Passover Seder's greatest hits

On Passover eve, it’s a common phenomenon at Seders throughout the world, beginning with the “Symbols of the Seder,” until “Had Gadya” for participants to sing joyfully.

April 18, 2019 16:39
Passover Seder's greatest hits

ARTIST ELIYAHU SIDI adds a comic touch to his 'Had Gadya' page.. (photo credit: ELIYAHU SIDI)


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How many people sing a book’s table of contents at the dinner table?

On Passover eve, it’s a common phenomenon at Seders throughout the world. Beginning with the “Symbols of the Seder,” to the concluding “Had Gadya” song – and everything in between – the greatest hits of the Seder are often sung joyfully by participants.
These endearing songs reflect a tapestry of Jewish history and creativity, with the melodies and texts reverberating through the centuries to modern times. The Haggadah is also an inspirational source for artistic illuminators, particularly those in the last century, who bring a lyrical visual commentary to the texts.

This Hol Hamoed Passover, a celebration of the songs of the Haggadah will be the focus of a special “Kol Hakolot Mass Singing Event,” sponsored by the Kol HaOt organization, to be held at the Hutzot Hayotzer Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem on Monday, April 22, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets to participate in the Kol Hakolot chorus are available at
“This musical happening will be a multisensory event, based on these beloved Passover songs, in a magical setting just outside the Old City,” notes Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, Kol HaOt’s executive director. “The mass harmonious chorus will be creating a new expression of freedom and redemption.”

‘WHO KNOWS 13?’: Songs from artist Eilahou Eric Bokobza’s Haggadah will be featured at the upcoming fair. (Eliahou Eric Bokobza)

In addition to the popular crowd-singing event, the organization will also hold its annual Haggadah Fair that day at its art and Jewish education center in Hutzot Hayotzer. It will feature a special exhibit of humorous, avant-garde renderings of “Had Gadya” and “Echad Mi Yodea” by artist Eliahou Eric Bokobza, from his Eliahou Haggadah, created in 2007; as well as an exhibit of the Lovell Haggadah by artist Matthew Berkowitz. Visitors also will be able to meet contemporary artists and view their Haggadah-related artworks, including those by David Moss, David Harel, Ben Simon, Avner Moriah and Ya’akov Daniel.

In The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, Prof. Joseph Tabory writes, “It seems natural that the spiritual experience of the Seder and the festive meal would create an atmosphere that people would try to prolong by singing after the meal. Some people continue with songs about the beginning of the spring season while many end the Seder with Hatikva, a song that expresses hope of a coming redemption.”

There is evidence for melodies to “Eliyahu Hanavi” that date back to the 11th century, and printed Haggadot with musical notations from as early as the mid-1600s, according to Cantor Nancy Abramson, director of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

INITIALLY, PARTS of the Haggadah, such as the Four Questions, were not sung, but instead were intoned as a talmudic, study-like chant, maintains Dr. Naomi Cohn Zentner, an ethno-musicologist and lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. In the past 150 years, however, there has been more musicalization in Jewish ritual in general, particularly in synagogues, and that trend has also influenced the Seder, she says.

For instance, the melody for the Four Questions only became popularized in the 1930s, when Ephraim Abileah, a Russian-Jewish immigrant to Israel, composed the tune; it was performed only once, in Haifa. Remarkably, from that single performance, the melody gained popularity not only because of the performance but also due to its dissemination among songsters and singalongs, says Cohn Zentner.

FIGURES MARCHING out of Egypt on a musical staff represent the notes of a hassidic song, on artist David Moss’s Bezeit Yisrael page of his ‘Moss Haggada.’ (David Moss 2019. Courtesy

Passover melodies, she adds, flavor the sense of the festival. In the early 19th century, among German-speaking countries in Europe, there was a widespread tradition to use the tune to “Adir Hu” as a leitmotif beginning with blessing of the new month of Nissan, and used in prayers, as well as sung for “Shir Hama’alot” throughout the month “as a way to create a mindset of Passover.”

