April 17, 2008
Had Gadya —according to S.Y. Agnon
This popular Aramaic song, chanted at the end of the seder purportedly to keep the children awake, is dated no earlier than the 15th century. Composed of 10 stanzas, "Had Gadya" follows a cumulative pattern similar to "The House That Jack Built," where a new detail is added in each stanza.
The thematic connection to Passover is vague, thus producing many allegorical commentaries over the ages, among them "Perush al Piska Had Gadya" by the famed 18th century Talmudist and kabbalist, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz.
Enter S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970), Israel's foremost writer and first Nobel Laureate for Literature (1966). Agnon was a master of satire and irony, particularly when it came to religious matters. Himself an observant Jew, he pulled no punches when it came to questioning conventional religious views. Called a "revolutionary traditionalist" by literary critic Gershon Shaked, Agnon often used what Shaked called "pseudoquotations," which was his way of masking his revolutionary reading of a text by presenting it as if it is quoted in the name of an authoritative religious book or personality.
In his playful re-reading of "Had Gadya" (first published in Haaretz, 1943, in honor of Passover), Agnon opens up by presenting a seemingly authoritative rabbinic "chain of tradition" (itself a parody on "Had Gadya"), culminating with Eybeschutz. This "pseudoquotation" introduces Agnon's own question on "Had Gadya": whereas vengeance is extracted in the end, the injury done to the kid at the beginning remains unresolved. In attempting to resolve the problem, Agnon's analysis runs into a "religious brick wall": God does not come out righteous! In typical Agnonic fashion, he "resolves" the problem in another way, leaving the reader with a "all's well that ends well" ending filled with sarcasm.
Had Gadya - An Alternative Version
by S.Y. Agnon
I was told by Rav David Leib from Zanz
In the name of the son of Rav Mani Fast
That his father had the custom to tell the story on the night of Passover
That his rabbi, Rav Menachem Katz, the Head of the Bet Din of Ze'elim
Used to tell the story on the night of Passover
That his rabbi the Gaon Chatam Sofer used to tell on the night of Passover
That the Gaon Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz of blessed memory
Used to raise many questions regarding the story of Had Gadya.
This "Had Gadya" poem tells us that the Cat ate the Kid
that the father bought for two zuzim.
It seems to me that the Cat committed an evil deed worthy of punishment!
If so -- then the Dog did a good thing by biting the Cat!
If so -- the Stick did a bad thing by hitting the Dog!
Therefore -- the Fire did a good thing by burning the Stick!
If so -- the Water did not behave properly by extinguishing the Fire!
If so -- the Ox did a good thing by drinking the Water!
If so -- the Butcher did a bad thing by slaughtering the Ox!
If so -- the Angel of Death was justified in slaughtering the Butcher!
Yet, in the end comes the Holy One Blessed-be-He and
slaughters the Angel of Death!
And if the Angel of Death was in fact justified in slaughtering the Butcher, then God was unjustified in his act against the Angel of Death!
How can the righteous God be wrong?
Therefore, the story must go like this:
It's true that the Cat committed an evil deed by eating the Kid
But when a Kid and a Cat fight with each other
We can assume they may have reconciled on their own and concluded in peace.
If so -- what business is it of the Dog to get involved and try to play the judge here?
If so -- the Dog is equal to the Stick, and the Stick did good by hitting the Dog!
If so -- the Fire misbehaved by burning the Stick!
If so -- the Water was justified by extinguishing the Fire!
If so -- the Ox misbehaved by drinking the Water!
If so -- the butcher did well by slaughtering the Ox!
If so -- it is now clear that the Angel of Death sinned by slaughtering the Butcher!
In the end -- God determines that the Angel of Death is evil -- and slaughters him --
And we conclude all's well that ends well, with God righteous in all His ways!
Translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.