Chad Gadya: Not Just for Kids

The folksong, “Chad Gadya” (“One Kid”) is one of the most famous songs in the Haggadah, but even if we manage to get ourselves back to the seder table to sing it after the meal, it is a song that has an obscure text, history and meaning.

Composed of ten stanzas the verse runs as follows:
  A father bought a kid for two zuzim;
  a cat came and ate the kid;
  a dog then bit the cat;
  the dog was beaten by a stick;
  the stick was burned by fire;
  water quenched the fire;
  an ox drank the water;
  a shohet (ritual slaughterer) slaughtered the ox;
  the shohet was killed by the Angel of Death who
  in punishment was destroyed by God.

The most well-known Ashkenazi folk-song setting of this piece in Hebrew can be heard here (Example 1), and in English can be heard here (Example 2).

It is written in the ancient language of Aramaic (the same language as the Kaddish) which was the common, and also scholarly, language of the Jewish people in the Middle East from around 200 to 1200 CE. Historians have translated, and continue to discover, many ancient Aramaic poems which dealt at length with the holidays, including Passover. We do not have many of these poems left to us, but it is possible that this poem came from among other sacred Passover poems and found its way into the Haggadah over the centuries. Click here to listen to an a cappella version of the song (Example 3).

Haggadot were not printed until the 1500s, but the earliest known inclusion of Chad Gadya in any text was by Rabbi Elazar ben Yehuda of Worms (1160-1238 CE) in his compendium of law codes entitled, “Sefer Rokeach.” Although we don't know who actually authored Chad Gadya, it is a folksong that clearly imitates other European additive-form folk songs; it is the type of song that gets longer and longer with each verse.  One challenge for scholars of the song, however, is that the Aramaic text means it is likely much older than its Medieval musical counterparts; debate continues about its origins.

Whether it was original or imitative of German folksongs does not really matter. The fact that we can trace it back at least to the 13th Century ensures its standing as an indispensible part of the Seder.  Of course, in Eastern European homes it was often sung in Yiddish, just as we sing it in English today so that children can participate more easily. Here is a clip of a traditional Yiddish melody (Example 4).

Traditionally, Chad Gadya was not a part of the Yemenite or Spanish (Sephardic) traditions for the Seder, but over the centuries a Spanish/Ladino version emerged which is regularly sung called, “Un Kavretiko” (“One Kid”) and which has a haunting, and lovely melody. Click here http://bit.ly/Un_Kavretiko to listen to Israeli singer, Yehoram Gaon singing this classic Sephardic song.

Our tradition teaches that it is a very significant work with great depth of meaning in its symbolism. The great rabbi of Prague known as the Maharal (1525-1609) taught that the songs sung at the end of the Seder are part of the Hallel (Praise) service and have the same importance.

As for meaning, literally hundreds of explanations have been written on it.  The most common popular explanation goes as follows: the kid symbolizes the oppressed Jewish people, bought by the father (God) for two coins (Moses and Aaron). The subsequent animals and people in the song represent the nations who persecuted the Jewish people over the centuries:  the devouring cat represents Assyria; the dog, Babylon; the stick represents Persia; the fire Greeks; the water is Rome; the ox, the Saracens; the shochet (ritual slaughter), the Crusaders; and the Angel of Death, the Turks who subsequently ruled Palestine. The end of the song expresses the hope for messianic redemption: God destroys the foreign rulers of the Holy Land and vindicates Israel as "the only kid."

There are also spiritual elements to the song. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) interpreted it as illuminating the many sins of the Jewish people over the centuries. For instance, in his view fire was the idolatry of the people which brought about the destruction of the First Temple; water  was the spirit of klal yisrael  (unity) which led them back to their homeland after Babylonian exile; and the ox symbolized Roman rule and the sinat chinam (baseless hatred) which led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

In her contemporary and contemplative version of Chad Gadya, singer-songwriter Juliet Spitzer weaves a song of regret and remembrance into the traditional lyrics. The steady drum beat and the repetitive slightly-Eastern melody become a mantra that allows the singer to ask herself where she finds herself this year. Her concluding lyrics, “On all other nights I ask the four questions, tonight I ask one more – how long will this cycle of horror last?” speaks to the complexities of death and pain embedded in an otherwise simple Seder song. (Example 5)

Finally, in his video commentary to the Haggadah, the great writer and thinker, Elie Wiesel, teaches us that though the song is a confusing one, if looked at correctly it has a wonderful lesson to share at the Seder table:
"And here we are, concluding the Seder with Chad Gadya, a beautiful song, which is not just about a father who buys a goat for his child. It's a song about God's creatures destroying each other. It may be a puzzling way to end the joyous meal but one that is fraught with meaning. The song of Chad Gadya reminds us that in Jewish history, all creatures, all animals, all events are connected. The goat and the cat, the fire and the water, the slaughterer and the redeemer, they are all part of the story. "


So this year, bring yourselves back from the couch to the table, and end your Seder with a song that energizes the kids, has a wonderful history and meaning, and is just a lot of fun to sing!