One Only Kid

Two of our most beloved folksongs feature a kid – a young goat: "Chad Gadya" [One only kid], the last song of the Passover seder [ritual feast], and "Rozhinkes mit mandlen" [Raisins and almonds], a Yiddish lullaby written at the end of the nineteenth century by Avraham Goldfaden (listen here).1 Is there any connection between the kid in the two songs? Is there a reason why the kid has become a part of our culture, or is this accidental? Why do we love these songs so much, and what roles have they played in the development of our folklore?

We'll discuss these questions and sing the songs in the lecture. In the meantime, here is some background information regarding the folklore parallels and Jewish sources of "Chad Gadya". 

"Chad Gadya"  [One only kid]


"Chad Gadya" is a cumulative song which is sung at the end of the Passover seder. It tells a story in each stanza of which another detail is added to what has come before: the kid is eaten by a cat which is bitten by a dog which is beaten by a stick which is burned by a fire which is put out by water which is drunk by an ox which is slaughtered by a ritual slaughterer who is killed by the Angel of Death who is killed by God.

Ashkenazi and Sephardic versions of "Chad Gadya"

The song "Chad Gadya" was first incorporated into the Prague Haggadah [the text for the seder ritual] in 1590, together with the second last song "Echad mi yodea?" [Who knows one?], although both songs existed centuries before they were first connected to the seder, and the Jewish origins of "Chad Gadya" may even be pushed back as far as the thirteenth century. (Rayner, p.114).  It was never part of the Yemenite ritual, and a Ladino version of the song – "Un cavretico" – was only added to Sephardic haggadot from the beginning of the twentieth century. "Chad Gadya" is sung in many different languages by Jews around the world: here are Bukharan, Libyan, Tunisian and Polish versions.

Musicologist Abraham Schwadron spent ten years collecting hundreds of versions of "Chad Gadya" from Jewish communities around the world. The collection is housed in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and a disk of 25 of these recordings is available from Folkways. Voice of the Turtle, a group which specializes in Ladino music, also produced a disk - "A Different Night" - of their own interpretations of "Chad Gadya" as well as other seder songs, based upon the Schwadron collection and other sources. Performances of "Chad Gadya" by Jewish communities around the world may be heard on the "Invitation to Piyut" website.

According to Ruth Rubin: "Chad Gadya" is mentioned in Cervantes' Don Quixote, Arnim and Brentano included it in their collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Heinrich Heine makes Jakel the Fool chant it in "The Rabbi of Bacharach", and Israel Zangwill uses it effectively in "Dreamers of the Ghetto".

Related folksongs

There are several European folksongs which incorporate the sequence of the cat/dog – stick – fire – water – ox– butcher, and parallels may be found in Persian and Indian sources, as well (Jewish Encyclopedia). Most scholars agree that the song was borrowed from a German folksong, which in turn was based upon an old French nursery song. The most immediate source may be the German folksong "Der Herr der Schickt den Jokel aus" [The master who sent the peasant out], a variant of which was recorded by the Grimm Brothers: the farmer (peasant, Jack, Yekele, yokel) refuses to harvest apples (or pears) until he is finally persuaded to do so following a series of events leading up to a higher force such as the Devil. (Watch a video of 95-year-old Lou Zeiden singing a Yiddish version of this song).

Where does the "kid" come in? Here it is, in a French folksong, "Ah! Tu sortiras, Biquette", about a very stubborn little goat who refuses to get out of the cabbage patch. Watch the following really cute video. Another French/Catalan folk story featuring the same sequence is "La Petite Fourmi qui Allait à Jérusalem" [The little ant that went to Jerusalem]. One of the readers of this webpage, Michal Mynar, has also sent in this humorous Czech song: Jora de na pivo.

According to Armistead and Silverman, there is a Pan-Hispanic cumulative folksong, "La mora y la mosca" [the Moorish girl and the fly] sung in Ladino by the Jews in the east Mediterranean about a dark girl bothered by a fly until, eventually, the Angel of Death finally comes along. This song is reminiscent of the English folksong, "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly" (see the video below) and of the Spanish folksong "Estaba la rana cantando debajo del agua" [The frog was singing under the water], which ends with a mother-in-law shutting up her son-in-law! There is also a Neo-Hellenistic folksong sung by the Jews of Bosnia as "Tenia yo un viejo" [I had an old man], which begins with an old man cultivating his vineyards full of roses and ends with the Angel of Death.


