Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Climax of the Seder Night--Chad Gadya

by Daniel Pinner

“Chad gadya de-zabin abba bi-t’rei zuzei – one little kid, that father bought for two zuzim.

And then came the cat and ate the kid, that father had bought for two zuzim.
And then came the dog and bit the cat that had eaten the kid that father had bought for two zuzim….

And then came the Holy One, blessed be He, and slaughtered the Angel of Death, who had slaughtered the slaughterer who had slaughtered the ox that had drunk the water that had quenched the fire that had burned the stick that had beaten the dog that had bit the cat that had eaten the kid that father had bought for two zuzim – one little kid, one little kid.”

These words are instantly recognizable to just about any Jew in the world; this is the climax of the Pesach Seder, and instantly conjures up warm nostalgic memories of countless Sedarim from childhood, of friends, of family. Apart from anything else, this is a fun song with which to part from our friends and family at the Seder.

Though it would appear to originate in Ashkenazi communities fairly recently (mid to late sixteenth century), we do Chad Gadya a grievous disservice by believing – as too many writers have claimed – that it is merely a lively children’s song, an amusing musical game to keep the children awake with. Indeed, the Chid”a (Rabbi Chayyim Yosef David Azulai, Jerusalem, Hevron, and Italy 1724-1806) records in his book of Halakhic responsa, Chayyim Sha’al (Part 1, Section 28) the question: “Somebody made fun of Chad Gadya…and thereby befouled his mouth. One of the company thereupon arose and excommunicated him. Is this excommunication valid?” And the Chid”a’s answer is unequivocal: “Making fun like this is a very severe act, and the excommunication is indeed valid”. Clearly, Chad Gadya is far more than a simple children’s nursery rhyme.

We are so familiar with the words that most of us probably never even notice that Chad Gadya is Aramaic, not Hebrew (chad gadya rather than g’di echad; ve-ata shunra rather than u-va he-chatul and so on). So the immediate question is: why was this song composed in Aramaic? After all, almost the entire Haggadah is in Hebrew.

But towards the end, Chad Gadya suddenly reverts to Hebrew: the slaughterer is ha-shochet in Hebrew, rather than necheisa in Aramaic; the Angel of Death is Malach ha-Mavet in Hebrew, not Malach Mota in Aramaic; and the Holy One, blessed be He is ha-Kadosh baruch Hu in Hebrew, not Kud’sha brich Hu in Aramaic. So the next question is: why the reversion to Hebrew?

And finally, what is the significance of father buying this kid for two zuzim?

As we noted, almost the entire Haggadah is in Hebrew. But there is another Aramaic section near the beginning: Ha lachma anya di achalu avhatana be-ar’a de-Mitzrayyim… “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry – come and eat; all who need – let them come and join in the Pesach. This year here – next year in the Land of Israel; this year slaves – next year, free people”.

This section, too, is predominantly Aramaic – with a few well-selected words in Hebrew. And this deceptively simple paragraph has some important lessons.

The Ha lachma section had to have been written in a context when the Pesach sacrifice was not offered (either after the destruction of the Holy Temple when the Temple Mount was under foreign occupation, or in exile) as the invitation makes clear: Kol ditzrich yeitei ve-yifsach, “all who need – let them come and join in the Pesach”. But the Pesach sacrifice could be eaten solely by those who had been designated as members of the group before the Paschal Lamb had been sacrificed (Mishnah, Zevachim 5:8; Rambam, Laws of Pesach Sacrifice 2:1, 5). Clearly, then, when already seated at the Seder table, it was impossible to invite “all who need” to come and join in eating the Pesach sacrifice. This invitation has to date from after the Pesach sacrifice had ceased, so that it refers to the Seder ceremony, not to the Paschal Lamb itself. And so, since it applies to a time of galut (exile), it is written in Aramaic – the language of exile. But the corollary is that when looking forward to the time of redemption, back in our Land as free people, the phrase is le-shana ha-ba’ah (“next year”) in Hebrew – the language of redemption, of the Land of Israel.

And now we begin to see the parallel with Chad Gadya: the kid represents Israel, the nation that was “eaten” by the cat, devoured, defeated, conquered, dragged away into exile. It is appropriate that this parable be related in Aramaic, the language of exile. Then the dog bit the cat, the stick beat the dog, the fire burnt the stick, the water quenched the fire, the ox drank the water. One by one, every nation that ever dared raise a hand against us was defeated: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, mediaeval Spain, the Turkish Empire, Germany, the British Empire, the Soviet Union – every one of them, when they turned against us, collapsed.

“And then came the slaughterer and slaughtered the ox”. The ox symbolises Rome – the exile that is currently drawing to its painful end; and the slaughterer who destroyed the ox of Rome is Mashiach ben Yosef – he who will fight the physical battle against our enemies, and will begin to lead us out of exile and back to independence in our Land – and potentially be killed in combat. (This interpretation follows the Vilna Ga’on.) So ha-shochet – the slaughterer in Hebrew, not Aramaic – represents the beginning of the redemption from exile. The Angel of Death might (not definitely) take the slaughterer; and then the final stage of redemption will be the Revival of the Dead, when God Himself will “slaughter the Angel of Death” – because death itself will be cancelled.

And finally, what is the significance of father buying this kid for two zuzim? – Having established that the kid represents Israel, it follows that abba here refers to our Father in Heaven; how, then, did He acquire us “for two zuzim”?

Although g’di can be a generic term for the young of any kosher animal (see the Talmud, Chullin 113 a-b), it usually refers specifically to a kid (a goat up to the age of one year) or a lamb (a sheep up the age of one year). And these are precisely the animals which are sacrificed for the Tamid (daily) offerings and the Mussaf (Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and Festival additional) offerings.

A month and a half ago, we began the countdown to Pesach with the first of five special Shabbatot – Shabbat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16). Then we read how every Jew was obligated to pay the half-shekel due, the annual tax that was used for purchasing the goats and lambs for the Tamid offerings (Megillah 29b; Mishnah Berurah 685:1). This was how the Jew bought his share in the Holy Temple. And how much is half a shekel? – The shekel (equivalent to the Talmudic sela) was a unit of currency equal to four zuzim (equivalent to silver dinars in the Talmud). Thus the two zuzim, with which father bought the g’di, and with which we conclude the Seder service, are worth half a shekel.


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