From Medieval Mystic to Madonna:

The Strange Path of Im Nin`alu

 

The Poem

 

Rabbi Shalom Shabazi was a 17th century Yemenite mystic who is best known for his beautiful poetry written in Hebrew, Arabic, and Judeo-Arabic (the dialect of the Jews in Muslim lands). This is the story of strange path of one of his poems, Im nin`alu daltei nedivim / If the gates of the leaders are locked, the gates of Heaven are not locked.” The full poem, written in Hebrew and in Judeo-Arabic, is as follows: [1]

 

If the gates of the leaders are locked,

the gates of Heaven are not locked.

Living God, exalted above the Cherubim[2] --

they all rise with His spirit

for they are near to His throne.

They give thanks to His Name and praise it.

Chayyot who run to and fro,

were perfect from the day of creation.

 

The Wheels and the Ofannim clatter --

They acknowledge His Name and sanctify it.

They clothe themselves in the radiance of His Glory.

 

With six wings surrounding them,

they [the Seraphim] fly as they advance.

They [all] respond out loud with sweet songs,

together, arrayed as banners and signs.

 

 

He created everything for His glory.

            Praise to Him. God is One.

Master of exaltation, He is praised.

            His goodness has no boundary.

Bodies and spirits worship [Him].

            Whoever does not fear Him is a denier.

He chose from all the world[3]

            the sanctuary – most central, most noble.[4]

 

He settled our ancestors in it.

He gave it to all of our tribes.[5]

And He gave us His Torah.

 

It is our duty to proclaim His unity greatly.

            His grace encompasses us.

He talked to Moses in speech.

            He said, “Be a messenger unto My people.[6]

 

 

Observe His precepts, my unique soul.

Bring merit to my body, and it will rejoice.

Bind love of Him in my heart.

Through His Name alone, it will be secure.

Through the grace of the woman, His lover,[7]

He will shine light for the remnant.

He will fill dried wells with it.

The blessed rain will flow.

 

He will provide sustenance for the poor and destitute,

for the persecuted and weakened in exile.

My Rock, Who looks after the son of the innocent one.[8]

 

For he was surrounded by dogs.

On every side they gathered --

the wild ass, the lion, together with the wolf;[9]

his heart and soul were terrorized.

 

 

My soul yearns to be among the revels,[10]

            even the marriage feasts and the drinking.

I did not remember my holy house

            and the destroyed walls of Zion.

The light of my mind and senses was eclipsed.

            My spirit saw affliction.

Arise, O beloved. Bring spices

            to revive the unmindful spirit.

Beautify the synagogues and study halls,

            my holy place, my ever-present happiness.

 

The goal is that I worship my Creator

with a believing and passionate heart.

He will fulfill the true promise.

 

He has already chosen us for knowledge and teaching

so that humanity not remain ignorant.

Whoever is beset by oppression and trouble[11]

will sit among perfected people.

 

 

This is the place of peace and joy,

the bridegroom and bride rejoice.[12]

Song, and the sound of gladness and delight

will shine upon the sons of the tribes.

From the beautiful and comely daughter,

they have sent me a cup of salvation.[13]

I will rejoice among the guests.[14]

How good and how pleasant that they have gathered together.[15]

 

The messengers of wisdom have come straight away.

For the secret of power, they have come together.

How precious - to God, and to me.[16]

 

They are friends and lovers, good ones;

they speak deep secrets.

Torah, Prophets, together with Holy Writings,

they ask of one another.

 

Turn, O my soul, while I yet live,

            from the touch of the drives of the body,[17]

before death comes, 

            descending like a poisonous wind.

One who errs in evil comes;

            God is forgiving, compassionate.

There is no escape: all sin must be paid

            even by the noble youth.

 

O, He Who is the Creator of the souls

from the radiance of the facet of His light --

All things are in the palm of His hand.

 

He set reality with His wisdom.

            He is the Maker of every thing.

Samekh, Alef, Lamed, and Mem[18]

            asks the graciousness of Your goodness.

 

I will end this, my song, with praise

and veneration to the One exalted above praising,

Who puts words into the mouth of him who speaks,[19]

to Whom every creature gives total thanks.

My soul is adorned with embroidery and fine lace;[20]

my body is a stitch in Your shoe.