Jewish sources

The basic imagery of all these variant folksongs is that of ever-increasing strength, while the moral varies from culture to culture. The Jewish message underlying "Chad Gadya" is that there is a chain of cause and effect – those who destroy will themselves be destroyed – and that in the end justice will prevail and God will triumph. This message has, in fact, been expressed in midrashim [homiletic teachings] relating to our very earliest Biblical stories, such as the one concerning the struggle between the patriarch Abraham and King Nimrod in Bereshit Rabba 38: "Nimrod suggested to Abraham that since he had refused to worship his father's idols because of their want of power, he should worship fire, which is very powerful. Abraham pointed out that water has power over fire. 'Well,' said Nimrod, 'let us declare water god.' 'But,' replied Abraham,' the clouds absorb the water and even they are dispersed by the wind.' 'Then let us declare the wind our god.' 'Bear in mind,' continued Abraham, 'that man is stronger than wind, and can resist it and stand against it.' Nimrod, becoming weary of arguing with Abraham, decided to cast him before his god – fire – and challenged Abraham's deliverance by the God of Abraham, but God saved him out of the fiery furnace." (To learn more about the struggle between Abraham and Nimrod, see the lecture on "Kings and Queens": "Cuando el rey Nimrod"). 

El Lissitzky - "And then came the fire ..."

Another source dealing with the concept of strength relates to the giving of charity, which Jewish tradition views as the strongest force in the universe, even greater than death itself: "Rabbi Judah used to say: Ten strong things have been cre­ated in the world. The rock of the mountain is hard, but iron cleaves it. Iron is hard, but fire softens it. Fire is pow­erful, but water quenches it. Water is heavy, but clouds bear it. Clouds are thick, but wind scatters them. Wind is strong, but a body resists it. A body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is powerful but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, yet charity delivers from death. As it is written, 'Charity (righteousness) delivereth from Death' ("Proverbs" 10:2)." -- (Bava Batra 10a). (Diamant).

The song "Chad Gadya" has been interpreted allegorically in many ways 2, from the historical as well as religious points of view. The most common interpretation is that the "only kid that father bought for two zuzim" represents the Jewish people, acquired by God at Sinai with the two tablets of the Law (or, alternatively, through the agency of Moses and Aaron). The other characters personify nations that successively oppressed Israel, each being overthrown in its turn by a new tyranny. Assyria or Babylonia (the cat) fell to Persia (the dog), which succumbed to Greece (the stick), which was swallowed up in the Roman Empire (the fire); Rome fell to the Barbarians (the water), who were vanquished by the armies of Islam (the ox), which yielded to the Crusaders (the slaughterer). Finally, the Angel of Death represents the latest conqueror or persecutors whom God will bring to account. (Jewish Encyclopedia). There are many other interpretations: for example, the Gaon of Vilna viewed each stage in the song as a manifestation of the battle between Yaakov and Eisav over the blessings of their father Yitzchak. R. Nasan Adler (18th century) taught that "Chad Gadya" is a warning against lashon hara [gossip] (Kaplan), and R. Yaakov Emden sees "Chad Gadya" as "a personal odyssey of self development" (Brander). (Read Kaplan and Brander for even more interpretations).

"Chad Gadya", from the Szyk Haggadah

Songs and poetry based upon "Chad Gadya"

"Chad Gadya" has inspired the composition of many poems and songs in Yiddish and in Hebrew, especially since the 1930's. A well-known poem by Manger, "Dos lid funem tsigele" [The song of the kid], plays upon one of the metaphoric meanings of the term "chad gadya", signifying "prison". Before, during and after the Holocaust, many poems, notably by H. Leyvik and Ch. Grade, utilized the image of the kid as victim. Manger's Yesoymim [Orphans] is an elegy for both the kid, symbolizing Jewish tradition, as well as the golden peacock, symbolizing modern Yiddish literature. (For a detailed account of how the kid of both "Chad Gadya" and "Rozhinkes mit mandlen" has been treated in subsequent literature, I highly recommend this article by Menashe Geffen [in Hebrew]) It is the image of the kid as victim which was employed by Chava Alberstein in her protest song. 3 Modern Hebrew poetry includes pastoral images of the kid, in contrast to the traditional representations of the diaspora (Geffen).

