By the end of the Seder, after the afikoman has been found and its reward exacted, after the story has been told and the festive meal consumed, the children grow sleepy and want nothing more than to curl up in their mothers’ laps and enjoy a well-deserved schluff.
But no, not yet! It is not yet time to slumber and so we continue the many and seemingly strange things at the Seder to keep the children awake. We arrive at the lively and lebedig songs that culminate in Chad Gadya.
Yes, it is delightful to children. But what is its significance for adults?
Even if the song’s purpose is to keep children awake, the song’s theme and images are depressing and cruel. Despite the melody, this is no amusing little ditty. No character escapes unscathed in Chad Gadya. The kid is innocent and harmless, but the cat consumes him. The dog takes revenge on the cat, but the dog then gets a beating. The stick beats the dog, but then gets consumed by the fire and so on and so on until the song’s climax, the grand finale of the entire Haggadah which comes with a triumphant crescendo:
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, that burned the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid, that father bought for two zuzim. Only one kid, only one kid.
God has entered the scene.
His involvement in the song’s turn of events certainly means that Chad Gadya cannot be understood only as a simple, whimsical rhyme. And so it turns out that this deceptively simple song is filled with insightful lessons. In fact, Chad Gadya incorporates one of the most fundamental elements of emunah. As such, it belongs as the grand finale of the Haggadah.
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Over the centuries, differing interpretations have been offered to explain the song. Many see in its dark imagery the history of Israel, the lone, innocent kid. The father, Avinu Shebashamayim, selected the lone kid, when giving two zuzim, two tablets of the covenant.
The animals, objects and people who subsequently destroy and beat one another are the various nations that persecuted, subjugated and oppressed the “one lamb among the seventy wolves” throughout history.
Ultimately the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to bring about the final redemption of His beloved kid, who remained alone and separated front the devouring nations.
Another explanation takes the form of a debate between a Jew and an Egyptian. Framing this interpretation is the understanding that the kid is an animal both deified and worshipped by the Egyptians. Seeing in this deification the essence of idolatry, the Jew wonders how the Egyptian can worship a kid that can be devoured by a cat. When the Egyptian responds that he will then worship the cat, and the Jew retorts that a dog can overpower the cat, the Egyptian quickly transfers his allegiance to the dog. The debate persists until the Jew concludes, “But all powers on earth are subservient to the Holy One Blessed be He. Why don’t you finally realize that only He is to be worshipped?”
Still another understanding views the goat as man’s soul that descends (“sold by the father”) to this earthly existence and suffers through the trials and tribulations of life as it moves (zuz-zazin) about in this world.
Each stanza of the song symbolizes another phase and stage of life as we know it. As life progresses and years pass, man is called to task, “Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya – Unique soul! Unique soul! What have you accomplished on this world? What are you doing here?”
But at each step and every stage, man procrastinates, thinking there will always be time to tend to the spirit and soul. “Later” however, never comes. Finally, man is warned that in due time the soul will have to return to its source and give reckoning for its deeds.
Ultimately, every man must answer to a Higher Source.
The Chatam Sofer brings Chad Gadya closer to Pesach, and finds therefore a parallel between this very last song and the very first Haggadah paragraph, “This is the Bread of Affliction.”
Both are in Aramaic. Both were authored subsequent to the galut and renewed exile from Eretz Yisrael. Both are forms of elegies (kinot) bemoaning the renewed galut, recalling when matzah was eaten not as the bread of affliction but as the bread of freedom and when the Pesach was attended by the pageantry of a Temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. Now we eat matzah, but again as the bread of affliction.
Likewise, we recall the entire service of Pesach, which encompassed the offering of both a Pesach sacrifice and a chagigah korban (chad gadya, chad gadya) that were bought for shtei kesef (two zuzim). And now, chad gadya, chad gadya – woe unto us that we have lost two beautiful gediyim! Who knows when the endless galut will cease, and we will again be able to rejoice in the rebuilding of God’s Holy City, when we can once again partake of the sacrifices and Pesach offerings?