the Zuaretz brothers – The time for the gates of will to open (Et Shaarei Ratzon)
Et Shaarei Ratzon | R. Yehuda ben Shmuel Ibn Abbas
Translation Credit: Eliana Kissner
The two first stanzas
At this time when the gates of good-will are soon to open,
on this day, when I spread out my hands to you,
please remember me! On this day of trial,
the binder, the bound, and the altar.
The last of the ten tests [of Abraham]
The son born to you by Sarah
The one who your soul is closely tied to.
Get up and raise him up to me as a burnt offering
On the mountain where glory shines upon you.
The binder, the bound, and the altar.
Jewish prayer is not known for its drama. In general, Jewish worship always focuses more on precise diction and the nuances of halachic law than on creating emotive dramas. One of the dramatic events that does occur in the Jewish calendar is the moment when the shofar is blown in the synagogue, with everyone silently listening to the penetrating sound. The significance of blowing the horn of a deer, specifically, stems from the fact that it was a deer that was sacrificed in the story of the binding of Isaac. The aim is to note the virtues of our forefathers when sentence is passed. However, in fact, the sounding of the shofar also softens the heart and makes one weep at the memory of the story of the binding and the enormous devotion entailed in it. It is no surprise, then, that a great many piyutim have been inspired by the story of the binding. That is exactly the role of the piyut: to add the drama, the emotive content, which is sometimes missing in the “official” words of prayer.
With that in mind, one can understand why, just before the shofar is blown, the Sephardim sing a piyut called Et Shaarei Ratson Lehipatach (The Time for the Gates of Will to Open). While the tale of the Binding of Isaac is related in a relatively brief form in the Torah, and without addressing the emotions involved to any great degree, this piyut expands on the story, adds details and, principally, accentuates the great drama and pain of the event.
“The time for the gates of will to open
A day on which I stretch out my palms to God
Please remember me on a day of admonishment
A binder, the bound and the altar.”
This is the opening stanza of the piyut which asks that God bear in the mind the three parties in the binding: the binder – Abraham our Forefather, the bound – Isaac who, according to the midrash, knew where he was going and was also ready to give his lifer – and the site of the binding, the Foundation Stone in Jerusalem, the position of the Holy of Holies inner sanctum which the High Priest enters on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in order to plead for the Jewish people. This begins a long, detailed and heartbreaking portrayal of the act of the binding. It is not by chance that, out of all the piyutim written about the binding down the generations, this piyut became the best known and beloved of all. Rabbi Yehuda ben Shmuel ibn Abas, who wrote the piyut, may not be the most famous paytan from Spain. In his time, the 12th century, and in the countries in which he lived, in North Africa and in the Middle East, there were better known paytanim. But none of them could have related this specific story better than Rabbi Yehuda ibn Abas. His son, Shmuel, converted to Islam at the age of 18, and even wrote an anti-Jewish book called The Silencing of the Jews. One can only imagine the terrible pain of the father who was forced to cut off his ties with his son, as commanded by God – his own private Binding of Isaac. It is known that, towards the end of his life, Rabbi ibn Abbas decided to go to meet his son in the town of Mosul in Iraq, however he died on the way there.
As such, one can imagine how ibn Abas’s biographical details fuse with the story of the biblical binding. The most prominent element is the role of Sarah, who is completely absent from this in the Torah while, in this piyut, she occupies a significant and sad position.
The stanza which is generally considered the most dramatic of the song is the heartrending section in which ibn Abas, through the words of Isaac who is tied down, just before the knife is wielded on him, when he utters his words of farewell which are directed towards his mother:
“Tell my mother that her joy
Her son left, the son she bore at the age of 90 –
Became a man and was subjected to the slaughtering knife.
I would seek solace for her, but from where?
I am pained for the mother who will cry and weep
A binder and the bound and the altar.
My words come from the slaughtering knife
Please sharpen it father and tighten my bonds –
When it binds my flesh
Take with you the remains of my ashes,
And tell Sarah, this is the scent of Isaac!
A binder and the bound and the altar.”
When they reach these stanzas the paytanim normally take their time and trill heartfelt anguish. But this is not the case with this particular rendition, by Guy Zo-Aretz and the Libyan band. Here the stanza is left out and the focus is on a different and surprising place. The first stanza, which is the overture to the entire tale, is sung quietly. But, immediately afterwards, the story of the binding itself begins, marked by intense drumming which accompanies the entire song. The drumming spells out that the song is not a gentle ballad, it is a song that portrays a drama! Guy Zo-Aretz is a well-known talented actor, and the entire scene gradually evolves in high drama, through his singing and the musicians’ playing. The climax is reached with the description of the tears shed on the altar, which do not contradict Abraham’s joy at being able to carry out the word of God in full.
“And he bound Isaac as he would bind a deer
And the light of day became, for them night
And copious tears were shed in fear
The eye weeps bitterly – and the heart rejoices!”
That is followed by the closing stanza which notes the positive denouement to the story. In this stanza Zo-Aretz once again sings the piyut slowly and emotively, and stretches out the verse “This day is a merit of the people of Jerusalem.” This is the sentence which, in practice, brings us back to the here and now, to the situation in which we are living, the Jerusalemites, standing in our synagogue, relating to the tale of the binding and beseeching God to remember the ancient merit of the Binding of Isaac, in our favor. Thus the core of the song, in this rendition, moves away from the shedding of the tears and a description of the terrible suffering, towards the portrayal of the devotion which was undertaken on our behalf, and by virtue of which we can, today, benefit from the great sacrifice made by our forefather, with a weeping eye and joyful heart and to ask God to forgive our sins on Rosh Hashanah.