Is “Chad Gadya” the First Children’s Song in Recorded History?

Parents have probably been singing songs to their children since the dawn of history, but “Chad Gadya” – composed specifically to help children stay awake until the very end of the Passover Seder – may be the first song ever printed specially for children


From a Passover Haggadah, Amsterdam, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For most modern secular readers not well versed in the enigmatic midrashic style of our Sages, the Passover Haggadah is a rather abstruse text. The decision to conclude the work with an obscure liturgical poem about a strange little goat perhaps only increases the sense of confusion amongst readers. It is possible that the source of this odd song lay in the desire to hold the interest of the youngest participants until the very end of the Seder, which is traditionally a lengthy affair.

Detail from the Passover Haggadah, copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

The purpose of the Haggadah is to fulfill the important commandment “and you shall tell your son” (and your daughter, we might add) the story of the Exodus. Thus, young boys and girls are the focus of the Passover Seder text and the Haggadah is full of various rituals and passages aimed at keeping the Seder’s youngest participants alert and interested: It is the children who ask the four traditional questions inquiring about the strange customs of the evening. They are the ones who search for the Afikoman and keep an eye out for the arrival of the Prophet Elijah. Chad Gadya, the concluding song, with its animals and other fantastic figures, represents something for the children to look forward to.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For this reason, some scholars have crowned Chad Gadya as the earliest known children’s song – or at least one of the earliest. We obviously have no information about songs which were not set down in writing and which were sung by parents to their children over the course of the thousands of years of human history – there must have been many. But in “Chad Gadya,” we encounter, probably for the first time, a song that was specifically written and put into print for the sake of the edification of children.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah, 1738; Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You may very well know the song by heart and perhaps you’re even humming along as you read, but let’s take a closer look at its attributes. Chad Gadya is what’s known as a cumulative song, meaning that in each progressive verse a new element is added to the list of elements from the previous verse. You are probably familiar with songs of this type. For example, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and the song that precedes “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah, “Echad Mi Yodea?” (“Who Knows One?”). The repetition and familiar refrain make these kinds of songs especially popular with children.

What else can we learn from a quick look at the song? Although the 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.

An early version of Chad Gadya from a siddur from the Jewish community of Provence, ca. 13th–14th century

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. The song first appeared in print in the 16th-century Prague Haggadah. An early version of the liturgical poem (piyyut), in impeccable Aramaic, has been located in a manuscript which was subsequently added to the prayer book of the Provence community in France. The wording is somewhat different than the version we sing today (for example, a mouse appears in some of the versions found in the region of modern-day 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 Haggadot of the Sephardic communities in Spain and the Middle East.

Hand-written copies of the liturgical poems “Echad Mi Yodea” and “Chad Gadya” added to the Prague Haggadah, 1527

But what is the origin of the poem? Are the motifs in it a Jewish invention? As one might expect in the case of an ancient folk song, we have no definitive answer to these questions. Similar motifs appear in many songs from around the world. In his article on Chad Gadya, Uriel Ofek mentions similar motifs in stories from Japan, Greece and as far as South America. One can find comparable tales in Russian and French, and some German-language versions even use the “Chad Gadya” formula. Interestingly, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale song, “The Pear Does Not Want to Fall,” bears a remarkable resemblance. In this song, a landowner sends a peasant boy named Jockli to shake a pear from a tree. After Jockli refuses, a dog is sent to bite him. When the dog refuses, a stick, water, a bull, and a butcher are sent in succession, with each refusing to carry out the task, until the intimidating executioner arrives, causing the rest of the characters to fall in line.

The song’s English equivalent is “The House that Jack Built,” with the chain beginning with malt (grain) that is eaten by a rat. The song’s characters are radically different and progress from a rat to a cat, a dog, a “cow with the crumpled horn”, a “maiden all forlorn”, a “man all tatter’d and torn”, a “priest all shaven and shorn”, a “cock that crow’d in the morn” and a “farmer sowing his corn”. Not everyone eats each other, but some scholars have insisted on the connection between the songs and have argued that Jack’s tale originated from the song about the Jewish goat. As mentioned, there is no way to determine for sure which came first. Uriel Ofek speculates in the article mentioned above that “it would not be an exaggeration to claim that there isn’t a nation or language that does not have a fable, rhyme or folktale with some Chad Gadya-like format or content.”


Jewish scholars over the years, not content to leave “Chad Gadya” as just an endearing tale in the Passover Haggadah whose sole purpose is to entertain the children, have layered it with interpretations. The cumulative chain of episodes, which can easily be read as nothing more than a humorous fairy tale, has been weighed down with theological import about God’s role in the world. One commentary, for example, suggests that the goat is a symbol of the Jewish people, and the other characters are the nations that have plotted to destroy it: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Muslims, the Crusaders and the Turks. Finally, the Holy One will come and redeem the Jewish people.

