The Earliest Recorded Children’s Song Might Be Found in the Haggadah

April 14, 2020 | Amit Naor
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In most versions of the Haggadah, the seder concludes with the Aramaic poem Ḥad Gadya (“One Kid”), which follows a formula found in many children’s songs in many cultures: “there came a cat that ate the baby goat that father bought, . . . then came a dog that bit the cat that ate the baby goat,” and so forth. That a children’s song—if that is indeed what Ḥad gadya is—should be found in what, in many ways, is a child-centered ritual is unsurprising, but much about this poem remains shrouded in mystery. Amit Naor writes:

[S]ome scholars have crowned Ḥad Gadya the earliest [recorded] children’s song . . . specifically written and put into print for the sake of the edification of children.

Although its language appears to be Aramaic, the song is in fact full of grammatical mistakes, and there are Hebrew words embedded in it as well, suggesting that the author wasn’t fluent in Aramaic and that at the time of its writing, Aramaic was no longer a spoken language.

This is also perhaps a clue as to when the song was written. The song’s appearance in the Haggadah dates to the 15th or 16th century, and earlier versions of it may have been written as early as the 14th century. It first appeared in print in the 16th-century Prague Haggadah. An early version, in impeccable Aramaic, has been located in a manuscript which was subsequently added to the prayer book of the Provencal community in France.

It is assumed that the Jews who fled France after the great expulsion of 1306, brought the liturgical poem with them to communities in the region of Ashkenaz (modern day Germany and northern Europe), and from there it found its way into the Haggadah. Only later did the song also reach the liturgy of the Sephardi communities in Spain and the Middle East.

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