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Thoughts on Echad Mi Yodea – Who Knows One?

As Passover approaches in the next couple of weeks, I wanted to take another look at the Haggadah and some of the songs and prayers I have not discussed previously.  At the end of every seder, it is customary to add several songs which have multiple verses and a variety of melodies to which they are sung.  The Conservative “Feast of Freedom” Haggadah, purposely moves these songs into the conclusion of the seder before the final Nirtzah prayer, rather than putting them afterwards as an addendum.  Four years ago, I wrote about Chad Gadya, which is generally the last song in the book.  As with that song, Echad Mi Yodea, Who Knows One? is also a folk song that has no direct connection to Passover.  Various commentators manage to find connections, but truly the holiday is not mentioned throughout its thirteen stanzas.

 

This song, like Chad Gadya, does not appear in the Passover Haggadah prior to the sixteenth century.  It appears for the first time in a Haggadah printed in Prague in 1590.  However, clearly its origins go back further. A prominent rabbinic authority in the 18th century cites a lost manuscript going back to the 13th century Hasidim of Ashkenaz.  The Jews of Avignon recited a version of it between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, while the Jews of Cochin, India, and those of Senegal, sang it at wedding feasts.  There also is a fragmentary version which was discovered in the Cairo Genizah connected to Sh’ma Yisrael.  In that version, the opening line of the Sh’ma, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” is recited  and then followed by “Who knows one?” and Sh’ma is repeated after each stanza.  While our version is mostly in Hebrew, some stanzas do utilize Aramaic, perhaps because of considerations of rhyme. Aramaic utilizes a suffix of -a to indicate the definite article, the, so these Aramaic terms, Shabta, Dibraya, Cochvaya, Shivtaya, and Midaya, all rhyme with the earlier lines in Hebrew of Torah, Mishnah, Mllah, and Leidah. The Genizah version, however, is in Hebrew only.  It includes a number of other variations from our current version.  For example, instead of eleven stars in Joseph’s dream, eleven simply represents the brothers of Joseph.  It has been suggested that the song got appended to our Haggadah because of this inclusion of the opening line of the Sh’ma. It may recall the story early in the Seder of the rabbis in B’nai B’rak who discussed the Exodus all night long until their students arrived to tell them it was time for the morning Sh’ma.  If one follows their lead and continues speaking of the Exodus all night, the end of the seder may indeed be just before the time of the morning Sh’ma.  Records of the Inquisition in Majorca from 1678 show that this song was considered a kind of Jewish catechism by the inquisitors.  Adding the Sh’ma helps to confirm that catechetical identification.

 

As you may recall, each stanza begins with the question “who knows X (with X being the numbers from one to thirteen)?”  The response is I know X, followed by one of the elements of Jewish tradition.  One is God in heaven and earth, two tablets of the Ten Commandments (though in some traditions two represents the brothers Aaron and Moses), three are the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Four are the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.  Next come the five books of the Torah, the six orders of the Mishnah, and the seven days of the Sabbath week.  Eight days lead up to the Brith Milah circumcision ceremony, nine months of pregnancy, and then the Ten Commandments.  Next are the eleven stars in Joseph’s dream, twelve tribes of Israel, and finally, we have the thirteen attributes of God that were revealed to Moses after the sin of the Golden Calf, the passage recited over and over on Yom Kippur.  Another version connects thirteen to the years leading to Bar Mitzvah.  This is a cumulative song, so each verse builds on the previous ones and we repeat the whole list for each stanza.  Often there is a kind of competition to see who can recite all of these verses the fastest.

 

Some scholars suggest that the foundation behind this list may well be a passage in a late Midrash on the books of Samuel.  Midrash Shmuel is a kind of anthology of rabbinic comments on the books of Samuel.  In II Samuel 24, the prophet Gad gives King David a choice of three punishments for unlawfully numbering the people of Israel. David accepts three days of pestilence, which seems to him the least difficult to endure.  According to the Midrash Shmuel, those thirty-six daylight hours were mitigated by a number of advocates on behalf of the people Israel.  These advocates were the seven days of the week, the eight days of circumcision, the five books of the Torah, and the merit of the three patriarchs.  This covered all but 13 of the 36 hours.  One sage suggests that we add the merit of the 12 tribes, while another suggests including the ten commandments and the two tablets.  This still left one hour in which 70,000 Israelites perished.

 

The midrash thus included most of the elements of our song with some notable exceptions.  Thus, it is suggested that based on the Midrash, the song was added to our seder as a call for God’s protection on this “night of watching” Leil Shimurim.  Why do we stop at thirteen?  One suggestion is that the numerical value of the word echad at the end of the first line of the Sh’ma is thirteen, alef – chet – dalet, 1 + 8 + 4.  Another scholar added up all of the numbers from one to thirteen and the total was 91, the numerical value of Amen, alef – mem – nun, 1 + 40 + 50, a good way to end the seder.  Joshua Kulp in the Schechter Haggadah notes, however, that the first gematria fails since the version that is linked with the Sh’ma has only 12 stanzas.

 

Parallels to this song have been found in many different cultures, Islamic, Christian, Persian, and others.  Some of these are religious in nature, while others are more frivolous.  A Christian version even includes many of the same items as in the Jewish list as well as a number of Christian symbols.

