Forgiveness Hymns Moroccan Style

Following a short introduction concerning the traditional hymns of forgiveness are two musical renditions by Yoel Ben-Simhon, founder of New York-based Sultana Ensemble.

Yoel Ben Simhon draws on the sounds of his Moroccan-Jewish heritage and on his experience as a professional musician in the United States, to reconnect his music to the Arab classical tradition. Immersed as a child in the Sephardic culture of his parents and grandparents who had emigrated from Morocco to Israel in the late 1950s, Ben-Simhon finds music “one of the few spaces where Jews and Muslims in Arab lands can come together and share their creativity without boundaries.”

A piyyut or hymn (Hebrew, from the Greek), is a lyrical composition intended to embellish an obligatory prayer. Piyyut has come to refer to the totality of compositions of Hebrew liturgical poetry from the first centuries of the Common Era until the beginning of the Haskalah (late 18th-early 19th century Enlightenment), although the 13th century marks the beginning of the decline of the piyyut.

With its first seeds in Eretz Yisrael and in the eastern lands, the literary genre flourished in Europe from the ninth century, beginning in southern Italy, followed by Ashkenaz (Germany), France and Byzantine Greece. From the tenth century, several generations of great Sephardi paytanim (composers of piyyutim) from Spain and N. Africa made impressive contributions to the genre (among them Solomon ibn Gabirol, Isaac ibn Ghayyat, Moses ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi, and Abraham ibn Ezra).

Much creative activity focused on the writing of piyyutim for fast days and for days of penitence.

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Hymn of Forgiveness (contemporary lyrics by Yoel Ben-Simhon)
The refrain “Oh God who is majestic, grant us forgiveness at the closing hour,” is taken from the El Nora Alila hymn written by Moshe Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) who lived in Spain and in Rome.

Listen to recording   ||  Hebrew words

I dream back
To distant childhood memories
At the synagogue in Kiryat Gat
Atonement Day, shimmering hymns
Grandpa Mimon goes to pray
Grandma Sultana at the kerosene stove
Tolls over the last meal before the fast
With a melody wrapped in sacred scents.

Soulful chants fill the sanctuary
The glorious scrolls infused with incense and snuff
On this day of forgiveness
There is no respite from its endlessness
Wishing the minutes away
Insufferable tension, awaiting
To sing aloud the soul-saving hymn.

Traditional refrain: O God who is majestic, oh God who is majestic, Grant us forgiveness as the closing hour

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Adon Ha-selihot (Lord of Pardons), traditional Sephardi hymn. Unfortunately little is known about this hymn; the poet is unknown. The text was found in the Cairo Geniza (11-13th centuries) which gives some indication about the time.[*]

The hymn is a Hebrew acrostic, each line another praise of God's merciful attributes. Every three or four descriptive phrases concludes with the words "We have sinned before you, have mercy upon us."

Listen to recording


Yoel Ben-Simhon & Sultana Ensemble


* The discovery of the Cairo Genizah (repository, Hebrew for "hiding place") in 1896 uncovered one of the greatest Jewish treasures ever an array of religious and private documents from the 10th to 13th centuries, when the Fatimid caliphs and Ayyubid sultans ruled.

The community minutes, rabbinical court records, leases, title deeds, endowment contracts, debt acknowledgments, marriage contracts and private letters found in the genizah reveal a wealth of information about the vital role the Jews played in the economic and cultural life of the medieval Middle East during this period, as well as the warm relations between Jews and Arabs. [more]

footnotes Selihot (penitential prayers)
A medieval poem by Solomon ibn Gabirol


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