Yom Kippur: If we are the clay

If we are the clay in the potter’s hand,
may we mould of ourselves a vessel
in which to hold Your love.

If we are the stone in the mason’s hand,
may we build of ourselves a sanctuary
that You may dwell within.

If we are the iron in the blacksmith’s hand,
may we forge of ourselves a foundation
upholding truth and peace.

If we are the tiller in the helmsman’s hand,
may we steer the ship to safety
across tempestuous seas.

If we are the glass in the glazier’s hand,
may we make of ourselves a mirror,
to reflect Your boundless light.

If we are the cloth in the weaver’s hand,
may we make of ourselves a tapestry
to beautify Your world.

If we are the silver in the silversmith’s hand,
may we shed our dross in the crucible,
yet our purest essence retain.


The piyyut* – Ki Hinei Kachomer – Behold [we are] as clay in the hand of the Potter – was composed by an unknown author possibly in the twelfth century. The piyyut is based on a biblical theme which appears first in Isaiah, (64:7-8) “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and we are all the work of Your hand.” This theme reappears in the book of Jeremiah. The prophet has been told by God to go down to the potter’s house and there to hear God’s words. He does so and sees the potter working at his wheel, and how he sculpts the clay. Then God speaks to him: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter? says the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.” (Jer. 18:6).

The author of the piyyut commences with the words, “Ki hinei kachomer beyad hayotser – behold [we are] as clay in the hand of the Potter,” (the word yotser is a general word for craftsman or creator). He then continues the theme with God as a different artisan in each verse, shaping us with whichever medium the craftsman works with. The author emphasizes the helplessness and passivity of man. Each verse ends with the plea, “laberit habet, ve’al tefen layetser – look at the covenant, not at the sin.” Ostensibly, we are asking God to remember the covenant which He made with us and to overlook our sins. However, there is a play on words which hints at another meaning: the word yetser also refers to man’s inclinations (frequently yetser refers to the yetser hara – the evil inclination). In this case, the chorus could be referring to the two-way covenant: we ask God to remember His promise to us and to overlook our digressions, but we are also enjoined to remember our covenant with Him and not to turn away to the side of the evil inclination. Maybe we are being asked to be the yotser – we are each the artisan and we are to fashion ourself into a work of art: on Yom Kippur we aspire to elevate the clay of which we are formed to loftier heights.

This piyyut, considered by many one of the high points of the service, is traditionally sung on the evening of Yom Kippur, with the Ark open. All the congregation stands and sings in unison with the Chazzan. The best-known melody was composed by a Chasid from Lubavitch, Aharon Charitonov,** in the 19th century in Ukraine. Originally, he composed it as a melody with no words, but later the words of the piyyut were put to his melody.

Here is a translation of the piyyut:

Ki Hinei Kachomer – Behold as the clay

Behold as the clay in the hand of the potter,
who expands or contracts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God of love;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the stone in the hand of the mason,
who hews or fragments it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God of life;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the iron in the hand of the blacksmith,
who forges or rejects it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O God Who sustains the poor;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the anchor in the hand of the sailor,
who weighs or casts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O good and forgiving God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the glass in the hand of the glazier,
who shapes or melts it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O gracious God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

Behold as the cloth in the hand of the weaver,
who drapes or twists it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O gracious God;
look to the covenant and overlook our sin.

Behold as the silver in the hand of the silversmith,
who alloys or refines it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O healing God;
look to the covenant, overlook our sin.

And here is a link to a beautiful contemporary rendition of Ki Hinei Kachomer to the traditional melody.

*A piyyut (from Greek poiétḗs “poet”) is a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to be sung, chanted, or recited during religious services. Piyyutim have been written since Temple times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author.
Many piyyutim are familiar to regular attendees of synagogue services. For example, the best-known piyyut may be Adon Olam – Master of the World, sometimes (but almost certainly wrongly) attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain. Its poetic form consists of a repeated rhythmic pattern of short-long-long-long, and it is so beloved that it is often sung at the conclusion of many synagogue services, after the ritual nightly saying of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin. Another well-beloved piyyut is Yigdal – May God be Magnified, which is based upon the Thirteen Principles of Faith developed by Maimonides.
The author of a piyyut is known as a paytan.

**Reb Aharon Charitonov of Nikolayev, Ukraine belonged to a family of ritual slaughterers and examiners of kosher animals and birds. Besides the Charitonovs’ expertise in shechitah and bedikah (ritual slaughter and examination), they also demonstrated an amazing talent for composing niggunim – sacred melodies. Many of these niggunim were extremely elaborate but even the simple ones were imbued with expression.

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