“Yigdal” (“Great”) is a piyyut based on the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Rabbenu Moshe ben Maimon (“Maimondies,” also known as “The Rambam”). It is found near the beginning of the weekday Shaḥrit service and the end of Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night) services.
Born in Cordova, Spain in 1135 CE, the Rambam eventually left Spain due to Moslem persecution. He lived in Morocco and Israel before moving to Egypt where he lived most of his adult years.
Having an intellect of rare genius, the Rambam devoted his life to study until the untimely death of his brother David who had been his benefactor. The Rambam became a physician, eventually being appointed as physician to the royal court of Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria who had driven the Crusaders from Jerusalem.
As a Torah scholar, physician, astronomer, and philosopher, the Rambam was a prolific author of books and essays in all four disciplines. Some of his better known Judaic works are:
Kitab as-Siraf (Book of Illumination, also known as Commentary on the Mishnah): the Thirteen Principles are found in tract Sanhedrin, chapter ten
Mishneh Torah (Code of the Torah): a fourteen volume encyclopedia which includes his well-known Eight Levels of Giving
Moreh Nevuḥim (Guide for the Perplexed): a view of Judaism through the lens of Aristotelian logic, and remains a controversial work
Sefer HaMitzvot (Book of Commandments): a comprehensive study of the 613 commandments
The Middle Ages were a difficult time for the Nation – Jewish scholars were frequently forced to defend the faith. Ongoing expulsions caused the Nation to become geographically dispersed, effectively losing any semblance of a centralized source of guidance. Several theologians started working to create an organized synopsis, i.e., “creed” of Judaism for the sake of defining and preserving the faith.
The Rambam’s composition of the Thirteen Principles was controversial when published but remains the best known. As with any “creed,” there were detractors who rejected the concept of reducing Torah down to a mere checklist. Other critics attempted to perfect it by either shrinking or expanding the list. (There truly is nothing new under the sun!) The Rambam’s Thirteen Principles can be found in the selected readings after weekday Shaḥrit in traditional siddurim.
In 1404 CE Daniel ben Yehudah Dayan completed “Yigdal” after working on it for eight years. He composed Yigdal with thirteen stanzas, one for each of the Rambam’s thirteen principles. Let’s see how this fits into the Shaḥrit service.
We’ve learned that the Mah Tovu prayer, which we sing individually as we enter the synagogue, exhorts us to leave all our personal joys and sorrows behind so we may worship without distraction. We are clearing our thoughts and lifting our hearts to join the Nation in worship.
We sing the Adon Olam together to begin our daily Shaḥrit service. (Many Messianic Synagogues sing the Adon Olam at the end of services, but in traditional siddurim it is also the first congregational prayer each morning.) The Adon Olam pulls us into a greater awareness of Hashem as the G-d of all the vastness of infinite creation – yet also as our personal ever-present G-D.
Yigdal then directs our attention to Israel’s unique connection with Hashem. He is the G-d of Israel; He reveals Himself to us in ways the nations do not yet see. Entire books have been written on the Thirteen Principles, but the fundamental perspective is distinctively Judaic.
Ani Ma’amin (“I Believe”), another familiar piyyut, focuses solely on the Twelfth Principle which declares “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. No matter how long it takes, I will await his coming every day.” Its joyful melody pays poignant homage to the countless precious souls who declared this while facing horrific deaths during the Holocaust.
We are forever a generation away from extinction. B’ezrat Hashem, may Yigdal prove to unify us b’ḥal dor v’dor.