One Kid, 16 Drops of Wine

If my count is correct, I celebrated my 100th Passover Seder this year. Given so many trips through the Haggadah, I was surprised that it took me this long to realize that the four songs (“Ki lo naeh”, “Adir hu”, “Echad mi yodea?” and, of course, “Chad gadya”) which come at the very end of the ceremony have nothing to do with Passover. That led me to what seems like a good philolo-historical guess to the effect that the songs were at some point appended to the Haggadah, most likely so as to provide a means of audience participation at the end of a ritual which assigns the Celebrant the majority of the spoken lines. The songs are likely also a response to the ongoing issue of keeping the children involved: sit up straight a little longer and you can sing “Chad gadya”. (A friend of mine told me this year that, in his father’s community in Germany, the songs were omitted entirely, thus, even recently, there were those who did not view them as an integral part of the Haggadah.)

Moreover, at the very least the last two songs are clearly children’s songs of folk origin, and of familiar types: “Echad mi yodea?” is a counting song (l’havdil in the same vein as “The Twelve Days of Christmas”), and “Chad gadya” is an Aramaic precursor of “The House that Jack Built” and “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” While there is no question that “Echad mi yodea?” is also a religious song, this year, I developed doubts as to whether the same can be said about “Chad gadya” prior to its incorporation into the Haggadah.

Anyone who has attempted to sing “Chad gadya” has experienced the musical awkwardness of the last two verses, which require you to cram the five syllables of “malach ha mavet” and then the six of “ha kadosh baruch hu” into the two notes allotted to the two syllables of “gadya”, “shonra”, “kalba”, etc.. All the characters in the song, prior to the introduction of the Angel of Death and God, are bisyllables, which suggests strongly that there was an original version of the song which either ended up with the verse about the slaughterer slaughtering the ox, or continued in a different direction, with the addition of further two-syllable characters. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the scansion of the verses breaks down exactly at the point at which a religious theme is introduced. Of course, without a religious element of some sort, the song couldn’t have been added to the Haggadah, but I think we see a clumsy (and unmusical) editorial hand behind the transformation of a nursery song into a sacred one.

Further textual evidence suggesting that the last two verses are not part of a hypothetical original is that they both repeat the verb “shachat” which already occurs in the verse about the slaughterer. We thus have the same verb three times in a row, where the rest of the song introduces a new verb for each character’s demise. As the song is careful about not repeating verbs, we can infer that the verses which do repeat them are, as far as my hypothetical original is concerned, spurious.

To these proofs we can also add the fact that “Chad gadya” (unlike the other three songs) is written in the vernacular (i.e. Aramaic), as would befit a song written for children. (This vernacular tradition is carried further by many Sefardim, who sing the song in Arabic. I might add that, as a small child, I performed “Chad gadya” in English.) As the Haggadah is almost entirely in Hebrew (this is not the place to digress on the three-and-a-half sentences in Aramaic at its beginning), the presence of a song in Aramaic further suggests its being a later addition of an existing nursery rhyme.

All that is by way of introduction of my Big Discovery, which came while doing the dishes after the Second Seder. (Like so many insights into the Seder, this one came after everyone had gone home.) My solid hypothesis that “Chad gadya” is an artifact of folk culture which was modified and appended to the Haggadah led to another hypothesis about non-religious folk practices which became part of the Seder.

One of the strangest of the intentionally strange practices on Seder night is the custom of dipping our fingers into our glasses of wine and removing a drop for each of the Ten Plagues as they are enumerated. (In reality, 16 drops are removed in total: ten for the Plagues, an additional three for each “word” of Rabbi Yehudah’s acronym for the Plagues, and a first three when “blood, fire and columns of smoke” is mentioned along with the rest of Joel 3:3, shortly before the enumeration of the Plagues.)

