Passover Songs

From a lowly goat to the rebuilt Holy Temple, the songs in the Haggadah survey all of Jewish life and hope.

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Jewish liturgy has always been embellished with poetry and song, and the seder is no exception. The following article looks at how those songs came to be sung after seder and why they were felt to be appropriate for the occasion. The author, his wife, and their three children can be found each year singing seder songs at 1:00 am with almost two dozen guests in their home in Jerusalem.

By any criterion--language, style, structure, or theme--the songs that appear at the end of the Haggadah comprise two distinct types: complex classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) on Passover themes and "jingles" on general Jewish subjects.

In the Middle of the Night

The song section often begins with a classical poem from one of the great payytanim (liturgical poets) of the Land of Israel in late antiquity, Yannai. His poem Az Rov Nissim, known by its refrain, Vayhi bahatzi halayla ("And it happened at midnight") employs all the techniques of classical liturgical poetry: an alphabetical acrostic structure, a simple refrain echoing a biblical verse (here, Exodus 12:29, about the Exodus), repetition of a key word at the end of each line. These ornate embellishments are meant to facilitate comprehension.

The text functions as a poetic reworking of a classical midrash--a passage in Bemidbar Rabba 20 that identifies the seder night not only as the anniversary of the Exodus but also as the date of many other midnight rescues: Abraham's victory over the kings (Genesis 14), Jacob's encounter with the angel (Genesis 32), the Israelites' victory over Sisera (Judges 4), and others, right down to the last events in the Bible, Haman's doom (Esther 6). Yannai's vocabulary, however, is replete with arcane terms that only a master of midrash would recognize, and a reader unfamiliar with the midrash will find the poem tough going unless it is translated and annotated.

The poem's description of God's redemption coming at midnight focuses our attention both on the Exodus, which took place at midnight, and on ourselves, who are to finish our meal by midnight. Night is the time of greatest vulnerability, but with God as our savior, the poet implies, the darkness is not to be feared. The poem climaxes (in a passage sung more often than the rest of the work) with a promise that the day will soon come that is neither day nor night, a reference to the eternal daylight that will engulf the world in the end of days (Zechariah 14:7), when the dark night of the long exile will end.

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Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.