"Chad Gadya" of the Haggadah has also been paraphrased as children's songs in Hebrew and in Yiddish. We know the authors of some of these versions, but others have slipped into the realm of folklore [Songs for peysakh]. There are various "agendas" in the retelling of the "Chad Gadya" story: some are conventional paraphrases, such as the song in Yiddish by Washavsky or the Hebrew song by Uri Giv'on. Some have been secularized, ending with the shokhet [butcher] rather than with God, such as the Yiddish version by Lukovsky and Gelbart. The children's song by Levin Kipnis is a beautiful vision of utopia rather than a chronicle of violence. (The Hebrew webpage includes links to other children's songs).

1) Kipnis' song, with an introduction in Hebrew by his son Shai; 2) Yiddish folk-song based on the "Chad Gadya" theme


One of the anomalies regarding "Chad Gadya" concerns the fact that it was translated into (faulty) Aramaic, long after this language had ceased functioning as a Jewish vernacular. (Weiss; Szmeruk). Another anomaly concerns the bottom of the ecological scale: should we be singing about a goat or a mouse? (This problem doesn't exist in an early version of the song from Provence 4). In a well-known Italian version of the song, "Alla fiera dell' est" [At the eastern fair] by Angelo Branduardi, the main character is, in fact, a mouse and not a goat. (Alberstein has used this melody for her song). There is a mouse in a 15th-16th century German Haggadah, but it eats the goat! (Kulp). Actually, most folksong parallels only include a cat if there is also a mouse. In Jewish tradition, it is the kid which is associated with sacrifice, and thus most appropriate to be positioned at the beginning of a chain of violent events.  

Regardless of the anomalies, it is the "illogical" version featuring the cat eating the goat which most communities sing so enthusiastically every year. I personally am intrigued by what this kid means in Jewish culture and folksong and will be developing this thought in the lecture. Hope to see you there!

Illustration by Ben Shahn

1    See the page "Mothers and Fathers" for a more extensive discussion and reference list regarding Jewish lullabies.
2  Allegorical Interpretations of "Chad Gadya"
(copied from Schwadron Folkways disk: linear notes)


A. The kid

a. Israel - the ancient and modern nations 



b. The oppressed Jewish people in the Diaspora



c. The scapegoat in the legend of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac


B. The father



C. Two zuzim 

a. Two ancient coins 



b. Moses and Aaron 



c. Mysticism of body and soul



d. Ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judea



e. Legend of Abraham and Nimrod



f. Two tablets of the Ten Commandments 


The cat (fox)



The dog



The stick 

Persia - under Cyrus, the defeat of Babylonia, liberation from captivity and rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple


The fire 



The water 



The ox 

Saracens - who conquered Palestine 


The shochet 
(ritual slaughterer) 

a. Crusaders
b. New European peoples
c. Counterparts (not identified ritually), i.e., the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian and Polish pogroms, the Nazi holocaust 


Malach Hamavet 
(Angel of Death) 

a. Turkey - rulers over Israel
b. New, suspicious powers, e.g, atomic and nuclear energy in our time 


Baruch Hu 

a. Literal reference to the all-encompassing power of the Almighty God
b. Vindication of Israel - the only kid
c. Righteousness and responsibility of personal action
d. Removal of fear of death
e. Principle of eternal moral justice
f. Allusion to the Biblical legend of Joseph and his brothers
g. Dictum of Rabbi Hillel: "Do not do unto others that which you would not want done to you?
h. Allusion to the ancient Hammurabic Code - Lex (Jus) talionis "an eye for an eye" - Mosaic Civil Law, Exodus 21, 2-6,  24-25
i. Anticipation for the establishment of the Messianic time
j. Cumulative summation of symbolic meaning in the Janus-faced reminder of the dynamic, hopeful nature of the Jewish people and their covenant with God - the true, final representative of justice. 

3  See how this has been used in Amos Gitai's film "Free Zone", starring Natalie Portman.

4  An early version of "Chad gadya" found in a manuscript from 13th – 14th century Provence features a more logical series of events than the one we sing traditionally (see the words in bold). The song in this manuscript was not connected to the seder, and its ending was not preserved. (Kulp)

One goat which my father bought for two zuzim, one goat.

And a dog came and ate the goat …

And a stick came and hit the dog …

And a fire came and burned the stick …

And water came and extinguished the fire …

And an ox came and drank the water …

And a rope came and tied up the ox …
And a mouse came and ate the rope
And a cat came and ate the mouse … 


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