A Passover Haggadah from Amsterdam, copied by Chaim Mordechai Binger, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

Much has been written about this intriguing song that begins with a little goat and which concludes the Passover Haggadah. The mysterious piyyut has aroused the interest of researchers of folklore and liturgical poetry over the years who have tried to locate its origin and connection to similar folk songs in different languages. Perhaps around the Passover table this year you can also share something about the song, which may very well be the first recorded children’s song in history.



We did not forget that preceding “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah is another song of similar structure, also intended for the enjoyment and edification of children. The story of “Echad Mi Yodea” deserves a separate article, but we can already tell you that it too appeared for the first time in print in the same 16th century Prague Haggadah, and that it was known in Europe perhaps from the 15th century. “Echad Mi Yodea” also has parallels in European languages, but unlike “Chad Gadya,” it spread much earlier to the communities of Spain and Portugal and even reached the Cochin community in India. Hence, the question of its origin is even more complicated, but we will tell you more about that in the future.


You can listen to a range of different performances of Chad Gadya which are preserved in the National Library of Israel’s National Sound Archive, here.


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Erasing the Name of Haman the Wicked: The Origin of the Grogger

How does one drown out the name of the most hated, evil man in the Megillah? By making good use of a Christian folk tradition of course!

Haman meets his end, Scroll of Esther, Ferrara, Italy, 1617, the National Library of Israel

There are few people in Jewish history who are despised as much as the wicked Haman, the villain of the story of Purim and the Book, or Scroll, of Esther. As the saying goes, “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us” – words embodied by the figure of Haman, whose actions fulfill the supposed prophecy/timeless historical truth. Haman the Wicked, Haman the Evil, and various other derogatory epithets have been attached to his name – even in the Scroll of Esther itself. The story even links his name to Israel’s greatest enemy – the Amalekites. He is described as “Haman the Agagite” in the Megillah (scroll) of Esther, thus linking him to Agag, king of Amalek. In the book of Deuteronomy (25:19) Israel is ordered “blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”.

So how do we erase the name of the man who is mentioned repeatedly in the Megillah, which we read during the festival of Purim?

Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan writes of a 13th century custom, in which young boys “would take pebbles from a stream and write ‘Haman’ on them. Then, they would knock the stones together while citing the name of Haman and his crimes, ‘and the name of the wicked shall rot’“. This idea quickly gained popularity among European Jewry and was manifested in various ways, such as breaking clay pots or banging on synagogue tables – with one’s hands or with wood sticks prepared in advance.

About three hundred years later, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (“The Rema”) also wrote of a custom popular among children, who would bang pieces of wood or stone with the name of Haman written on them against each other, all with the purpose of erasing the name of the wicked foe.

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai”, Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The common theme is that the very purpose of mentioning Haman’s name is to erase it, in both the literal sense – the gradual disappearance of the letters of Haman’s name from the river pebbles as they are knocked together – as well as in the sense of noisily drowning out the name of Haman with the sound of objects banging against each other. Rabbi Isserles added that this customary noise making evolved into the practice of “beating” Haman by producing similar noises whenever his name was mentioned during the reading of the Megillah in the synagogues.

When, therefore, do we meet the Purim noisemaker – the grogger?

It seems as though this unique toy only became popular among Jewish populations during the 19th century.

Reading the Megillah in Tel Aviv, 1985; The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Before the grogger, came the firecrackers. In 17th-century Germany, from the moment gunpowder became an affordable commodity, young boys began adding early forms of firecrackers to their noise-making tools. These crude explosives were made of various combustible materials that were relatively available and easy to find, with sulfur or gunpowder sprinkled generously on top. This custom quickly spread to Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Romania, and from there to other Jewish communities. Occasionally, a hollow key was filled with gunpowder and then lit ablaze; a practice that could still be observed in 1930s Tel Aviv.

Regarding the noisemakers and groggers, in addition to written testimony from different periods, we also have physical examples which survive from the 18th-century onwards. They first appeared in Europe and later spread to Eastern communities. Ethnographer Yom-Tov Lewinski, noted that “groggers originated in Greece” – meaning Ancient Greece. The Romans used them in various magical rituals and ceremonies, and during the Middle Ages, noisemakers became popular among Christian communities.

