The traditional Jewish Seder service on Passover eve begins on a note of expectancy and exhilaration. All kinds of exciting things happen to keep childish attention alive. The father recites the kiddush and everyone tastes of the wine. The table is lavishly draped and curiously prepared with unwonted dishes. A curious hors d’oeuvre, the karpas, is dipped in salt water, then distributed. One of the three cakes of unleavened bread is for some reason or other broken in two, and half of it is concealed. The youngest present, long primed for the purpose, asks the famous Four Questions, the answers to which he knew well before. Far-fetched fancies of the Rabbis figure in the ritual. Every now and again the matzoth are uncovered and the cup of wine raised, not always in vain. Then comes the meal itself, with its exciting preliminaries.
And now, afterward, once the door has been opened for Elijah the Prophet, harbinger of the Messiah, the atmosphere changes. It becomes a service of prayer rather than of symbolism: indeed, much of it is familiar, and will be heard again in the synagogue next morning. Childish attention begins to wander, and childish eyes sometimes need propping open.
At this stage, the rabbinic genius asserted itself in a characteristic manner. In Germany, in the Middle Ages (not, for some reason, among the Spanish and Southern Jews), the practice grew up of appending to the stipulated service a succession of table-ballads, half folk songs and half hymns, sung to swinging tunes, closely allied to the secular ditties current in the environment, and calculated to demand general participation and keep slumber away: for example, the famous Addir Hu (“Great is He”) or the madrigal of numbers, “Who knows one,” strikingly similar to the English ballad, “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” with a host of parallels in other languages. These have at least something of a religious flavor. But at the end there comes a remarkable song, Had Gadya, which except for its final stanza is completely secular.
The tenor of the ballad is simple. “Had Gadya” is the Only Kid, which the father bought for two zuzzim (the zuz was in antiquity a small silver coin, constituting the fourth of a shekel: though whether the writer of the ballad had any idea of its value as currency or its purchasing power is highly dubious). The Kid is eaten by the Cat, and the Cat is bitten by the Dog, and the Dog is beaten by the Stick, and the Stick is burned in the Fire, and the Fire is quenched by Water, and the Water is drunk by the Ox, and the Ox is slaughtered by the Slaughterer, and the Slaughterer is killed by the Angel of Death, and the Angel of Death is wiped out by God. And in every verse the whole of the preceding chain of events is repetitively retold, so that the original three lines become expanded into twelve, each stanza ending up with the refrain, “An Only Kid: Had Gadya, Had Gadya.”
Where have we heard this before? Oh yes, in “The House that Jack Built,” with part of the same menagerie: the dog, the cat, the bovine:
This is the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the cock that crowed
in the morn
That waked the priest all shaven
That married the man all tattered
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the
That tossed the dog
That worried the cat
That killed the rat
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack
This would seem to be pre-Reformation, because of the reference to the shaveling priest. But there are parallels in other languages too. The same type of ditty was current in Germany in the Middle Ages, in the well-known nursery rhyme: “Der Herr der schickt den Jokel aus” (traditionally chanted on the feast of St. Lambert, on September 17th). The German scholars naturally consider this to be the original source of Had Gadya. But the German ballad is itself based, according to folklorists, on an earlier French version, and indeed, it is quite possible that the Jewish ballad was composed in France.
The language is, as a matter of fact, not Hebrew but Aramaic, the closely similar vernacular that became very widely current among Jews in the early centuries of the Christian era in Eastern lands and then was adopted as a sort of semi-sacred tongue in the West as well. Here, however, it became in due course the specialty of the learned rather than of the people. The fact therefore that the song was composed in Aramaic, however stilted and primitive, suggests, it would seem, a relatively early medieval date, when this language was still widely understood by the Jewish population at large.
