Passover Songs

From a lowly goat to the rebuilt Holy Temple, the songs in the Haggadah survey all of Jewish life and hope.

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Jewish liturgy has always been embellished with poetry and song, and the seder is no exception. The following article looks at how those songs came to be sung after seder and why they were felt to be appropriate for the occasion. The author, his wife, and their three children can be found each year singing seder songs at 1:00 am with almost two dozen guests in their home in Jerusalem.

By any criterion--language, style, structure, or theme--the songs that appear at the end of the Haggadah comprise two distinct types: complex classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) on Passover themes and "jingles" on general Jewish subjects.

In the Middle of the Night

The song section often begins with a classical poem from one of the great payytanim (liturgical poets) of the Land of Israel in late antiquity, Yannai. His poem Az Rov Nissim, known by its refrain, Vayhi bahatzi halayla ("And it happened at midnight") employs all the techniques of classical liturgical poetry: an alphabetical acrostic structure, a simple refrain echoing a biblical verse (here, Exodus 12:29, about the Exodus), repetition of a key word at the end of each line. These ornate embellishments are meant to facilitate comprehension.

The text functions as a poetic reworking of a classical midrash--a passage in Bemidbar Rabba 20 that identifies the seder night not only as the anniversary of the Exodus but also as the date of many other midnight rescues: Abraham's victory over the kings (Genesis 14), Jacob's encounter with the angel (Genesis 32), the Israelites' victory over Sisera (Judges 4), and others, right down to the last events in the Bible, Haman's doom (Esther 6). Yannai's vocabulary, however, is replete with arcane terms that only a master of midrash would recognize, and a reader unfamiliar with the midrash will find the poem tough going unless it is translated and annotated.

The poem's description of God's redemption coming at midnight focuses our attention both on the Exodus, which took place at midnight, and on ourselves, who are to finish our meal by midnight. Night is the time of greatest vulnerability, but with God as our savior, the poet implies, the darkness is not to be feared. The poem climaxes (in a passage sung more often than the rest of the work) with a promise that the day will soon come that is neither day nor night, a reference to the eternal daylight that will engulf the world in the end of days (Zechariah 14:7), when the dark night of the long exile will end.

Similarly ornate and just as dependent on the reader's knowledge of Bible and midrash is the poem Ometz gevurotekha (refrain: Va-amartem zevah Pesah), by another great liturgical poet of ancient Eretz Yisrael, Elazar Ha-kalir (or Kilir), who lived a century or more after Yannai. The refrain draws on Exodus 12:27, where Israelite parents are told to respond to their children's questions about the bustle of Passover preparation: "It is the Passover sacrifice…."

In this poem, too, as in the previous one, this day on the calendar is said to bear more than the memory of the Exodus. Midrash teaches that it is the day when Abraham greeted his angelic guests, Sodom was destroyed but Lot saved, the walls of Jericho fell, the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem was lifted, and, parallel to the climax of the previous poem, Esther declared a three-day fast. The message is clear: this is a day of deliverance, not just once, but repeatedly. This is, in fact, the core of the seder experience: from recalling that God rescued us once we gain strength to continue in our unredeemed world, because we know God can do so again.

From Classics to Pop

These ancient compositions are usually followed by four medieval compositions, each of them far easier to sing than the earlier pieces. One of these, Adir hu ("Powerful is He…"), is built of 24 short, simple lines, each beginning with an adjectival attribute of God--adir ("powerful"), barukh ("praised"), gadol ("great")--exhaustively cataloguing, as it were, the magnitude and power of God. Each line declares that God will rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and the refrain, sung after every fourth verse, calls on God to do just that: "God, build Your House soon!" While there is nothing in this poem explicitly linking it to Passover, the rebuilding of the twice-destroyed Temple is central to the rabbinic idea of redemption, itself a concept featured prominently in the Haggadah.  

Another simple alphabetical composition, Ki lo na'eh ("For it is fitting for him"), describes the praise of the divine king by angelic choruses. Playing on verses in Psalms (65:2, 89:12) and I Chronicles (29:11), the refrain is built of repeating one- and two-syllable words and rhymes, and is therefore simple enough for children to sing: l'kha u-l'kha, l'kha ki l'kha, l'kha af l'kha…ki lo na'eh, ki lo ya'eh.

From the Holy Temple to "the House that Jack Built"

Another of the post-dinner Passover songs, Ehad mi yodea  ("Who knows one?"), is constructed as a cumulative riddle enumerating thirteen basics of Judaism. Each successively longer countdown ends with the foundational belief in one God, who is God of heaven and earth--in other words, God of all that is.

The list includes the two tablets of the Decalogue, the three biblical forefathers, their four wives, the five books of Moses, and so on. It seems to be shaped more by the imperative of numbering than by any consistent logic of significance. Yet its popularity is such than versions exist in several languages. (An Italian version appears in the Oscar-winning 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.) That popularity probably stems from the song's appeal to children, who are properly at the center of attention at seder, when we are to "tell [our] child" about the Exodus and our gratitude to God.

A Kid's Song

If cumulative numerology appeals to children, a cumulative animal ditty is even more effective at grasping their attention. The Haggadah offers one of these, too: the whimsical Had gadya ("One kid"), in Aramaic. The hapless goat of the title, purchased by Dad for a pittance, is eaten by a cat, which is, in the next retelling, bitten by a dog, and so on through a minor bestiary plagued by fire, water, and a stick used as a prod, bringing us to the butcher who slaughters the recently-added ox.

The tale then takes on a mythic overtone with the appearance of the Angel of Death (who slays the butcher) and finally waxes theological as the Holy One slaughters the Angel of Death. Some families add to the song's inherent appeal by having individuals produce sound effects for each of the animals and the other figures in the story.

This tale of measure-for-measure violence seems didactic, but what is its message? What might have been an endless cycle of violence becomes, at the end, a teleological view of history: death itself will be conquered. Some commentators link the song to Jewish history and messianism: the successive waves of conquerors of the land and people of Israel will yield to a proto-Messiah ("Messiah son of Joseph"), who will himself succumb to his adversaries, but only shortly before God wrests control of the world from worldly rulers in the final era of the Messiah of the Davidic line.

The Seder Songs as a Call to Action

In his commentary to the Haggadah in The Moriah Haggadah (Jewish Publication Society, 2005), Rabbi Shlomo Fox sees a common theme connecting all these songs. He calls Had gadya "a call to struggle against the view that everything in the world happens by chance," adding: "We need to believe that we do exert some control over events and that we are capable of emerging from slavery and freeing ourselves."

Yannai's composition Vayhi bahatzi halayla contains a line, "Appoint watchmen over your city." On this Fox comments that "we can understand this either as a request of God to look after us or as a call to the community and each individual in it to preserve what is already there. We are called upon to recognize and to emulate the qualities of the Creator."

Summarizing his view of the message of this cluster of disparate songs, Fox writes that they "serve to give an answer to questions raised throughout the Haggadah: nature has laws and a Creator. It is the Creator who makes demands of nature's creatures. Human beings have a responsibility to ensure a just society. We must know our past. Jews need to prove that they are indeed Jews by their character and their deeds."

Like much fine literature, then, the songs speak to children and to their parents, bringing them together even as they take away from the seder a variety of lessons, appropriate to the variety of celebrants around the table.

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Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.