It comes when we’ve been sitting at the Pesach table for hours. The questions have been asked and answered; the traditional foods, both the sweet and the sour, have been eaten; the meal is concluded; we’ve prayed, read, talked and sung – and now none of us can really stay awake any longer.
But somehow we summon up that last burst of energy, for to end without Chad Gadya would be unthinkable.
And indeed the unthinkable happens. We are suddenly wide awake, a sheaf of melodies for the old song vie with each other, and we increase its tempo to the point at which we can hardly cope with the tongue-twisting verses. And so to bed, as Pepys (or was it Dr Johnson?) would have said, in happy frame of mind.
One of the strange features of Chad Gadya is that it isn’t nearly as ancient as most people think. It first appeared in a Haggadah printed in Prague in 1590 and was written in Aramaic, probably in order to suggest a more venerable lineage.
The author’s name is not known. Many scholars, such as GA Kohut, regard the song as simply a Jewish nursery rhyme borrowed from a German ballad, “Der Herr der schickt den Jokel aus”, with many parallels in other languages.
It’s an engaging theory, and if one objects that the song has a streak of cruelty and therefore is bad for children, think of most of the nursery rhymes you know (“Jack and Jill”, for instance) and you find that they are all mostly rather cruel.
But the Kohut theory is too easy. After all, Chad Gadya comes at the end of the Seder, and most children will long since have dropped off to sleep.
Further, as Israel Abrahams points out in his “Festival Studies”, there is hardly any children’s literature in Jewish records, and the Seder songs are more “the food of philosophers” than “the pap of infants”.
The Chida (Chayim Yosef David Azulai) severely criticised those who treated Chad Gadya as merely a light-hearted riddle for children. The Kotzker Rebbe regarded the song as the holiest of all the Pesach piyyutim.
The likelihood is that, in some sixteenth century Ashkenazi community, a chazan or householder borrowed the style of a folk-ballad and created for the Haggadah his own Midrash on Jewish history.
The material he used may have been suggested by the Bible: “Israel is a scattered sheep; the lions have driven him away; first the king of Assyria devoured him, and last this Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, has broken his bones… Therefore will I punish the king of Babylon” (Jer. 50:17-29).
In 1731, PN Lebrecht suggested that the one kid is Israel; the two coins are Moses and Aaron through whom God redeemed the kid from Egypt; the cat is Assyria, the dog is Babylon, the stick is Persia, the fire is Greece, the water is Rome, the ox is the Saracens, the butcher is the Crusaders, and the Angel of Death is Turkey whom God will finally destroy, and then the Jewish people will be restored to their Holy Land.
The author of Chad Gadya recognised that many Jews wondered why the messianic fulfilment was taking so long and why they had to suffer so much for their faith. Hence Chad Gadya echoed the earlier passage, V’hi She’amdah – “It is God’s promise that has sustained our ancestors and us; not one enemy alone has risen up against us to annihilate us, but in every generation enemies arise to annihilate us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from their hands”.
World history may be viewed through the eyes of our author. Life is a vicious circle. They who resort to violence become victims of violence. Cat eats kid; dog attacks cat.
Hillel put it this way when he saw a skull floating on the surface of the water: “Because you drowned others, they have drowned you; and in the end they that drowned you shall themselves be drowned” (Avot 2:7).
This explains the final stanza of Chad Gadya: “Then came the Holy One, blessed be He, and slew the Angel of Death, who slew the slaughterer, who killed the ox…”
Says Jakob J Petuchowski, “God comes Himself, and puts an end to that iron chain of ‘Cause and Effect’ which threatens ultimately to wipe out the world as a whole”.
The moral of Chad Gadya is for adults: there is a day of judgment, when all creation will ultimately be called to account.
But it’s not a morbid but an uplifting thought with which to conclude the Seder. As with all Jewish observances, the Seder must finish on a high note of faith and optimism.
Like Adon Olam, with its climactic, “Into His hand I commend my spirit; the Lord is with me, I shall not fear”, Chad Gadya shows us God’s Will finally supreme in history, and an only kid that will never again suffer.