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Yedid Nefesh: Authorship and Insights

The widespread assumption today is that this poem was authored by Rabbi Elazar Azikri (1533-1600), a kabbalistic rabbi in Safed. He had a lot of ascetic tendencies. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (3:1008), his aims were spiritual perfection, purification and communion (deveikut) with God. This poem was included in Rabbi Azikri’s book “Sefer Charedim,” printed in Venice, in 1601, after his death.

In the 20th century, an undated manuscript written by Rabbi Azikri was found in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. This manuscript was earlier than what is found in the first printed edition. It included drafts of much of the material that was to appear in the book.

Instead of our widespread later text of “Yedid Nefesh,” the Koren siddur (2009) printed the text of this early manuscript. The Rinat Yisrael siddur had this done in 1977. The undated manuscript and the 1601 edition have some interesting readings. I will discuss a few of them below:

An early title for the poem, perhaps given by its author, was: “Bakashah al ha-yichud ve-cheshek ha-ahavah (prayer for union and the desire of love).” As evident from the above title, the poem is about seeking closeness to God. Also, the first stanza begins with “yud,” the second “heh,” the third “vav,” and the last “heh,” forming the acrostic for the name of God.

Here is a translation of the first stanza: “Beloved of the soul, compassionate father, draw your servant to your will. Your servant will hurry like a heart to bow before your majesty. To him, your friendship will be sweeter than the dripping of the honeycomb and any taste.” Here is the second stanza: “Majestic, beautiful, radiance of the universe, my soul is sick for your love. Please God, heal her now by showing her the pleasantness of your radiance. Then, she will be strengthened and healed, and will have eternal gladness.”

The poem, first, was part of nusach Sefard. It was the siddur published by Rabbi Jacob Emden — in the middle of the 18th century — that introduced it into the Ashkenazic rite. (Rabbi Emden’s father was Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Ashkenazi, a rabbi who lived in Sefardic communities for many years. He adopted the Sefardic title for rabbi, חכם, and became known as “Chacham Zevi.”)

Here are some comments on the words and phrases in the poem:

“Yedid nefesh:” Here, we are describing God as ידיד (beloved). At Jeremiah 12:7, God had used this word to describe Israel: “Yedidut nafshi.”

“Meshoch avdecha el retzonecha, yarutz avdecha …:” This phrase is based on the Song of Songs 1:4: “Mashcheni acharecha narutzah.”

“Simchat olam:” The original reading here was “shifchat olam.” Let me explain… The second stanza (see above) is describing how the poet’s soul is sick, due to pining for God’s love. The poet asks to be healed and to be “shifchat olam.” This last phrase is based on Deuteronomy 15:17. The context there is the slave who is happy with his master. The verse reads: “You shall take the awl (object that pierces) and put it through his ear into the door and he shall become your slave in perpetuity” (eved olam). See, similarly, Exodus 21:6. Our poet has merely feminized “eved olam” to “shifchat olam.”

(The piercing of the ear into the door is a very interesting gesture and requires further study. I have seen the suggestion that the affixing of a permanent earring on the slave is implied.)

“Vatik:” This word does not appear in Tanach; it is Aramaic. Jastrow gives it meanings like “enduring, trusty, strong.” We know this as a nickname for God from the Pesach piyyut, “Adir Hu,” which has the phrase “… vatik hu.”

“Nichsof nichsafti:” This phrase is adapted from Genesis 31:30. The doubling emphasizes the intensity of the yearning. The root כסף means both “silver” and “yearn.” This is because silver is the “pale” metal, and when you yearn for something, you become “pale” for it. See Ernest Klein’s etymological dictionary, page 282. (Rabbi Hirsch — on the above verse — takes a different view. He suggests that the meaning “silver, money” arose for כסף, because that is what one uses to attain what one longs for.)

“Eileh chamdah libi, chusah na …:” The translation of this phrase is: “these my heart desired, please take pity … ” The original version was: “Ana eili, machmad libi — Please my God, my heart’s desire, please hurry,” (חושׁה, instead of חוסה).

“Ki va moed:” This phrase alludes to Psalm 102:14: “You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her, for the appointed time has come.”

Rabbi Isaachar Jacobson in his “Netiv Binah” (1964), volume 2, page 368, tells an interesting story: Someone was printing a new siddur in the 19th century and decided to make two changes in the text of “Yedid Nefesh,” to make it closer to the original version. One of the two changes he made was to use “shifchat olam.” The Chasidic community for whom he was printing the siddur vehemently objected. They thought: “This publisher wants to make fun of us and turn the soul into a female slave!” They had their rabbi, Rabbi Chaim of Sanz, ban this new siddur. The printer then apologized for his decision, and the rabbi rescinded the ban on the condition that the printer reprint the work with the customary later version, which he did.

As to the poem’s authorship above, Rabbi Elazar never states that he, himself, was the author. While there is some evidence that the author may have been a contemporary of his, Rabbi Gedalia Cordovero, the son of Rabbi Moses Cordovero; it is also possible the author was neither of these. But in all events, it seems that the poem was authored by a kabbalist who lived at the end of the 16th century.

The Wikipedia entry for “Yedid Nefesh,” refers to its appearance in a manuscript with a colophon, dated to 1438. While it is true that “Yedid Nefesh” is found in this manuscript, I have been advised by Dr. Ezra Chwat of the National Library of Israel that “Yedid Nefesh,” is a much later addition to the manuscript and this manuscript is of no relevance to our issue. (Someone should edit this entry and eliminate this part!)

Rabbi Eleazar Azikri received his semicha from a figure named “Rabbi Yacob Berab,” who died in 1599. He was the grandson of the original “Rabbi Yacob Berab of Safed,” who died in 1546. The original Rabbi Berab was involved in an interesting historical episode in 1538, when he attempted to reintroduce classical semicha, based on a certain passage in Rambam. Maimonides had written that it seemed to him that if all the sages in the land of Israel would unanimously agree to ordain certain individuals as judges, then these new ordinants would possess the authority of the classically ordained judges and could appoint others. See his Mishna Torah, Sanhedrin 4:11. But he concluded with an equivocation: “… ve-ha-davar tzarich הכרע.” All of this deserves a separate column. (For those who can’t wait, see Rabbi Gil Student’s very thorough post of Nov. 29, 2013, on torahmusings.com: “Can Semicha Be Renewed Today?”)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Like Rabbi Yacov Berab, he too, looks forward to the renewal of semicha.

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