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The Seder's Over ... Not

It’s late and we’re tired. Let’s leave out the songs at the end of the Passover seder. I mean, they don’t even mention Passover, so who cares. Yawn. But wait: Adir Hu (God Is Great), Echad Mi Yodeia (Who Knows 1?) and Chad Gadya (the little goat song) contain the answer to a great secret and mystery!

The secret to the mystery is that all these songs, found primarily in Ashkenazi (the tradition of European-based Jews) reflect God’s role as redeemer, our optimistic hope for the future – and most important – understanding Passover not just as a Festival celebrating God’s freeing us from Egyptian slavery but also as the first step in our journey to Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, seven weeks later. Songs can tell all that? Keep reading.

The text of Adir Hu (God is Great), built on an alphabetic acrostic, dates to the 6th/7th Century when it was originally chanted during all the Festival services. The melody – simple, repetitive and easily learned – was first notated in Germany in 1644 and has become THE sound of Passover. Its message is clear and simple: God is many things – all of them wonderful and powerful.

Echad Mi Yodeia (Who Knows 1?) is a cumulative number song (similar to the “Twelve Days of Christmas”) first found in a 15th Century German haggadah. It’s a joyous and raucous experience as we sing faster and faster, starting with 1 and working our way to 13 and back again in each verse. But there’s more: Echad Mi Yodeia teaches us that everything in the universe relates directly to God from the most obvious to the more obscure: 1 is God’s entirety; 5 are the number of Books in the Torah; 9 is the number of months of pregnancy; 8 is the number of days from birth to circumcision; 7 are the number of days from creation to Shabbat. No matter how seemingly mundane, God is present everywhere.

Chad Gadya, a poetic variation of the “little old woman who swallowed the fly” limerick is found primarily in Ashkenazi haggadot (some Sephardi haggadot include Chad Gadya in Ladino, Arabic or French). It’s a cute kid’s song: a little goat that daddy bought for two gold coins is bitten by a cat that is eaten by a dog … But it is in fact a study in Jewish history where we, Israel, are the goat “purchased” or redeemed by God, our Father. We – thanks to God – survive repeated oppression and subjugation as we witness the destruction of our enemies at God’s hands. How powerful is God? God even overcomes the Angel of Death. And we, through Passover and its movement to Shavuot, Torah and Sinai, overcome physical degradation and spiritual stagnation.

It’s odd, however: Chad Gadya is sung in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Why is a song written in German in 15th Century Germany sung by Ashkenazi Jews in Aramaic, the Jewish vernacular that had ceased to be spoken centuries earlier? There are a few reasons. As a closing text to the seder, Chad Gadya bookends the opening haggadah Aramaic text (Halachma, from 8th Century Babylon, “this is the bread of affliction – let all who are hungry come and eat …”). And singing in an unusual language also piques interest and adds yet another dimension to the understanding of the seder as a response to Roman brutality (Aramaic was the street language during the Roman occupation of Israel).

Too often the songs are overlooked because seders tend to end so late and we are tired. This year, I urge you to hang on until the very end – and know that Adir Hu, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Chad Gadya are as necessary to the seder experience as Dayeinu and the Four Questions. To hear the songs, go to the UJC’s website (www.unitedjewishcenter.org), and follow the links to “Cantor Kessler Sings the Haggadah!”

Chag sameach – Happy Passover!

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