The inclusion of a ballad of this type in a liturgical service gave cause for perplexity. Teutonic scholars began to ponder over the mystery and to communicate the result of their investigations to the world at a relatively early date. The lead was set by a German named Hermann von der Hardt, who published his explanation of the symbolism in 1727, in Latin, at Helmstadt under the title Aenigmata Hebraica. Four years later, a baptized Jew plagiarized this in German, in a work in Gothic letters ponderously entitled Had Gadya: Ein Zicklein, das ist, ein Merckwürdiges Rätzel, aus der Jüdischen Oster-Liturgie Welches in Sich Begreifet die Begebenheiten und Schicksahle des Jüdischen Volcks, so Sie von Ausgang Aegyptian biss auf die Zukunft Ihres Annoch Täglich Erwartenden Messiae Darunter Verstehen (Leipzig 1731). This in turn formed the basis (we almost seem to be again in the atmosphere of a literary Had Gadya) of another similar treatise by Christian Andreas Teuber (Leipzig, 1732), these three works proving to be the first of an entire lengthy literature by a number of Christian scholars who imagined that this elementary composition had profound philosophical or theological implications. Thus, the eminent 17th-century Christian Hebraist, Johann Christoph Wagenseil, unable to comprehend that a simple children’s rhyme could have a place in what was substantially a religious service, actually imagined that it referred to the fall of man and his redemption: while the Andreas Teuber mentioned above more reasonably saw it as a parable of God’s providence in the human race.
Not to be outdone, the Jewish scholars soon began to turn their attention to the composition, and to pay it the ultimate compliment in Hebrew literature—that is, the composition of a full-blown commentary. This was not infrequently included in the long series of Haggadah texts edited by various eminent scholars. On the other hand, a learned physician and mathematician, Dr. Asher Anchel Worms of Frankfurt-on-Main, considered that it deserved a separate volume: An Adequate Commentary on Had Gadya (London, 1785)—one of the early productions of the Hebrew printing press in England. Other treatises were composed by scholars such as, to name only a few, Moses ben Jacob Aberle, Moses Blumenfeld, Judah Judel, and even Jonathan Eybeschütz, the great scholar whose polemics convulsed European Jewry for a good part of the 18th century.
Those who took the Had Gadya so seriously—in particular the Jews—were in some cases impelled to regard it as an allegory of Jewish history from its beginning: the providential purchase-price of two zuzzim providing the key. The Only Kid is thus obviously the People of Israel, the Jews, who became the one and “peculiar” people of their Father in Heaven at Sinai, when He bound them to Himself with the two tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. (Another interpretation equates the two zuzzim with the two outstanding leaders of their people, Moses and Aaron.) There then came the Cat, the people of Assyria, who took the Hebrews into captivity. But they were not to triumph for good, for the Dog, the Babylonians, broke their pride and subjugated them. Thereafter came the Stick, the Persians, who thrashed the Babylonians, eventually giving way to the Water, the Greeks, who finally became absorbed by the Ox, the Romans. They in turn fell before their slaughterer, either the Moslems who defeated them in the East or the new European peoples who conquered them in the West, these in due course giving way before the new powers (perhaps we might today think in terms of atomic energy) adequately equated with the Angel of Death. But in the end the Holy One, Blessed be He, will come in messianic times to reestablish righteousness in the world and to remove even the fear of death.
Of course, some such allegory may well be at the bottom of the childish ditty. But it seems more fitting to think of the Had Gadya simply as a folk song with religious undertones, embodied in the Haggadah probably for no better reason than to keep drowsiness at bay at the end of the service. For, in understanding the significance, it is unnecessary to be either profound or recondite, and there is no need to seek abstruse explanations for the inclusion of the song in the simple Passover ritual, with its free and easy domestic character and its intentional appeal to children. It was simply a popular medieval table-song, without any special reference to the Passover. But it did not lack religious implications. Written in the form of a nursery rhyme though it is, it inculcates a lesson of permanent value: that no being can escape responsibility for its actions—even the cat that devours the kid is chased by the dog, who is punished by the stick which is consumed in fire which is quenched by water which is drunk by the ox which falls victim to the knife of the slaughterer who himself cannot escape retribution, for in the end he is the victim of the Angel of Death. And then in the end, God Himself is to come, the ultimate arbiter, to whom even the Angel of Death is responsible, and who will “confound Death forever,” as the Psalmist puts it: God, who stands above all things and to whom all nature, animate and inanimate, brute beast as well as mortal man, is responsible. Here is religion in its simplest terms, such as the youngest child may understand: and herein is the justification for the inclusion of the Had Gadya in the Haggadah service. The last stanza, recapitulating the full chain of action and reaction, is the quintessence of religion in its simplest terms.
