How the Haggadah Preserved the Work of an Ancient Jewish Master Poet

According to Ashkenazi custom, the Hebrew hymn “It Came to Pass at Midnight” is recited near the end of the seder. Laura Lieber analyzes this sophisticated poetic work, originally composed to be read in synagogues, and tells its author’s story:

The song . . . was not written for [the seder] night, nor is it an independent composition. Instead, it was part seven of the poem Oney fitrey raḥamatayim (The Vigor of the Openers of Wombs), composed by Yannai (late 5th–early 6th century CE), the first Hebrew poet to use end-rhyme and to sign his works with a signature acrostic.

Most of Yannai’s poems, including this one, belong to the genre known as q’dushta’ot, [singular q’dushta]. In the synagogues of the Land of Israel (up until the 7th century CE or so), the weekly Torah reading was divided up into s’darim [singular sidra], much smaller units than the Babylonian parashiyot that we use today, and the Torah was completed not yearly but roughly twice every seven years. Yannai composed a different q’dushta for each sidra, to be recited on the Shabbat when the sidra was read in synagogue.

The poem “The Vigor of the Openers of Wombs,” was composed to be recited for the sidra “And It Came to Pass at Midnight” (Exodus 12:29–51). The sidra tells the story of the death of the firstborn and Israel’s escape from Egypt, and this liturgical poem embellishes these themes, which are central to the Passover story; these affinities explain why Yannai’s poem became connected to the Passover liturgy. Indeed, because of its association with Passover, this composition ended up as Yannai’s only surviving poem until his voluminous and revelatory body of work was rediscovered in the Cairo Genizah.


More about: Haggadah, Hebrew poetry, Passover

Why Egypt Fears an Israeli Victory in Gaza

While the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never been friendly to Hamas, his government has objected strenuously to the Israeli campaign in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Haisam Hassanein explains why:

Cairo has long been playing a double game, holding Hamas terrorists near while simultaneously trying to appear helpful to the United States and Israel. Israel taking control of Rafah threatens Egypt’s ability to exploit the chaos in Gaza, both to generate profits for regime insiders and so Cairo can pose as an indispensable mediator and preserve access to U.S. money and arms.

Egyptian security officials have looked the other way while Hamas and other Palestinian militants dug tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. That gave Cairo the ability to use the situation in Gaza as a tool for regional influence and to ensure Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be eclipsed by regional competitors such as Qatar and Turkey.

Some elements close to the Sisi regime have benefited from Hamas control over Gaza and the Rafah crossing. Media reports indicate an Egyptian company run by one of Sisi’s close allies is making hundreds of millions of dollars by taxing Gazans fleeing the current conflict.

Moreover, writes Judith Miller, the Gaza war has been a godsend to the entire Egyptian economy, which was in dire straits last fall. Since October 7, the International Monetary Fund has given the country a much-needed injection of cash, since the U.S. and other Western countries believe it is a necessary intermediary and stabilizing force. Cairo therefore sees the continuation of the war, rather than an Israeli victory, as most desirable. Hassanein concludes:

Adding to its financial incentive, the Sisi regime views the Rafah crossing as a crucial card in preserving Cairo’s regional standing. Holding it increases Egypt’s relevance to countries that want to send aid to the Palestinians and ensures Washington stays quiet about Egypt’s gross human-rights violations so it can maintain a stable flow of U.S. assistance and weaponry. . . . No serious effort to turn the page on Hamas will yield the desired results without cutting this umbilical cord between the Sisi regime and Hamas.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: Egypt, Gaza War 2023, U.S. Foreign policy