ber). In chapter 49, however, both the manuscript and printed version, states explicitly that ‘kisses’ refers to ‘speech.’ There are three reasons for including ‘speech:’ a. the idea of ‘kisses of his mouth’ denotes the act of speech that is conducted with the mouth – not just thought. b. a kiss is the expression of a love that cannot really be expressed.[10] This also occurs with speech in relation to thought. c. the ultimate purpose of existence is for there to the refinement of the lower worldly levels, which is only possible through the lower faculties. Fulfilling this ultimate intention is an intimate connection with G-d.


De-ve-kut or union?


Despite all the above, Rabbi Shneur Zalman argues in his essay on the Shofar,[11] that the concept of ‘kisses’ in a state of de-ve-kut is not the ultimate union with G-d. There is a higher level, which is complete union with G-d, whereby there are not two entities that become attached (de-ve-kut). This, he writes, is the concept of the phrase: ‘ki anu amecha (we are Your people). While de-ve-kut is cleaving with the Divine, ultimately, there are two beings that cleave. In the concept of ‘we are Your children’ there is singularity, as a parent that gives birth to a child. This provides a further reason perhaps why the phrase ‘cleaving’ may have been omitted in the Yom Kippur piyyut.








[1] The reason for Rashi’s view is that the other interpretations are inconsistent with the statement: ‘today,’ suggesting the term represent a constant state of the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d. The idea that G-d ‘affirms’ the relationship is based on the observance of the commandments. This is not necessarily the case at all times equally. The same is true regarding the translation ‘exalted.’ The translation ‘separated’ is not dependent on the performance of the commandments, but their very being a people. Likkute sichot 9, Ki Tavo.

[2] As interpreted by Rashi on Deuteronomy 13:5.

[3] The brother of the Maharal argues that Rashi’s view is that it is the same as ‘His you shall serve.’

[4] Torah Temimah on Deuteronomy 13:5.

[5] Siddur Admur hazaken p. 26.

[6] Cited in Likkutei Torah Re’eh p. 22:4. Siddur Admur hazaken p. 26.

[7] Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains that is occurs in potential when one recites the shema and Amidah, and in reality, during nefilat apayim, after the Amidah. In this text, he borrows the term ‘swallow’ from the commentary Shach on the Torah.

[8] Likkute Sichot 14:55-63.

[9] Guide for the Perplexed vol. 1.

[10] Likkute Torah on Song of Songs, p. 9.

[11] Siddur Admur ha-Zaken, Sha’ar ha-Tekiot, p. 490a.


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