Chad Gadya: Deep Meanings?

22 goat cat

At our home, the seder is not over until we sing “Chad Gadya“ – making the appropriate animal noises for every verse of this Jewish “House that Jack Built.” When we sing, full of food, wine, and holiday euphoria, Chad Gadya comes out sounding silly. What if it’s really meant to be a serious work of religious poetry? As it turns out, many famous Jewish thinkers have found deep teachings of one kind or another.

Midrashic. The original author of Chad Gadya in plays on a famous midrash (c. 500). The Aramean King Nimrod challenges our monotheistic ancestor Abraham to a theological dialogue. Nimrod suggests that Abraham should worship fire. But Abraham argues that water quenches fire, clouds bring water, wind blows away clouds, and humans can control wind through breath – so if you worship forces of nature, you might as well worship yourself. Nimrod, angry, sentences Abraham to death by fire – but God saves Abraham’s life. Hence, Chad Gadya explains, the Holy One of Blessing can slay the Angel of Death.

Historical. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1997) says that Chad Gadya is an allegory of Jewish history, showing the recurring relevance of the Exodus. Israel is the kid, and everyone else wants to destroy us. But in the end, God saves us. This interpretation is, however, a bit loose, as cat eats the kid in the first verse.

Apocalyptic. Contemporary philosopher Rabbi Neil Gillman says that Chad Gadya celebrates Elijah’s visit to every seder, where he announces the End of Days, the coming of mashiach. At that time, God will triumph over everything, even death. All who once lived will come alive again.

Political. According to Lawrence Hoffman, a contemporary scholar of Jewish liturgy, Chad Gadya warns against taking revenge. The cycle, once started, may never end. Similarly, modern Israeli songwriter Chava Alberstein used Chad Gadya as a metaphor in a 1989 song urging the Israeli military not to retaliate against Palestinian strikes. “Why are you singing Chad Gadya? How long will the cycle of horror last, the pursuer and the pursued, the striker and the stricken?”

Spiritual. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) sees in Chad Gadya an allegory about the inner journey towards spiritual refinement. One who sings Chad Gadya declares: I am the beginning seeker, bought for a blessing, whose creativity is threatened by too much rationality, which is in turn threatened by desire, which is then transformed into passion for the holy, which passion is defeated by the body, causing me to judge others harshly, which I can temper with love, which is sometimes defeated by my shadow side, until God helps me perfect my id.

Ethical. Rav Nasan Adler (1741-1800) taught that Chad Gadya is really a warning against lashon hara (gossip). Once, this controversial rabbi overheard a group of strangers gossiping about him. He walked over and said, “How about that Chad Gadya! The cat that ate the kid did a terrible thing, so the dog was right to bite it, and the staff was wrong to beat the dog. If you follow the logical steps of the song, it seems like God was wrong to punish the angel of death. The song cannot really be criticizing God, so how do you solve the problem?” “You have thought about this a lot, so perhaps you have an idea,” said the strangers. “Indeed I do!” said the Rav. “Actually, the dog was wrong. It was up to the father who owned the kid to punish the cat. The dog should never have gotten involved in someone else’s business!”

Perhaps Chad Gadya expresses the essence of retelling the Exodus story in every generation. Each year, different goals drive us: answering religious questions, learning about Jewish intellectual traditions, grappling with Jewish history, hoping for a just future, growing spiritually, dealing with difficult people and more. If Chad Gadya, a mere fragment at the end of the seder, can spark so much insight, how much more can we glean from the seder as a whole!

Image: sodahead.com. Cross-posted at Rabbis Without Borders at MyJewishLearning.com.

Sources: Jacob Freedman, The Polychrome Historical Haggadah; J. Hershey Worch, The Kabbalist Haggadah; Rabbi Shalom Meir Wallach, Haggadah of the Hassidic Masters; Lawrence Hoffman, My People’s Passover Haggadah; Bereisheet Rabbah 38:13. For additional historical and comparative insight, see this article by Batya Fonda.

10 replies

  1. Nice! Once I wrote a really big paper analyzing all of th end-of-the-seder songs….Inshould look for it.

  2. Elyse, if you find it, I’d love to read it.

  3. Just yesterday Charlie came to cjds and sang chad gadya with the kids. Afterwards some of us were talking and wondering–what is the mystical meaning behind this song? nice to know. חג פסח כשר ושמח
    דנה

  4. Hi!

    I’ve just seen your blog (looking up Tazria for a Dvar Torah) and like it very much.

    I’ve also written about Chad Gadya, mostly from the musical folklore point of view, but also referring to many of the sources you’ve mentioned: http://www.jewishfolksongs.com/en/one-only-kid.
    Hope you enjoy it.

    Batya

    • Thanks, Batya! Very interesting, especially the comparisons with other folk songs.

      Here is something to reflect on: I’m thinking of the Jungian perspective on symbols, where themes reappear across cultures…I wonder what we can learn from Chad Gadya about the human psyche?

  5. Hi!

    I can’t answer your question directly, but here are a couple of observations. Firstly, it’s very interesting that the “cat/dog – butcher” series is preserved intact across many different cultures. I don’t know very much about Jungian symbols, but I have a feeling that this series may imply some sort of universal imagery.

    What I find very interesting is that all the European stories involve a two-way movement from the subject (eg., kid) to the symbol of highest authority (usually the Devil). The Devil is responsible for the kid’s behaviour, usually employing the instrument of fear. This is a utilitarian model, involving an element of “hashgacha”.

    The Jewish model, on the other hand, is linear and uni-directional. God is not mindful of the kid, but the connection between the two is established by means of the way the song is sung, ie, by means of the three-way interaction between God, the kid, and the singer. I also find the Adler explanation fascinating in that it reduces the line into separate binary units, each of which is connected by means of the element of personal responsibility.

    Btw, I have incorporated mention of your blog in my webpage.

    Bivrachah,
    Batya

  6. Thanks, Batya! I like the way you incorporate the performance of the song into its meaning. I added a link to your article at the end of this post.

  7. Very good article. I certainly appreciate this website.
    Keep writing!

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