Scholars have discovered manuscripts containing the “Had Gadya” song as early as the beginning of the 15th century, writes Tabory. This Seder favorite is an example of a cumulative song (one in which each verse adds another motif to the story) and some theorize that the songs at the end of the Seder were added to keep children awake.

The lyrics and upbeat melody of “Had Gadya” belie its hidden historical references. A reference in the Encyclopedia Judaica notes, “What appears to be a light-hearted song may be symbolic. One interpretation is that Had Gadya is about the different nations that have conquered the Land of Israel.”

For instance, the goat symbolizes the Jewish people; the cat, Assyria; the dog, Babylon; the stick, Persia, and so on through the ages. By the end of the poem, God returns to bring the Jews back to Israel.

In the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) tradition, the songs found in the standard Haggadot today were added only after 1800 in Sephardic Haggadot, notes Ora Rodrigue Schwarzwald, professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar-Ilan University. “Before that time, the Haggadah ended with the last blessing over the wine.”

She adds that the Ladino versions of the two final songs “Ehad Mi Yodea” (“Quien Supiense”) and “Had Gadya” (“Un Cavretico”) were added to the Haggadot only in the 20th century. Before then, they weren’t mentioned, although “it is clear that the Sephardic-speaking communities carried the song “Quien Supiense” from before the Expulsion from Spain,” adds Schwarzwald, who has conducted extensive research on Ladino versions of “Ehad Mi Yodea.”

The addition of the songs, she says, was influenced by the Ashkenazi tradition.

“They already occur in a Yiddish Haggadah from Venice in 1609,” she says. “The Italian Haggadah published at the same time in Venice, with Italian translation, states that the Ashkenazim have the tradition of singing a certain song, and add some of the final songs. The parallel Haggadah with Ladino translation, with the same pictures and the same layout from 1609 in Venice, does not have any additions.”

MATTHEW BERKOWITZ’S ‘Lovell Haggada’ concludes with the singing of ‘Hatikva,’ a modern addition to the Haggadah. (Matthew Berkowitz 2019)

FOR ARTISTS, the songs of the Haggadah are a rich source of inspiration, and have left a historical record of the dress, architecture and customs of the century in which the Haggadot were created.

In the Leipnik Haggadah, produced in Germany in 1739, the illuminations reveal the lavish lifestyle of Jews during that period. The stanza “Who knows nine?” depicts an elegant and heavily pregnant woman being served tea from an elaborate serving set as she relaxes in her cushy chair.

On the “Ha Lachma Anya” page of the Barcelona Haggadah of 1350, the father is seen holding the Seder plate on the head of his daughter, echoing this wide-spread Sephardic custom, according to “The Schechter Haggadah.”

Modern illuminated Haggadot reflect a diverse, abstract artistic approach.

For the “Betzeit Yisrael” page in the renowned Moss Haggadah, by artist David Moss, colorful miniature figures represent the musical notes of two tunes composed by the hassidic Rebbe of Modzhitz.

“When I had written out all the notes – the heads [of the figures] – of both tunes, I added the bodies and dresses of the Jews marching out of Egypt. Finally, I put staffs in the hands of the Jews who were the last note of each measure, so that their staffs mark off the musical bars,” explains Moss, a Kol HaOt cofounder.

“By writing out all the repeats and ever so slightly changing the rhythm patterns in two cases, I was able to get the number of notes in both tunes to come out to exactly six hundred. There were six hundred thousand Jews who left Egypt.”

Artist David Harel’s Rebirth of Israel Passover Haggadah is replete with illustrations portraying the modern deliverance of the Jewish people to its historical homeland. In the 21th century, budding musicians have optimized YouTube as a platform to add their own voice to the Haggadah repertoire.

As Israeli singer/composer Kaley Halperin was burning hametz before Passover a few years ago, a moving melody to the words of this ancient declaration percolated in her mind.

Her tune evolved into the YouTube video “Kol Hamira,” which each Passover makes the rounds on social media – proving that even burning hametz is something to sing about!

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