The canonical explanation for the practice is that, as one shouldn’t rejoice over the misfortune of others, we pause momentarily to consider the fate the Egyptians suffered and reduce our joy by reducing the quantity of wine in our cups. That the custom is immediately to refill the cups suggests that this explanation might not be the correct one. Moreover, the Song at the Sea shows that the Israelites felt no compunction about gloating over the Egyptians’ comeuppance. Feeling sorry for our oppressors is emphatically not a theme of the Exodus narratives. Something else would then have to be behind the practice of removing the wine from the cups: what if (like “Chad gadya”) it were a secular folk practice which, over the years, became canonical and acquired an official explanation which had nothing to do with its original purpose?

I am obviously going to argue that such is the case, and I believe I have a plausible hypothesis as to the practice’s origins. Probably every human culture has some sort of superstitious act or phrase to be performed or uttered whenever the Evil Eye is tempted (in other words, when you mention someone else’s ill fate and ask that it not be shared by you.) The best known of these in America today is probably touching wood. Among the Jewish traditions for averting the Evil Eye are spitting, or the more sanitary option of the incantatory non-word “kenehora” (>Yiddish/Hebrew “kein ayin ha ra” – “no Evil Eye”.) I’d like to suggest that the dipping of the finger in the second of the Seder’s four cups of wine is another practice to avert the Evil Eye, an invocation of sympathetic magic to prevent the Plagues from boomeranging on us as we tempt fate by mentioning them. We can easily imagine someone somewhere across the millennia having precisely such a reaction to the Plague litany, and yielding to folk superstition.

I will confess that I am not a specialist in Near Eastern folk anthropology, but I can deduce some support for my theory that some part of the custom of removing wine from a cup with the finger might be a Jewish anti-Evil Eye practice. We know that, in Jewish folklore, red is the color which averts the Evil Eye (witness the custom of wearing a red bendele around the wrist.) For our cousins the Arabs, the anti-Evil Eye color is blue (whence the popularity of blue stones in their jewelry designs.) From Lebanese friends, I’ve learned that actually touching a blue stone is required for averting the Evil Eye when it has been tempted, so I’m going to make an anthropological jump and suggest that – perhaps – there was once a Jewish equivalent of touching something red.

Like wine.

While I’m not certain that I’ve hit upon the actual rationale for the removal of wine from the cup, I do believe I’ve hit upon something with my theory that some kind of anti-Evil Eye magic lies at the base of the custom. Although the Talmud contains its share of propitiating actions (presented scientifically rather than as superstition), superstition in general runs counter to rabbinic thought, not least of all because of a Biblical injunction against magic. This, in turn, would explain how the wine-spilling (or touching) practice remained, but with its rationale changed to the unlikely idea of a burst of sympathy for the plague-stricken Egyptians. In turn, this explains why the practice is far more powerful than its new rationale: I know of many people who know that the wine should be removed, but who had no idea why. (No idea until they asked a potentially rhetorical question on the subject in the presence of the present Font of Useless Information, that is.)

As mentioned above, 16 drops of wine are removed, but only thirteen (the ten for the Plagues and the three for the subsequent acronym) are accounted for by the above explanation. As for the other three (the ones to “blood, fire and columns of smoke” in the verse from Joel), I might suggest a comical but viable explanation. Could it be as simple as someone sometime having jumped the gun, and, hearing “blood”, assumed that it was the first term in the list of Plagues? (Bear in mind that individual printed Haggadot are a recent innovation.) Probably more than one person made the mistake, and what had been a common error eventually found itself transformed into canonical practice. (I suppose that one could suggest that the anti-Evil Eye measures could be involved here as well, although that accords neither with the literal meaning of the verse, nor even with its place within the context of the Haggadah.)

A positive result of this understanding of the first three drops of wine is that it gets the commentators off the hook from trying to squeeze some significance out of the number 16. True, 16 is a perfect square, and, thus, has its fair share of numerological properties, but I’ve yet to find a convincing application of those to the Exodus story. Much easier would be to forget about 16, and look instead at the 13 drops of wine removed for the Plagues and for R’ Yehudah’s acronym.

Anyone out there know 13?

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