Many scholars are inclined to consider the Had Gadya, as has been said, as an adaptation of a folk-ballad known to the environment, perhaps being immediately derived from the German parallel. This may be so, though it is equally plausible to consider all as adaptations of a universal folk-ballad widely spread in many countries in the Middle Ages, before any of the current versions reached their present form. There were not lacking, of course, patriotic Jewish scholars who reversed the argument, stoutly maintaining that, far from it being the case that the Aramaic version was dependent on the secular, the Jews were the pioneers, and the non-Jewish version was derived from the Aramaic. Be that as it may, in Italy certainly the Jewish form was adopted almost word for word in due course by their neighbors: and the Piedmontese-Jewish version in due course became changed into a famous Italian folk-song, La storia de ‘l luv—not only as regards the words, but also as regards the tune—with the reservation that the Hebrew word shochet (ritual slaughterer) was rendered as’l masl (“The Butcher”).
But there are parallels in other literatures as well. Arthur Carlos de Barros Basto, the Apostle of the Marranos, noted one in Portuguese:
Meus Senhores, aqui esta a bota
Que o Vinho leva
A ribeira mota . . .
And another, somewhat more remote:
A formiga vai a serra
E seu. pe na neve prende.
Or yet a third:
Estava a moura
Em seu lugar
Foi a mosca
In due course, it became traditional among the Jews in many countries—but especially, it seems, in the Latin countries—to chant this not only in the original but also in a vernacular translation: sometimes recited verse by verse, sometimes consecutively, after the completion of the whole, to the same tune as the original. A number of such versions are extant. In the ancient communities of the Comtat Venaissin, in the south of France, there was the traditional Provençal version which was published by an Emperor of Brazil and delighted Mistral:
Qu’avie acieta moun paire,
Un escu, douz escu.
Had Gadya, had gadya.
And the Jews of Bordeaux, having adopted the hymn, turned out a French version:
Un chevreau, un chevreau,
Que mon père a acheté deux sous
Un chevreau,, un chevreau. . . .
The Italian Jews in Tuscany had their own version:
Che comprò il signor padre per
Un capretto, un capretto
and in the Venetian Ghetto, more succinctly:
che g’ha crompa mio pare per do
—which became transformed in Piedmont, in their own dialect:
Ca l’ha compra me pari par doui
Un craveut, un craveut,
In due course, the poem penetrated into the Sephardi world, and the Spanish Jews of the Balkans knew the ballad of el cavretico, which in due course came to the knowledge of their Greek-speaking compatriots as ena katsiki.
Nor were the German Jews backwards, with their own version:
Ein Zicklein, ein Zicklein
Das da hat gekauft ein Vaterlein
um zwei pfennig,
Ein Zicklein, ein Zicklein.
The tunes to which Had Gadya is chanted must far exceed the number of the stanzas and the stages in the story. Many are the Jewish households which have their private tradition, with the refrain sung or even bawled: “Had Gadya, Had Gadya.” Jacques Offenbach is said to have been responsible for the arrangement of a melody traditional in his ancestral home. In Italy, the tunes were naturally infused with the spirit of the operetta. Only in Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin did the melody assume something of a plaintive note, so that it seems also like an elegy on the death of a domestic pet.