“He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The custom of using groggers on Purim was likely born out of popular folk traditions (common among Middle Age Christians) that held that such noisemakers contained the power to exorcize evil demons and spirits. Groggers were used during weddings and violent storms, and even to welcome the coming of spring. During the buildup to Easter Sunday, when church bells were ordered silenced, groggers were used to summon Christian worshippers to prayer. On the eve of Easter, Christian youths used groggers to “beat” or punish Judas Iscariot, and from there, we can assume that the custom extended to Ashkenaz Jewry, who “beat” the figure of Haman the Wicked.

The first direct evidence of the use of Purim groggers dates to 19th-century Europe. We also have examples from the same period in the United States, especially in New York. This being said, in Mimi Reuter’s doctoral thesis, which assisted us greatly in the preparation of this article, she writes that “there appear to be two Purim groggers, which are dated to the 18th century, but it is likely that they are actually from a later period.”

Two early examples of groggers, Holland (left) and Italy (right), from The Book of Festivals – Purim, Lag Ba’Omer, Tu Be’Av, Yom-Tov Lewinski, Agudat Oneg Shabbat, (1950)

The Jewish grogger, or gragger, or gregger is known by many names. In Polish it is called a terkotka, in French crécelle and in Hungarian kereplő. In Hebrew the word for noisemaker is ra’ashan, derived from the root ra’ash (רעש), which simply means “noise”.


Thanks to Shirat-Miriam Shamir, aka Mimi Reuter, for her assistance in the preparation of this article.


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A 15th Century Jewish Prayer Book Has Been Fully Restored by the National Library

The "Moskowitz Mahzor" was created by one of the Middle Ages' most important Jewish artists, Joel ben Simeon; It is now available to the public online

The renowned Moskowitz Mahzor is a manuscript inscribed on parchment in the 15th century by Joel ben Simeon, considered by many to be the most important Jewish artist of the Middle Ages. Ben Simeon was a scribe and illuminator active in Germany and Northern Italy. The manuscript is considered exceptional due to the stunning illustrations and illuminations found throughout, including images of rabbits, bears, fish, squirrels, and birds, as well as imaginary creations such as a unicorn, and a diverse range of mythological, religious and astrological symbols.

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The restoration work on the Moskowitz Mahzor has now been completed and the exquisite manuscript is available online for the first time.



מחזור התפילה לפני השחזור
The Moskowitz Mahzor, before its restoration

It includes prayers according to the Jewish Roman rite for the entire year, including weekdays, the Sabbath, holidays, Torah readings, the Passover Haggadah, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with Maimonides’ commentary, various blessings, and rulings related to Jewish law.  It is also exceptionally full of piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poetry), slichot (Jewish penitential prayers), as well as rare formulas of other prayers.

After restoration


The months long restoration work on the 376 page treasure was extremely complicated, primarily because poor attempts over the centuries to fix its binding had made it difficult to open without causing damage. A number of Latin texts found inside the binding, attest to some attempts to strengthen the cover. Many of the manuscript’s illustrations had also faded over time.


Several examples of decorative elements found in the Moskowitz Mahzor

The Mahzor was donated to the National Library of Israel in 1970 by Henry and Rose Moskowitz of New York in memory of Henry’s parents, first wife, daughter and other relatives murdered in the Holocaust.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Head of Collections and Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection curator at the National Library of Israel, “For a long time we unfortunately could not offer physical access to one of the most important and beautiful manuscripts in our collection due to its fragile condition. Now, as a result of the wonderful work done by the team in our Conservation and Restoration Laboratory, the manuscript has been restored and digitized, opening access to the world for the first time.”

The complete restored Moskowitz Mahzor is now available online.


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Who Are You, Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof?

The story of the three angels charged with safeguarding newborn babies and their mothers

The figures of Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof appear here from right to left

The quest for a proven, functioning magical amulet, one whose supernatural powers can be trusted with certainty, has led buyers to prefer amulets ordained with fixed and familiar mystic formulas. Since the most common Jewish amulets known to us are those designed to protect women giving birth, we can safely assume that the three angels who appear on these types of charms are among the most common figures associated with the Hebrew amulet. Their names are Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof.

This amulet was written on parchment. It is of Middle Eastern origin, made in the early or mid-20th century.


An amulet from the Bill Gross Collection, the National Library’s ‘Time Travel‘ Project

What is the origin of these three angels? In rabbinic literature, incorporating over 1,000 years of writing and interpretation, we find the names of several satanic figures that developed over time, each of them constantly trying to establish evil’s grip on the world. First among these Talmudic demons is Samael, often referred to euphemistically as Sitra Achra – “The Other Side”. He is considered to be the wicked Esau’s demonic master, and in Talmudic literature most of his evil deeds involve attempts to undermine the righteous.