Among the remnants who are [yet] whole,

be strong, my steps, and ascend.

 

Let us dwell among the roses.

The woman has invited me.[21]

She has given sustenance to her household.[22]

 

Daily bread, and wine from deep red grapes,[23]

clear preserved wine,

Beloved guests --

they will inherit their place in Eden.

 

The original poem, then, is a mystical hymn that uses the theme and images of love to describe the attachment of the mystic to God, i.e., to God’s holy Torah. In the Judeo-Arabic stanzas, the poet talks of his distraction toward the pleasures of this world and prays to be restored to mystic wholeness. The artistry lies not only in the theme and language but also in the close weaving of the sources, in their rabbinic interpretation.

 

The Wedding Song

 

Rabbi Yosef Kafih, the leading 20th century interpreter of Yemenite culture, describes the first stage in the path of this poem -- its use in the traditional Yemenite community, as follows:

 

The place of the groom is in the center of the room. In a large candle holder, they place a large candle whose height is about 30 inches and whose width is about 8 inches. Around him, they light other smaller candles for beauty and decoration….

 

The groom sits near the wall, in the center of the room, opposite the door, holding a pigam branch in his hand and the Mári [the common Yemenite term for “rabbi”] sits at his right. The other Máriyín and important members of the community sit on both sides of the groom while the rest of the community fills the room completely…. The best singers, who were specially invited, open their mouths in song…. The dancer stands in the middle and dances….

 

[Kafih here gives the texts of two songs, one of which is “Im Nin’alu”; see above.]

 

That evening, everyone may come, invited and not-invited. Therefore, all the people of the city – the youths and young men from all over the city – come and sit a while with the groom, listening to the songs and drinking a cup of coffee, and then leaving. The young women, too, come from all over the city to see the groom. They do not have permission to enter the room of the party, so they crowd around in the courtyard, opposite the door….

 

After they have drunk some coffee and heard some songs and recited poetry of praise, the Máriyín get up and leave. Before they go, they bless the groom as follows: “Bridegroom, may God always grant you joy, and fill all your wishes for good.” And the bridegroom responds, “Amen.” They then bless the crowd with the usual blessing, “May you sleep in goodness.” And the crowd answers, “May you awake to compassion” or “May you awake to salvation and compassion.…”

 

After the Máriyín leave, the atmosphere lightens and is more gay…. They bring in some nargilas … They set a special nargila before the bridegroom and they offer him the pipe. He sucks on it and inhales a little; then he hands it to one of those near him. That person, too, sucks on it and inhales a little, and then he passes it to the next.

 

The crowd thins out and each person who want to go blesses the bridegroom and goes in peace to his home. The bridegroom then stands up, takes off his celebratory clothes and, in simple clothing, sits down to talk with his friends.

 

From that evening on, for two full weeks, the bridegroom is like a king who is entitled to be honored by everyone and whose wish is their command. He sits at the head of the table and, when he leaves his house, it is considered a shame for him to carry anything. Rather, those who accompany him take everything he needs in their hands.

 

The poem, thus, was first appropriated in Yemenite culture as a wedding poem.

 

The first Hebrew stanza seems, however, also to have been understood as a petitionary poem, as the line added on the website for this poem indicates: “Ana, ana, Hashem, hoshi`a na / Please, please, God, save us.” This signals the second stage in the path of this poem -- its use (or at least, its understanding) as a seliha, a penitential poem.

 

The Popular Song

 

The first stanza (“If the gates of the generous ones … banners and signs”) became a popular song in the Yemenite Jewish community in modern times, thus constituting the third stage in the path of this poem. It was most famously recorded by Ofra Haza with the Shechunat Tikva Workshop in 1978. As of July 26, 2013, this YouTube presentation had been viewed 2,218,829 times! It is a lovely recording. Those accustomed to hearing Hebrew will notice that Ms Haza sings it in “Yemenite”; that is, in the Hebrew dialect used by Yemenite Jews.[24] Ms Haza recorded this song again in 1988, much later in her career, after she had become a famous singer, with a strong jazz beat and mixed video. It has been remixed and reissued many times since, even after her death in 2000 (2010; 2011). I confess that I much prefer the earliest recording that captures the popular Yemenite culture from which the poem and the song came.

 

The poem was also recorded as part of a medley of songs by the Israeli singer, Daklon.