 

What I found most interesting about Echad Mi Yodea is the wide variety of tunes and translations of this song.  In a Ladino version from Thessalonika there are a number of variations from our version and its introduction states, “God in Heavens, He will send us to Jerusalem in a large caravan.  Who knows one?  One is the Creator, Blessed be His name.”

 

There are various Yiddish versions, one of which has achieved some popularity in recent years.  It has a very catchy melody and adds a few words to the text.  It starts off in Hebrew, “Mu (Mah) asapru, mu adabru,, What can I say? What can I tell? And then back to Yiddish, Hey, Hey, ya da da da da, oyscha! Oyscha! Ya da da da da. Ver ken zogn, ver ken redn, vos di eyner batatt? Who can say, who can tell, what is the meaning of One?  And the response is : Eyner is Got, und Got is eyner, un vayte keyner.  One is God and God is one, and there is no other.” The verses then continue through the next twelve items as well. 

 

If you look at Wikipedia, someone has compiled a variety of versions, one in Spanish, another in Judaeo-Ladino.  Another version is in Judaeo-Arabic, and it changes the thirteenth verse to Thirteen is Tefillin, a reference to a Bar Mitzvah boy taking on that mitzvah at age 13.    For seven it mentions seven days for huppah, the seven days of celebration following a wedding. It also substitutes Moses and Aaron for the two tablets of the commandments for the number two.  The same site also provides a version in Judaeo-Tajik used by the Bokharian Jews as well as a version in neo-Aramaic, known as Lishan Didan (our language), used by a relative handful of Jews from Iran and a few other Middle Eastern countries.  Another site includes versions from Turkey and Rhodes as well as some different Converso versions and a version in Judaeo-Italian.  There is even an English version, which adds a few oo-ahs between verses.

  

Finally, I came across a wonderful modern dance number, choreographed by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Bat Sheva dance company.  You can find several performances of this piece on YouTube, all very similar and, I found, rather fun to watch.  There are twenty dancers seated in a semi-circle, both men and women, all dressed identically, in white shirts and dark suits.  In one version they also were wearing hats, looking like Yeshiva students, perhaps. In the background one hears drums beating and someone singing all of the thirteen verses of Echad Mi Yodea.  As the singer reaches “Echad Eloheinu” the group leans backwards, showing off their white shirts, and in the production with hats, all the hats go flying off behind them. The fellow sitting in the last chair, falls forward onto the floor.  As they continue, he gets up and back into his seat.  There are different movements for different verses. Most notably, when they get to five, they all get off their chairs, turn toward the chairs, get on their knees and rock as if davening and then return to their places.  At six, one fellow jumps onto a chair and stands upright before returning to his seat.  These actions repeat every time the number recurs in the song. The poor fellow in the last seat, continues to end up on the floor following each verse.  As the action gets more frantic, jackets are removed and thrown into the center of the circle.  Shoes follow in another verse, then the white shirts and finally the black pants all end up in a pile in the center, leaving everyone in their usual T-shirts and shorts as if for a dance rehearsal.  The fellow at the end remains fully clothed and ends up again on the floor.

 

As I said, it is a fun performance and you are free to interpret it as you wish.  Some have taken it very seriously.  The narrator for the Batsheva Dance Company begins by saying, “The illusion of beauty and the fine line that separates madness from sanity, the panic behind the laughter and the coexistence of fatigue and elegance.”  Others take a different approach and imagine it as the ecstasy expressed through the words of the song.  There are those who choose to remember piles of shoes and clothing cast off by victims of the Holocaust. Some have commented on the fellow who ends up on the floor and indicated that clearly he is overcome with Yirat HaShem, awe of God.  As with any work of art, you can read what you wish in it.

 

Various commentators on Echad Mi Yodea try to find a connection from it to the Passover seder and each has his or her own reading of this listing of traditional symbols of our faith. Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemiah Polen cite the early Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who quotes his teacher the Baal Shem Tov, who maintains that this song represents a theological statement:  Each one of the increasing numbers is a metaphor for our experience of the world in its increasing complexity.  And when we arrive at thirteen, we realize that, according to gematria, the numerical value of the word for one, echad, also totals (as mentioned earlier) thirteen.  And in this way thirteen becomes one.  In Hasidic thought everything is one with God.

 

This reflects the idea that through the Exodus we become a nation devoted to God.  As a nation, we are expected to be wholly at one with God and to relate everything in our lives to Him.  Quoting whoever put together the elaborate piece on Wikipedia, “It is sometimes thought that word association reveals the unconscious mind.  Thus, it is at this point in the Seder that the Jews sing this cumulative song.  After relating God’s wonders and kindness, and the events of the Exodus, the song demonstrates how everything can and should relate to God: “If I say One, you think God!, if I say Five, you think Books of Moses!

 

Theologians and commentators will find deeper meaning, but as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted, perhaps in their very childishness, these final songs provide one more opportunity to include our children in the seder, fulfilling the central mitzvah of Passover, “You shall tell your child of the Exodus from Egypt.” Our task in every generation is to transmit a love of Judaism to the next generation by telling the stories of our tradition.

 

 

 

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