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Chad Gadya: A New Song with an Ancient Theme
The author of Chad Gadya is unknown, as is the date of its composition. The first verified publication of this song was in a haggadah printed in Prague in 1590. An earlier handwritten version was found in the back of a 1526 haggadah, also printed in Prague. An even earlier version was reported by Rabbi Yedidiyah Weill (1721-1805) in a now lost siddur manuscript dating back to 1406 in Worms. He “heard” that it was found “hidden in the walls of the Beis Midrash” of Rokeach (1176-1238) who established that it “be sung on Pesach night for all generations.”
Many interpretations of Chad Gadya have been offered over the centuries. One of the more popular explanations is that each figure in the song represents one of the regimes that oppressed us throughout our long history. The goat is the Jewish people. The cat is Assyria. The dog is Babylon. And so on. I would like to suggest a different interpretation – one based on an older and inarguably greater song whose theme is central to Yetzias Mitzrayim.
Shiras ha’Yam opens with the verse: “I will sing to Hashem, ki gaoh gaah; horse and rider He cast into the sea” (Shemos 15:1). It is difficult to translate “ki gaoh gaah” in a manner which captures the nuances of the Hebrew. The root G.A.H. denotes “greatness,” “grandeur,” or “exaltedness.” Therefore, it would be accurate to translate the phrase as: “for He is exceedingly great.” However, G.A.H. also carries a connotation of “proud,” “haughty,” and “boastful,” and the terms “gaavah” and “gaon” are used in Biblical Hebrew to mean “arrogance” and “pride.” As odd as it sounds, it would be equally correct to render “ki gaoh gaah” as “for He is exceedingly haughty.” What does the verse mean? How can we make sense of this strange ambiguity?
R’ Yosef Albo (Sefer ha’Ikkarim 2:14) proposes a solution, which he supports with Targum Onkelos’s non-literal translation of our verse: “We will sing and give thanks before Hashem, for He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him; horse and rider He cast into the sea.” R’ Yosef Albo writes:
Indeed, we find Scripture ascribing gaavah (pride) to Him, even though this is a despicable character trait in man, as it is stated: “every haughty heart is an abomination to Hashem” (Mishlei 16:5). The reason for this is that it is not proper for man to take pride in any perfection or in any superiority, for everything comes from Hashem, and it is not fitting for man to take pride in anything that does not [truly] belong to him … Therefore, gaavah is only fitting for Hashem, since everything comes from Him and not from anyone else. It is for this reason that Scripture ascribes it to Him, saying: “Hashem reigns; He dons geius (pride)” (Tehilim 93:1), and Moshe said: “I will sing to Hashem, ki gaoh gaah,” which Onkelos translates as, “for He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him.” Therefore, if someone prides himself on that which does not belong to him, it is proper that that superiority be removed from him in order to demonstrate that glory and superiority do not belong to that person himself, but are from Hashem, by His will.
When Bnei Yisrael saw the Egyptian charioteers at Yam Suf, they were afraid. Even after witnessing Hashem’s omnipotence as displayed in the Ten Plagues, they still regarded their former masters as powerful beings worthy of fear. It was only after Hashem drowned the Egyptian army in the sea that Bnei Yisrael acknowledged the truth of Hashem’s supremacy – that “He prides Himself over the prideful, and pride/greatness belongs to Him.”
Perhaps this is the central idea of Chad Gadya. Each stanza introduces a more powerful entity. This powerful entity appears to be a genuine threat until it is defeated by an even greater one. Ultimately, we arrive at the recognition that Hashem is more powerful than all of them. “Who is like You among the powers, Hashem?” (Shemos 15:11). Not only is this a major theme of Yetzias Mitzrayim, but it also pairs well with the symbolic interpretation mentioned above. When we, the Jewish people, are faced with fearsome oppressors, it can be easy to feel that the situation is hopeless. But we must remember our relationship with the True Power, and turn to Him, believing: “God is my strength and my salvation … Hashem will reign forever and ever” (ibid. 15:2,18).
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