 

The strangest appearance of Im nin`alu,” and the fourth stage in the path of this poem, is in a multi-media presentation by the popular singer, Madonna. Isaac was one of the songs in the set of her celebrated Confessions Tour which contained 22 songs and which played in concerts held in venues all over the world. At the time, the Confessions Tour was the “highest grossing tour ever for a female artist, grossing over US$194.7 million from 60 shows with 1.2 million spectators. It is also recognized as the highest-grossing music tour per concert in the 2007 edition of the Guinness World Records. Confessions Tour received the ‘Most Creative Stage Production’ at the Pollstar Concert Industry Awards as well as ‘Top Boxscore’ from the Billboard Touring Awards.”

 

Madonna’s Isaac begins with a Yemenite singer, Yitzhak Sinwani, blowing the shofar and then singing the song (actually, part of the first verse). The lyrics and dramatic sequence to Madonna’s Isaac are as follows (for English translation of the Hebrew, see above):

 

Sound of shofar blowing

Im nin’alu daltei nadivim, daltei nadivim

Daltei Marom lo nin’alu, lo nin’alu.

 

Sound of shofar blowing

Im ninalu, im nin’alu, im nin’alu daltei nadivim
Daltei Marom lo nin’alu.

El hai marom, El hai marömam, El hai marömam al kol karuvim

Kulam beruho ya’alu.

 

Figure in blue cape dancing in a cage; sand dunes

Madonna appears

Staring up into the heavens
In this hell that binds your hands.
Will you sacrifice your comfort?
Make your way in a foreign land?


Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

 

Chorus with images of dancer and eagle, the singers, sand dunes

Mmmm mmm mmm

Im nin'alu, im nin'alu
Mmmm mmm mmm
Im nin'alu, im nin'alu
Mmmm mmm mmm.

 

Madonna sings

Remember, remember.
Never forget.
All of your life has all been a test.
You will find the gate that's open
Even though your spirit's broken.

Open up my heart.
Cause my lips to speak.
Bring the heavens and the stars
Down to earth for me.

 

Chorus; the woman in cage reaches out

The cage lifts up

El hai, El hai, Marom, marömam al kol karuvim

Kulam beruho ya’alu.

 

Madonna liberates the caged woman.

Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

 

Chorus; woman dances in freedom; Madonna with male dancers

 

Madonna’s multi-media presentation (alternate version), thus, interweaves Shabazi’s mystical poem, in its version as a modern popular Israeli song, with the themes of liberation and of life as a test. An amazing palimpsest of texts.[25]

 

Who would have imagined that a poem written by a Yemenite kabbalist in the 17th century would be heard and seen millions of times in popular Israeli culture and then be incorporated in one of the most famous world tours of one of the most famous non-Jewish popular singers?! A strange path for a mystical poem.

 

An Instructive Epilogue

 

I teach a course on the Akeda (the Binding of Isaac), in which the students must find renderings of the Akeda in art, sculpture, literature, and music. One year, two students presented Madonna’s Isaac in class. I was blown away with possibility that Madonna had created a multi-media commentary on the Akeda – one which started with a mystical Yemenite poem and proceeded to the theme of liberation in her own lyrics: “Madonna’s Akeda”!

 

There was only one problem with my interpretation: Madonna’s Isaac has nothing to do with the Akeda. Even the title “Isaac” has nothing to do with the Akeda, as Madonna herself noted when she explained the title:

 

It's named after Yitzhak Sinwani, who's singing in Yemenite on the track. I couldn't think of a title for the song. So I called it "Isaac" [the English translation of "Yitzhak"]. It's interesting how their minds work, those naughty rabbis.... He's saying, "If all of the doors of all of the generous peoples' homes are closed to you, the gates of heaven will always be open." The words are about 1,000 years old [DRB: 400 is more correct]... [Yitzhak] is an old friend of mine. He's never made a record. He comes from generations of beautiful singers. Stuart and I asked him to come into the studio one day. We said, "We're just going to record you. We don't know what we're going to do with it." He's flawless. One take, no bad notes. He doesn't even need a microphone. We took one of the songs he did and I said to Stuart, "Let's sample these bits. We'll create a chorus and then I'll write lyrics around it." That's how we constructed it.[26]

 

Sinwani had gone to study and then teach at the Kabbalah Institute in Los Angeles and London. Madonna met him there, heard him sing some traditional Yemenite songs, and invited him to record for her. According to one report, itself a partial translation of a long interview Sinwani in Yediot Aharonot, “… she said that when Sinwani sang her the song for the first time, she was overwhelmed with emotions and started to cry, even though she couldn't understand a word. ‘After he translated the lyrics for me,’ she said, ‘I cried even more.’"

