Sing a Song of Passover
by Cantor Sam Weiss
The traditional Passover Haggadah is a mosaic of liturgical and narrative texts designed to celebrate the Exodus experience. Included are a variety of hymns similar to those that may be found in the prayer book (Piyyutim) or to those sung around the Sabbath table (Zemirot).
One such hymn is the well-known Dayyenu that is sung close to the midpoint of the Haggadah; another example is the brief poem Khasal Siddur Pesakh ("Ended Is The Passover Celebration") which marks the official conclusion of the Seder ceremonies. Notwithstanding this explicitly "concluding" hymn, three additional Passover Piyyutim were appended to the Haggadah in the Middle Ages -- although they were composed in an earlier period. The refrains of these Hebrew hymns are "It Happened At Midnight," "Say It Is The Passover Offering," and "Beautiful Praise Is His Due."
In a different category from these three songs are the three that appear at the very end of the Haggadah, usually in the following order: Adir Hu ("Mighty Is He"), Ekhad Mi Yode'a ("Who Knows One?"), and Khad Gadya ("One Little Goat"). All three have no apparent connection to Passover, and they have an unmistakable folk-like character -- in structure as well as content -- which sets them apart from other Jewish liturgical songs.
Reminiscent of West European cumulative songs, nursery rhymes, and counting songs, these Jewish folksongs were perhaps translated from their original vernacular language for inclusion in the Haggadah. Adir Hu, Ekhad Mi Yode'a and Khad Gadya first began their close association with the Passover ritual in the Ashkenazic tradition, appearing sporadically or not at all in the Haggadot of other Jewish communities.
Perhaps the most famous of this group is Khad Gadya, a cumulative narrative about the goat which is eaten by a cat, which is bitten by a dog, which is hit by a stick, and so on. A highly unusual aspect of this song is that it is almost entirely in Aramaic. The notable Hebrew words are the terms for the slaughterer, the Angel of Death, and for God. Interestingly enough, the other cumulative Seder song, Ekhad Mi Yode'a, is mainly in Hebrew, with a sprinkling of Aramaic words apparently used for rhyming purposes.
Unlike the famous Aramaic passage at the beginning of the Haggadah, Ha Lakhma Anya, the "invitation to the Seder" composed in Babylonia around the 8th century, Khad Gadya seems to have been written around the 15th century, a time when this language had long ceased to be a Jewish vernacular. While some Sephardic Kabbalists were still using Aramaic in the 16th century for liturgical and esoteric writings (e.g. the Sabbath table song Yah Ribon by Israel Najara), the singing of Khad Gadya was in fact an Ashkenazic custom which only entered Sephardic practice in a limited way. Among those Sephardim who today do sing the story of Khad Gadya, it is often done in a vernacular like Ladino (Un Cavritico), French or Arabic. Scholars, moreover, have discovered a Judeo-German version of the song that predates the earliest available Aramaic version. Why, then, was it written in (or translated into) Aramaic rather than Hebrew?
As a closing Aramaic text, Khad Gadya mirrors the Aramaic text which opens the Haggadah. This could have entered into the decision -- whether playful or serious -- to choose Aramaic over Hebrew. Another factor to consider is that the Seder celebration includes several customs intended to stimulate the interest and curiosity of the children. While the content of this ditty would certainly qualify it as a children's item, one would not expect even a well-educated child to understand Aramaic. Perhaps the choice of this arcane language was made precisely so that the child would inquire about its meaning and be captivated by its story.
But not only children have been intrigued by this goat's tale. Even if the song was not written by a Kabbalist, it has traditionally been interpreted in mystical and allegorical ways. Chief among these is the understanding of Khad Gadya as a reference to the many persecutions of the Jewish people who, according to the song's optimistic ending, will be redeemed by God Himself "slaying the Angel of Death." Indeed, were it not for such an interpretation, it would be difficult to understand the song's Jewish content, let alone its connection to Passover. Taken as a symbolic text, the use of a mysterious ancient language in which to shroud the ordinary content of the song makes a certain kind of sense.
Whether the song is interpreted allegorically or not, the main character of the goat is intriguing, if only because a goat seems rather large to be eaten by a cat. Perhaps the choice of a goat to represent the Jewish people is explicable as a reference to the Biblical "Scapegoat," the classic sacrificial "victim" for Jewish misdeeds. Further, the image of the goat also occurs in Yiddish folksongs as some sort of alter ego of the Jew, as in the song Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen.
Apropos of Yiddish usage: the term "Khad Gadye" is used in that language to mean "slammer," as a slang expression for "prison." The association here is with a Polish word for "prison" that happens to sound something like "gadya." Despite the obscure derivation, this familiar use of the song title underscores the place that this "poor kid" occupies in the Jewish imagination, at Passover-time and year-round.