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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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.

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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.