 

Credit must be given to Zach Thompson and Mary Ruf, the students who uncovered the link because, in their original presentation, they did specifically draw attention to the possible naming of the piece after the singer. It was I who, in my enthusiasm, had invented “Madonna’s Akeda.”

 

“Scholars, beware of your words lest you be found guilty” (Mishna, “Avot” 1:11).

 



[1] The translation, which is my own, is based upon the bilingual original (J. Kafih, Halikhot Teman (Jewish Life in Saná) [Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi Institute: 1963] 118-23). It follows the phrasing of the original, the inset lines indicating a change in the original meter (I have not tried to recreate the rhyme scheme). The poem, in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, changes language for each stanza. I have indicted the Hebrew in Calibri typeface and the Judeo-Arabic in Papyrus typeface. I have also separated the stanzas by a double space.

[2] The Cherubim, Chayyot, Ofannim (also rendered as Galgalim) are drawn from the vision of Ezekiel, chapter 1. The rabbis, however, understood each of these to be types of angels. The six-winged Serafim are drawn from Isaiah’s vision, chapter 6.

[3] Arabic, al-‘akálím; the traditional medieval “seven climates.”

[4] Kafih indicates that the poet intends to include Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

[5] Echoes of Ps. 44:2-3.

[6] In Islam, Mohammad is seen to be the messenger (Arabic, rasúl; here mursal).

[7] An allusion to the woman in the Song of Songs, understood as the Torah, as is common in rabbinic exegesis.

[8] Hebrew, tam. Jacob is “the innocent one.” The poet, and/or the groom, are intended.

[9] This imagery is drawn from Psalm 22.

[10] Arabic, al-fanún; following Kafih’s Hebrew translation and notes.

[11] Arabic, al-taskím: following Kafih.

[12] Understood as God and the Jewish people in rabbinic exegesis.

[13] A mixture of Song of Songs and Psalms 117:13.

[14] Understood as the sages of the Torah.

[15] Psalm 133:1.

[16] Psalm 139:17.

[17] Arabic should be al-zugiyát and not, as in Kafih, al-zughiyát. This appears to be a typographical error.

[18] The acronym of the poet’s name in Arabic: Salim.

[19] Exodus 4:11.

[20] Song of Songs, here and below, though not the image of the stitch in the shoe. The words of Torah are the embroidery.

[21] Song of Songs.

[22] Proverbs 31.

[23] This is the sustenance the woman provides. The images are eschatological and derived as follows: Hebrew patbag comes from Daniel 1:5, later understood as the sustenance given to Adam and Eve in the garden. Hebrew yayyin meshummar is the wine preserved from creation for the eschatological meal (Talmud, Berakhot 34b). The Torah is the woman / bread of the people.

[24] E.g, nadivim and not nedivim; karuvim and not keruvim; wihallelu and not vihallelu; sha-hom and not she-hem; va-shovim and not va-shavim; etc.; Hebrew text.

[25] Madonna’s “Isaac” is one of many of Madonna’s presentations that carry a prosocial message. Indeed, the Confessions Tour opened with Madonna’s “Live to Tell” that shows her on a cross singing about the 12 million starving children in Africa. This produced, as one can imagine, great criticism from serious theological circles though, personally, as a theologian of long standing albeit not in Christian tradition, I feel this number captures well the message of the figure of Jesus.

 

[26] Madonna’s reference to “naughty rabbis” is drawn from criticism expressed in the Israeli press that the song was blasphemous because it associated the name of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the great 16h century kabbalist, with Madonna’s work. The press reports are very distorted: Yitzhak Luria is not the author of the poem, his name is not spelled “Lurier.” And, “blasphemy” would have been the wrong word, etc. Still, Madonna vigorously denied that any “blasphemy” was intended; it was named “Isaac” after the singer, Yitzhak Sinwani.