Chain Gangs

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 24, 2008, issue of May 02, 2008.
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One thing about the Passover Seder that never seems to change is that battles are fought between those around the table who insist on singing every stanza of the incrementally repeating chain songs at the Haggadah’s end and those who wish to make shorter shrift of them. My father belonged to the latter camp. By the time we got to the fourth or fifth stanza of “Ehad Mi Yode’a” or “Had Gadya,” he would lose patience and jump to the last one, in which all the previous ones are included.

Some of my family and our guests would join in on my father’s side; others would stubbornly go on singing each verse in order. There followed a musical donnybrook in which each of the two groups sought to drown out the other and win over its adherents. While my father and his supporters were triumphantly singing, “And then came the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and smote the Angel of Death, that slew the slaughterer, that slaughtered the ox, that drank the water, that quenched the fire,” etc., the rival party was defiantly sticking to, “And then came the fire and burned the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim,” thus creating a wild cacophony. More often than not, it ended in helpless laughter, which was, I suppose, a victory for my father at the expense of the other father, the one who had paid two zuzim (how much was that worth in pre-Bush dollars? I have never yet attended the Seder at which anyone could tell me) for a baby goat.

To get to the point, in comparing different versions of the Seder chain song “Adir Hu” in some old facsimile Haggadot, I discovered that this battle has been going on even longer than I thought.

Adir Hu” is an alphabetical acrostic. Its first stanza goes, in Hebrew, “Adir hu, yivneh beyto be’karovbim’hera, bim’hera, be’yameynu be’karov. El b’ney, el b’ney, b’ney betkha be’karov,” which is to say: “Strong [Adir] is He, He will build His Temple soon — swiftly, swiftly, in days soon to come. Lord, build, Lord, build, build Your Temple soon.” The Hebrew word adir starts with Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The next stanza begins Bah. hur hu,” “Chosen is He,” starting with the second letter of the alphabet, Bet; the stanza after that, with Gadol hu, “Great is He,” starting with the third letter of the alphabet, Gimmel, and on and on, until all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each beginning a word with a different attribute of God, have had their turn. And, as in all chain songs, the stanzas are incremental. Thus, in the original version of “Adir Hu” (which, as the Israeli scholar Meir Bar-Ilan has shown, was initially a kind of trance song sung by fourth- or fifth-century C.E. rabbinic mystics), the second stanza started “Adir hu, bah.ur hu, yivneh beyto be’karov”; the third stanza, “Adir hu, bah.ur hu, gadol hu, yivneh beyto be’karov,” and so on until the chain had lengthened to 22 divine attributes.

And yet, old Haggadot do not show that “Adir Hu” was sung this way, presumably

because, mystics aside, not everyone felt up to it. The interesting thing, however, is that while “Adir Hu” was universally shortened, it was not universally shortened in the same way or to the same extent. Most modern Haggadot compress it into triads, so that after the initial stanza we get seven more stanzas, each with three divine attributes: Bah.ur, gadol and dagul (unparalleled), hadur (majestic), vatik (ancient) and zakkai (faultless), and so forth, until we get to kadosh (holy), (merciful), shaddai (invincible) and takif (powerful) at the end of the alphabet.

But other traditions did it differently. For example, in my facsimile edition of a 1770 Haggadah from Pressburg (today the Slovakian capital of Bratislava), there is a geometrical progression: The first stanza has just adir hu; the second, just bah.ur; the third, gadol and dagul; the fourth, hadur, vatic, zakkai and h.asid, and the fifth, tahor (pure), (unique), kabir (mighty), lamud (knowing), melekh (king), na’or (enlightened), sagiv (lofty), ezuz (fierce), podeh (redeeming) and tsaddik (righteous). The 1712 Amsterdam Haggadah has a similar, if slightly different, arrangement, while the 1609 Venice Haggadah would have appealed to my father: After an initial stanza of “Adir Hu,” it lists all the other 21 attributes, one after another, in a second stanza, so that the entire song is only two stanzas long.

How were these different arrangements arrived at? I’d like to think it was done exactly as it was in the Seders I remember from my childhood, with a table divided into two groups: one struggling to sing every stanza of the song, and the second shouting down the first with a shortened version. In the end, one group prevailed, or else some kind of compromise was reached. Le plus ça change, le plus ça reste la même chose.

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