This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Who Knows "Who Knows One?"*

Some of the most popular segments of the typical seder have no specific connection to Passover.

I think this observation applies particularly to the selection of songs that are inserted at the end of the Haggadah. Most of these consist of standard hymns of praise, hopes for a speedy redemption and celebrations of diverse aspects of Jewish tradition.

The presence of these songs in the seder may be no more than an arbitrary editorial decision by the publisher of the 1590 Prague Haggadah in which they made their first appearance. By virtue of that popular and influential little volume, the table-hymns became known through the Jewish world, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that they became standard fare at most seders.

The lively tune Ehad Mi Yodea--Who Knows One?"--aka "the Number Song"--belongs to a familiar genre of poems that are found in many of the world's cultures. Owing to the relative lateness of its first appearance in Hebrew (in the Prague Haggadah it was also accompanied by a Yiddish version), scholars beginning with Leopold Zunz, the founder of modern academic Jewish Studies, initially assumed that our version was an adaptation of a German folk song. As we shall see, this thesis is no longer regarded as compelling.

A Haggadah commentary from 1791 reported that the Ehad Mi Yodea had been discovered on a venerable parchment page in the beit midrash of Worms and that its author was unknown. One tradition associated it with Rabbi Eliezer Rokeah (c. 1160 - 1238), the renowned commentator and mystic. Traditions of this type, making claims for the antiquity of beloved texts, appear quite frequently in religious literature and do not carry much credibility among scholars.


The conventional view about the late provenance of the "Ehad Mi Yodea" was dealt a serious blow by the discovery of a version of it in the Cairo Genizah, that inexhaustible repository of medieval Hebrew documents that has revolutionized so many aspects of Jewish historical and literary studies. Although the date of that manuscript is not entirely certain (the Genizah was in operation from the twelfth century until the nineteenth century when its remains were transferred to Cambridge University), its authenticity is corroberated by similarities to previously known "oriental" versions of the song.

A more solid testimony was provided by the Avignon Prayer Book, in which "Who Knows One?" is included in a selection of festival hymns with no explicit connection with Passover.

More intriguing perhaps is the fact that a version of the song was in circulation as a wedding tune among the Jews of Cochin, India according to a 1756 manuscript. That version shares several distinctive features with the one from the Cairo Genizah. Aside from a a number of technical matters related to their Hebrew and Aramaic usages, the chief differences include the following examples:

Both songs are worded in the third person-- "He knows" instead of our familiar "I know one." They declare the uniqueness of the one God "who is in the heavens," but do not continue "and on earth" as in our version. Instead of the cryptic "eleven stars," they have "Joseph's eleven brothers," corresponding to the standard interpretation that the allusion is in fact to the symbolic stars that figured in Joseph's prophetic dream. The Cochin version contains twelve rather than thirteen stanzas. (The fragmentary Genizah manuscript is missing the closing sections, so we do not know how far it extended.)

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the Genizah text is an Arabic instruction that is inserted after the "one is God" line directing us to recite the Shema' Yisra'el. This invites some intriguing speculations with regard to the song's original liturgical setting, whether as part of the Passover seder or in some different context.


Folklorists have succeeded in cataloguing numerous songs from the cultures of the world that are comparable to the Hebrew "Who Knows One?" though the degree of similarity is at times very tenuous, and in some cases is limited to the fact that the tune is structured around numbers. Some historians have tried to trace the song to oriental archetypes in Sanskrit, Pahlavi, Kirghese or Pali.

The more substantial commonalities among the songs include the use of a question-and-answer framework and the fact that the numbers are linked to religious themes.

To date, the earliest known dated instance of the genre is a Latin text cited from a 1630 manuscript composed by Theodore Clinius of Venice, an individual who died in 1602. This version contains a few items that are identical to those in the Hebrew song: one God who reigns in the heavens, three patriarchs, five books of Moses, ten commandments and eleven stars (these similarities are found in most of the French versions as well).

However, the differences between the Christian and Jewish versions are also unmistakable: two Testaments, four evangelists, six vessels (used for Jesus' miracle at the Wedding at Cana), seven sacraments, eight beatitudes, nine angelic choirs and those ubiquitous twelve apostles. In my view, their preference for the three Hebrew patriarchs over a more obviously Christian trinitarian option serves as strong confirmation of the primacy of the Jewish version. Some of the other Christian versions include such Jewish elements as the six days of the week and God resting on the seventh day.

Variants of the song in diverse languages were known under such exotic titles as "the Dilly Song" (don't ask!), "the Carol of the Twelve Numbers," "Green Grow the Rushes Ho!," "The Ten Commandments," "The Twelve Disciples," "The Twelve Words of Truth" and "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" (a Black American spiritual that has been popularized by the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary and others), not to mention a number of overt parodies and counterfeits (such as the French "Druid" version). Most of the non-Jewish versions top out at the number twelve, a fact that some have ascribed to the unfavourable stigmas that the number thirteen bears in Christian tradition (owing largely to its association with the traitorous thirteenth disciple at Jesus' last supper).

Surprisingly, several of the English variants of the song do not identify the number One with God, presumably because of their reluctance to pronounce the divine name, an attitude that we now equate more readily with Jewish sensibilities.

The dating of oral traditions is, at best, a slippery enterprise, and the publication date of a popular text does not always provide a reliable indication of its true age or source.

Pending the discovery of new evidence, the complete truth about the origin of "Who Knows One?" currently remains unknown.


This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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