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When I was growing up, the part of the Seder I looked forward to (after chowing down on my favorite chicken soup with matza balls and the candy raspberry chocolate covered ring jells) was singing the Passover songs. In those days, I would pull out my guitar and accompany my family as we wended our way through the seder with music and song.
The Passover seder is the ritual meal Jews observe to celebrate their freedom in ancient days from the tyrant Pharaoh of Egypt. According to the Torah, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let His people go, a reference to the slavery the Israelites were experiencing. After 10 plagues, the Pharaoh relented and the Israelites made their way to freedom. In celebration of this event, each year Jews sit down to this ritual meal and tell the ancient story of their redemption.
As with many holidays, music and song make the rituals come alive and lift the spirit. The seder is filled with music from the songs of praise of the Hallel to the allegorical Chad Gadya. Some of the songs are musical renditions of the text; others are composed melodies of Middle Ages origin — or even recently composed ones, such as those by the late Debbie Friedman, whose song about Miriam is a favorite with my congregation.
The seder opens with the chanting of the individual steps to the service. The blessings of sanctification over wine and candles also have a distinct chant. The opening lines of welcome for all to participate in the seder have a lovely syncopated melody and are sung in Aramaic, the language of Israel 2,000 years ago, when the seder ritual was standardized. The famous Four Questions that the youngest child asks about the seder has two chants: One that is Sephardic in origin and one that is a traditional Talmudic chant.
The mentioning of the Ten Plagues has an interesting musical component also. Drops of wine are taken with a fingertip at each mention of a plague and the name of the plague is chanted in a mournful drone. A diminished cup symbolizes sadness; the drone reminds us that the Egyptians suffered so that the Israelites could gain freedom.
The antithesis of the plague chant is the famous “Dayenu.” This portion lists the numerous miracles and blessings that were given to the Israelites. The word means, “it is enough for us.” This lively tune crops up at Jewish gatherings all during the year and is a catchy melody to sing. It is a favorite with wedding and dance bands all over the world.
Debbie Friedman’s famous song about Miriam at the Reed Sea is an example of a modern composed song. It celebrates Miriam and the women who danced and praised God with song as soon as the Israelites reached freedom’s shores. This lively tune is a paean to the involvement of the women in the path to freedom.
One of the most famous seder songs comes at the end of the seder. It is sung in Aramaic and is entitled “Chad Gadya,” or “One Kid.” The form is similar to the rhyme “This is the house that Jack built” or “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” where the stanza before is repeated and added to the additional verses. The allegorical nature of the song makes for an interesting story.
In the song, a little goat bought by a father for two coins is assaulted by a cat, dog, stick, fire, water, ox, ritual butcher, and the Angel of Death. Each of these devours or destroys the object before it. The various objects and animals have special meaning. The father stands for God, the coins Moses and Aaron, the ensuing items are the nations that conquered Israel: the cat, Assyria; the dog, Babylon; the stick, Persia; the fire, Macedonia; the water, Rome; the ox, the Saracens; the butcher, The Crusaders; and the Angel of Death, the Turks who ruled Palestine. The song ends on a hopeful note and wish for a messianic age, when the Holy One will destroy the foreign rulers of the Holy Land and will vindicate Israel as the lawful ruler of its land and destiny. Other interpretations are accepted, but most would accept the interpretation I have presented.
There are many other songs such as “Adir Hu” (“God is Great”) that were added during the Middle Ages and “Eliyahu HaNavi,” or “Elijah the Prophet,” a song of redemption. Many people sing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” or “Ani Ma’amin,” a song to honor those killed in the Holocaust, just to mention a few.
May the song of freedom wend its way into the hearts of us all and may it burst out in joyful melody with the promise of redemption for all those oppressed. Happy Passover!
Passover begins on the eve of March 25 and continues for eight days.
Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at email@example.com.