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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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.