Seder Songs

A favorite feature of the Passover Seder for those not feeling overwhelmed by sleep or food is the music, the songs at the end of the Seder. The Haggada has four of these: “Ki lo Na’eh, Ki Lo Ya’eh”; “Adir Hu”; “Echad Mi Yode’a,” and “Had Gadya.” All four are highly repetitive, and the last three have similar incremental structures in which new verses are constantly added to those already sung, so that each time the sequence grows longer. This often leads to comic contests to see who can race through these steadily lengthening stanzas more quickly before slowing down for the refrain at the end of them, and it is on this note of laughter that many a Seder ends.

Although in Jewish tradition such songs are only sung on Passover, they are not that unusual, belonging, as they do, to a genre that is known from many languages, including English. Its representatives are known to musicologists by different terms — none of them found in ordinary dictionaries — such as “formula songs,” “cumulative songs,” “counting songs,” “chain songs” and “pattern songs.” Let’s take a look at how these apply to our Haggada.

“Formula song” is the generic term for any song that depends heavily on verbal repetition. Thus all four of our end-of-the-Seder songs are thus formula songs.

A “cumulative song” is a formula song that tells a story in each stanza of which another detail is added to what has come before. Such is the Seder’s “Had Gadya,” with its goat eaten by a cat that is devoured by a dog that is beaten by a stick that is burned by a fire that is put out by water that is drunk by an ox that is slaughtered by a slaughterer who is killed by the Angel of Death who is dispatched by God. A closely parallel English example is “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” the final, fully “accumulated” stanza of which goes:

“I know an old lady who swallowed a cow,/ I don’t know how she swallowed the cow./ She swallowed the cow to catch the goat,/ She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,/ She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,/ She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,/ She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,/ That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her./ She swallowed the spider to catch the fly,/ But I don’t know why she swallowed that fly./ Perhaps she’ll die.”

“Counting songs” are cumulative songs that consist of enumerations rather than narrations. “Echad Mi Yode’a,” (“Who Knows One?”) which starts with the “one God in heaven and on earth,” and continues through the two tablets of the law, the three patriarchs and so on, all the way to thirteen, is a counting song par excellence. So are some songs in English that also enumerate religious symbols and holidays, such as “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh” or “The Twelve Days [i.e., the days between Christmas and Epiphany] of Christmas.” The former begins almost exactly like “Echad Mi Yode’a” with: “I’ll sing you one, O,/ Green grow the rushes, O,/ What is your one, O?/ One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.” The latter has 12 stanzas, the last of which goes:

“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me,/ Twelve drummers drumming,/ Eleven pipers piping,/ Ten lords a-leaping,/ Nine ladies dancing,/ Eight maids a-milking,/ Seven swans a-swimming,/ Six geese a-laying,/ Five golden rings,/ Four calling birds,/ Three French hens,/ Two turtle doves,/ And a partridge in a pear tree.”

“Chain songs” neither tell a story nor count, but simply add on, as is the case with “Ki Lo Ya’eh,” which lists, in alphabetical order, the attributes of God. In some chain songs the “chain” is formed by the last words of one line forming the first words of the next, as in the American lullaby “Hush, Little Baby,” which begins:

“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,/ Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird./ If that mockingbird don’t sing,/ Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring./ If that diamond ring turns brass, Mama’s gonna buy you a looking glass….”

As for “pattern songs,” they involve improvised variations on a recurring base and are the one type of formula song not represented in the Haggada. Many of you may know “Kumbaya,” a Christian pattern song originally from the Gullah Islands off the Georgia coast. Repeated hypnotically like a Hasidic niggun, it consists of the phrase “Someone’s ___|\___|ing, Lord, kumbaya,” in which the blank can be filled in by any one-syllable verb (pray-ing, walk-ing, sleep-ing, eat-ing, etc.).

Formula songs are especially popular with children, which is no doubt why the Seder, a highly child-oriented event, ends with them. I can remember when I was young how my father, who was bored by them, would always try to cheat by skipping some of their repetitions while a giggling younger generation shouted him down with its singing. It was lots of fun.

Which is what I wish you at your Seders.

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