A few Pesach songs’ origins
An illustration by Russian artist El Lissitzky in the book Had Gadya, 1919. (photo from getty.edu)
We sing them every year, but from where did Passover songs such as “Chad Gadya” originate?
“Chad Gadya” or “One Little Goat” is a playful cumulative song in Aramaic and Hebrew, sung at the end of the seder. According to Wikipedia, the melody may have its roots in medieval German folk music. It first appeared in a Haggadah printed in Prague in 1590, which makes it the most recent inclusion to the traditional Passover seder liturgy.
The Haggadah was a project that was initiated by the anshei Knesset Hagedola, the members of the Great Assembly, the supreme council of sages that ruled during Temple times in Jerusalem. They were the first to compile and canonize many of the texts that we have today. The Haggadah, however, was only started during that era – it was not completed until much later.
“Chad Gadya” also only found its way into the Haggadah at a much later date. This is because the song was written in Aramaic, which was the vernacular of the Jews of Babylon, and not in Hebrew – at least not in Hebrew for the most part. The slaughterer, angel of death and Holy One Blessed Be He in the song are referred to in Hebrew.
Some suggest that “Chad Gadya” was written by Rabbi Eliezer Rokeach in the 12th century.
According to some modern Jewish commentators, the song may be symbolic. One interpretation is that “Chad Gadya” is about the different nations that have conquered the Land of Israel: the kid (goat) symbolizes the Jewish people; the cat, Assyria; the dog, Babylon; the stick, Persia; the fire, Macedonia; the water, the Roman Empire; the ox, the Saracens; the slaughterer, the Crusaders; the angel of death, the Turks. At the end, God returns to send the Jews back to Israel. The recurring refrain of two zuzim is a reference to the two stone tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai, or refer to Moses and Aaron.
Versions of the song exist in Ladino, Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic.
We know that the “Avadim Hayinu” (“We Were Slaves”) section was written by Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol in the second century). It is an introduction to the formal narration of the Exodus from Egypt, based on the views of Samuel. Passages of unknown origin supplement the narration, stressing its importance.
“Echad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”) is another cumulative riddle with versions in Hebrew and Yiddish. The song relates the 13 basics of Judaism. After relating God’s wonders and kindness and the events of the Exodus, it demonstrates how everything can and should relate to God.
According to Encyclopedia Judaica, this song is first found in Ashkenazi Haggadot of the 16th century. It is believed to have originated in Germany in the 15th century, possibly based on the German folk song “Guter freund ich frage dich,” which means “Good friend, I ask you.”
“Dayenu” is a Hebrew song, traditionally sung during Passover. The word itself essentially means, “It would have been enough for us.” Day is the Hebrew word for “enough” and the suffix enu means “our.”
This traditional up-beat Passover song is more than 1,000 years old. The earliest full text of the song occurs in the first medieval Haggadah, which is part of the ninth-century Seder Rav Amram.
The song goes through a series of gifts believed granted by God to the Israelites, such as Torah and Shabbat, proclaiming that any of them alone would have been sufficient. It is 15 verses long, sequentially recounting each divine intervention in the story of the Exodus. After each divine act, the chorus “[If God had done only this,] it would have been enough for us” is sung.
Canadian journalist, author and social activist Michele Landsberg wrote “The Women’s Dayenu”:
“If Eve had been created in the image of God and not as a helper to Adam, dayenu.
“If she had been created as Adam’s equal and not been considered a temptress, dayenu.
“If Lot’s wife had been honoured for compassion for looking back at the fate of her family in Sodom, and had not been punished for it, dayenu.
“If our mothers had been honoured for their daughters as well as for their sons, dayenu.
“If our fathers had not pitted our mothers against each other, like Abraham with Sarah and Hagar, or Jacob with Leah and Rachel, dayenu.
“If the just women in Egypt who caused our redemption had been given sufficient recognition, dayenu.
“If Miriam were given her seat with Moses and Aaron in our legacy, dayenu.
“If women had written the Haggadah and placed our mothers where they belong in history, dayenu.
“If every generation of women together with every generation of men would continue to go out of Egypt, dayenu.”
“Adir Hu” (“Mighty is He”) is a hymn naming the virtues of God in the order of the Hebrew alphabet, expressing hope that God will rebuild the Holy Temple speedily.
The tune of “Adir Hu” has undergone several variations over the years, but the origin is from the German minnesinger period. The earliest extant music for the song is from the 1644 Rittangel Haggadah, the second form was in the 1677 Haggadah Zevach Pesach, and the third version can be found in the 1769 Selig Haggadah. In the Selig Haggadah, “Adir Hu” is also referred to, in German, as “Baugesang” (the song of the rebuilding of the Temple).
There are 24 short, simple lines, each beginning with an attribute of God. Most of the virtues of God are adjectives – for instance, holy (kadosh) – however, a few are nouns, “Lord is He.”
There is also a feminist variant of the song by Rabbi Jill Hammer of the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, New York. In it, God is feminine (She) and, quoting Hammer, the song “emphasizes God’s sharing in human joys and griefs, and God’s ability to renew life through the strength of the earth.”
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.