Since the end of the Talmudic period, Samael has often been portrayed as the source of all evil; his agents charged with defeating the cause of good and righteousness. His main partner is his wife, Lilith. This monstrous couple was apparently first brought together in the 13th century, their combined powers allowing them to rule the realm of impurity.

A birth amulet featuring an illustration of Adam and Eve. The names of the three angels as well as those of Lilith and Satan, also appear. This is the earliest Jewish amulet to appear in paper print. Amsterdam, circa 1700. Source: Angels and Demons edited by Filip Vukosavovic

In Jewish mythology, Lilith is believed to be Adam’s first wife, who was banished before she was able to bear his children. In a desperate attempt to take revenge on Adam and all his offspring, Lilith devotes her efforts to harassing newborn children and their mothers. Two main roles are attributed to this demoness: strangling young children in their sleep, and seducing men – Lilith becomes pregnant with this wasted sperm, giving birth to demonic stepchildren. At this point, the three angels enter the picture.

In the 10th century text known as the Alphabet of ben Sirah, we find the story of Adam and Lilith. Adam’s first wife is described as having been created from dust, just as he was, “and therefore,” argues scholar Joseph Dan, “she saw herself as his equal in every aspect.”

In memory of Adam and Eve, excluding Lilith, a protective amulet against demons and harmful forces, from the exhibition book Back to the Shtetl – An-Sky and the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, The Israel Museum, 1994

How was this sense of equality manifested? Lilith believed she could leave her husband, and as he refused to “accept this decree of equality in their sex life” – apparently meaning that Lilith wished to be on top of her husband during intercourse, “she fled from him and escaped.”

The angels who were sent to return the woman to her husband were Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof. The three failed in their mission; Lilith claimed that “the great demon has already come upon her,” referring to Samael, and could therefore no longer return to Adam. The angels were able, however, to extract a vow – that Lilith would not harm the offspring of Adam and his second wife, Eve.

An amulet with the names of the angels, and Adam and Eve, “excluding Lilith”. The names are surrounded by three frames: The first has illustrations of a birth and circumcision ceremony, the second frame consists of verses, and the third features decorative ornaments.

This promise is the foundation of the famous amulet used to this day by women following childbirth. The three angels were made popular by the Alphabet of ben Sirah, while the illustrations of their images in various amulets also contributed to their fame.

Eli Yassif, who studied the medieval stories of ben Sirah (or ben Sirach), claimed that the custom of writing amulets with the names of the angels dates back even earlier than the 8th century, its story intended to explain an existing custom. The same goes for the story of Lilith as the first woman, and her escape from Adam. It seems these tales were known even before they appeared in the stories of ben Sirah.

The angels’ very names – Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof – are seen as safeguards against Lilith’s actions. The amulets contain written text featuring the names of the angels as well as graphic motifs of their images. There is also a threatening vocal motif involved, emanating from the onomatopoeic sound of the names said together, which resembles sounds found in nature, like the hiss of a snake or the crackle of fire. The sound warns Lilith and gives her pause, making clear that she should not approach the mother and her newborn children.

The repetition of these sounds (sen-san-sen-sem) enhances the whip-like, whispering, threatening effect.

The names Senoy and Sansenoy are mentioned several times in first century Hebrew texts and they can also be found on an incantation bowl discovered at Nippur in modern-day Iraq.

An amulet for safeguarding a newborn child and its mother with an incantation against Lilith. A blank space is left for the name of the mother. The text notes the name of the amulet’s buyer: Sylman Ben Katton, for the protection of “the people in his home.”

On an incantation bowl kept at the National Library, which was inscribed in antiquity, long before the ben Sirah stories of the Middle Ages, we find the same narrative which appears on amulets protecting new mothers. On this bowl we find a text written by the author Duchtish Bat Bahrui, describing a character named Smamit, the mother of twelve sons who were killed by a brutal demon named Sideros. Smamit escapes the demon and flees to an isolated mountain where she builds a fortified home. Four guests protect Smamit from the demon; the names of three of them are Soney, Sosoney and Senigly. Though the names are not completely identical, the same whispering, threatening motif can be heard here as well.

A bowl with a Jewish Babylonian Aramaic inscription, The National Library collections


In Christian versions of similar amulets, the assisting forces are saints. Etymologically, we can trace the changes in the names of the angels/saints which have evolved over the years and which have been modified to suit any culture that embraced them. Senoy became Saint Sisoe, Sansenoy became Sisynios and Semangelof appears as Synidores.

An amulet for women after childbirth, The National Library’s Amulet Collection

Further reading:

Jewish Mysticism, Joseph Dan, Jerusalem : J. Aronson, 1999

Some sources of Jewish-Arabic demonology, Gershom Scholem, JJS, Vol. 16, 1965, p. 1-13



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