7 August 2016
Adon Olam can arguably be called the most famous פִּיּוּט piyut, medieval Hebrew liturgical poem.
The author of this piyut is unknown. Its authorship has been traditionally attributed to the 11th-century Spanish Jewish poet and philosopher שְׁלֹמֹה אִבְּן גַבִּירוֹל Shlomo (Solomon) ibn Gabirol. It has been performed in various parts of Jewish liturgy; a number of traditional tunes were composed specifically for this hymn.
Since the 1970s, Adon Olam has often been performed as a popular song, outside liturgy, with a melody composed by the songwriter עוזי חיטמן Uzi Chitman, or Hitman.
Below is the text of the first few lines of Adon Olam, together with a commentary on those grammatical structures which may seem difficult to a Hebrew learner.
עוֹלָם olam can mean both "world, universe" (most often used with the article, הָעוֹלָם ha-olam "the world") and "eternity". Generally, the word in the latter sense is used in certain flowery, literary or liturgical expressions, such as מֵעוֹלָם me-olam "ever (and in a negative sentence – "never" [in the past]) and לְעוֹלָם le-olam "forever" (in a negative sentence – "never" [in the future]), לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד le-olam va-ed "forever and ever".
So, אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם adon olam can be interpreted either as "eternal lord" or "lord of the universe", where the article before עוֹלָם "the universe" was omitted to preserve the rhythmical meter.
מָלַךְ malach is the past tense of לִמְלֹךְ ~ למלוך limloch "to reign" (cf. מֶלֶךְ melech "king"), and נִבְרָא nivra is the past tense of the nif'al verb לְהִבָּרֵא ~ להיברא lehibare "to be created", which is the passive counterpart of the active qal verb לִבְרֹא ~ לברוא livro "to create".
Note that this hymn generally follows a four-syllable rhythm, in which the first syllable is reduced (being a shva na or chataf) and three following syllables contain full-fledged vowels. In the modern pronunciation, vowel length is not preserved, but shva and chataf vowels are never stressed.
(Side note: in medieval Hebrew poetry, a combination of a syllable with a preceding shva na (or chataf), like אֲדוֹן adon or יְצִיר yetzir, is called יָתֵד yated (literally "peg"; feminine; pl. יְתֵדוֹת yetedot), and a syllable not preceded by shva na is called a תְּנוּעָה tnu'a (the same word means "movement" and "vowel"). So, each metrical foot of Adon Olam is said to consist of one yated and two tnu'ot.)
שְׁמוֹ shmo "his name" is a form of שֵׁם shem "name" with a 3rd-person masculine singular pronominal ending. The tzere in שֵׁם turns into a shva in inflected forms; while normally not pronounced in modern Hebrew in this position, this shva na is pronounced in this song to preserve the meter. Also to keep the meter, the word מֶלֶךְ melech "king" is stressed on the second syllable in some performances of this song.
Note that in this line כֹּל kol is used in the absolute state (spelled with cholam) and means "everything" (in the everyday language, it is mostly used in this sense with the definite article: הַכֹּל ha-kol).
On the contrary, in the previous line the same word appears in the construct state: כָּל kol, with kamatz katan, and means "every": כָּל יְצִיר kol yetzir "every creation".
כִּכְלוֹת kichlot is one of the forms of the infinitive of the verb לִכְלוֹת lichlot "to be over". While in the present-day Hebrew the infinitive most often occurs with the prefix ל־ and corresponds to the English to- infinitive (and this is the only form of the infinitive present in our verb tables so far), there also exist forms with other prefixes (and with no prefix) and with pronominal endings. Most of these forms do not have a direct grammatical equivalent in English and are usually translated using infinitive, gerund or subordinate clause. In this instance, כִּכְלוֹת הַכֹּל can be translated "when everything is over" or "after all".
לְבַדּו levado "he alone", "by himself" is a form of the adverb לְבַד levad "alone" with the 3rd-person masculine singular pronominal suffix. The root of this word is בד״ד bet-dalet-dalet, the same as in verbs לְבוֹדֵד levoded "to isolate someone or something" and לְהִתְבּוֹדֵד lehitboded "to isolate oneself, to retire". In modern language, לְבַד can be used either in its bare form or with pronominal endings.
נוֹרָא nora "awe-inspiring, terrible" can be viewed as a nif'al participle with the root יר״א yud-resh-alef, cf. לִירֹא ~ לירוא liro ("to fear"), לְהִתְיָרֵא ~ להתיירא lehityare (also "to fear" or "to awe", literary) and the noun יִרְאָה yir'a "awe". This word is often used in liturgy as an attribute of the G-d and in everyday speech as an adjective "terrible" or an adverb "terribly": לֹא נוֹרָא! lo nora! ("doesn't matter", "nothing serious").
הָיָה haya "(he) was" and יִהְיֶה yihye "(he) will be" are 3rd-person masculine singular past and future, respectively, forms of the verb לִהְיוֹת lihyot "to be" with the root הי״ה he-yud-he. הוֹוֶה hove "present" is formed as a binyan qal participle with a related root, הו״ה he-vav-he, and in this particular case serves as a present-tense form as "to be": "(he) is". Note that normally the verb לִהְיוֹת is not used in the present tense.
That concludes the portion of the piyut which is present in the song. Here is the same text in one piece:
וְהוּא יִהְיֶה בְּתִפְאָרָה
You can visit Wikipedia to see the full text of the piyut, its English translation and a discussion around its history and significance.
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