The central precept of Passover is to transmit the message of the Exodus to our children. Our rabbis have traditionally invested much thought and energy into making sure that those children remain awake during the seder. Two of the most effective means towards this goal are the stealing of the afikoman and the rousing songs that are sung at the end of the evening.
At our house, there is has never been much serious competition for the title of Favourite Seder Song. The award goes easily to the Had Gadya, which we sing to a lively variation on Moishe Oysher's brilliant mixture of klezmer and Dixieland tunes. The singing of the Had Gadya certainly provides a sufficient incentive for young and old alike to keep our eyes open, and a stirring jolt for anyone who might have nodded off by then.
Like several other songs that have found their way into the Haggadah, Had Gadya has no obvious connection to Passover, nor does it constitute an essential component of the liturgy. The current version first appeared in the Prague printing of the Haggadah in 1590 and its popularity was for a long time confined to Ashkenazic Jews. We are not very certain when, where or why it was first composed, or even in what language. Like several other parts of the Haggadah, it is recited in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. According to one theory, though, it was originally written in Yiddish (in which language it appears in an old manuscript), and afterwards translated into Aramaic in order to make it easier to imitate the Yiddish rhymes. Although this theory is supported by the poor quality of the Aramaic, other scholars have pointed out that Aramaic versions of the song are attested as far back as the thirteenth century in Avignon, southern France, where Yiddish would not have been known.
The familiar version of the song begins with a cat eating a kid and culminates with God destroying the Angel of Death. There were however some interesting variations on this theme. In several versions it was a mouse--a rather formidable little rodent it would seem--who gobbled up the kid! In fact the earliest text of the Had Gadya relates the sad story as an unending series in which "the cat came and ate the mouse who ate the rope that bound the ox who drank the water that extinguished the fire that burned the the stick that beat the dog that ate the kid." The next page is missing in the manuscript, but it is likely that the cat went on to be devoured by the dog, setting the whole circle in motion again!
Although many modern scholars like to regard Had Gadya as no more than a frivolous bit of doggerel, analogous to such folk songs as "the House that Jack Built" or "the Farmer in the Dell," some of our rabbis, as well as several Christian writers, approached it with immense respect and tried to uncover its secret meanings. Most commentators saw it as a parable about Jewish history, in which one evil empire after another arises to oppress the defenceless Jewish "kid." This pattern will end in the messianic era, when God himself will do away with our oppressors and banish death itself.
The reverence in which the Had Gadya was held is exemplified by an incident that took place in the eighteenth century when a certain brash individual dared to make fun of the song and was immediately placed under a ban of excommunication by an irate observer. The episode was brought before the renowned Rabbi Hayyim Joseph David Azulai (known as the "Hida") who was thoroughly incensed that anyone should make light of a hymn that is recited by thousands of Jews and accepted by great rabbis. As evidence of the sanctity of the Had Gadya, the Hida tells of one eminent scholar who composed more than ten different commentaries to the song according to the different levels of mystical interpretation. The Hida, himself a seasoned Kabbalist, entertained no doubts that the Had Gadya does indeed contain deep mysteries.
Whether your concern is to delve into its mystical dimensions or merely to keep your children alert during the seder, I hope you all have a wonderful time singing the Had Gadya this year.
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