On the Goat and the Pear

The liturgical poem 'Had Gadya' and its distant folktale relatives share the rather humorous element of a plot involving a chain of events enacted by different actors, plus some other similarities - but the Passover favorite has much more profound allegorical and religious significance.

Nitsa Priluk
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Nitsa Priluk

The master wishes to eat a pear, but a series of strange setbacks prevents him from biting into the succulent fruit - until the happy ending. This is the frame story of an old German folk song. Over the course of it, we encounter the following: a dog, a stick, water, fire, a calf, a butcher - all familiar from the piyyut (liturgical poem ) "Had Gadya" ("One Kid" ) sung at the end of the Passover seder.

The song "Das Birnli will nit fallen" ("Little Pear Doesn't Want to Fall" ) appears in the collection of tales put together by the brothers Grimm (Jacob, 1785-1863 and Wilhelm, 1786-1859 ), the renowned German folk and fairy-tale collectors. Their first volume of tales ("Die Kinder und Hausmarchen der Brueder Grimm" ), released in 1812 in the city of Kassel, includes the song about the pear.

El Lissitzky, illustration for 'Had Gadya,' 1919. Credit: El Lissitzky

The brothers Grimm heard, recorded and adapted the stories people, mostly village women, told them. "Little Pear Doesn't Want to Fall" is the only song in their collection that appears as a separate narrative item (there are short songs and rhymes interwoven in the stories ). The plot of the song builds up phase by phase, like "Had Gadya." The master sends a boy called Jockli to jiggle the pear tree so that the fruit will fall. The pear's refusal to drop from its branch is the first in a chain of refusals. Jockli refuses to jiggle the tree, and all those sent after him refuse in turn to do what is expected of them: The dog does not bite Jockli; the stick does not beat the dog; the fire does not burn the stick; the water does not douse the fire; the calf does not drink the water; and the butcher does not slaughter the calf. Only when the master sends the hangman to hang the butcher do they all become convinced, and each in turn obeys the commands that are, in fact, their roles in this world.

The brothers Grimm song depicts a world in paralysis. Ordinary routine stops suddenly and then everything is released and life flows on as usual. The poetic invention creates tension, curiosity and also humor. Even though the contents of the song are all borrowed from this world, the real world - unlike "Had Gadya," which touches upon divinity and religious thinking - it does manage to shatter the sense of familiarity by disrupting the existing order.

Here is the concluding stanza of the song "Little Pear Doesn't Want to Fall: "Then the Master sent Hangman / To hang Butcher. / Hangman wants to hang Butcher / Butcher wants to slaughter Calf / Calf wants to drink Water / Water wants to douse Fire / Fire wants to burn Stick / Stick wants to beat Doggie / Doggie wants to bite Jockli / Jockli wants to jiggle Little Pear / Little Pear wants to fall."

The plot links together nine "actors" who are subordinate to the master. In the "Had Gadya" chain, there are 10 links: a little goat, a cat, a dog, a stick, fire, water, an ox, a ritual slaughterer, the Angel of Death and the Holy One, blessed be He.

How does the folkloric chain song in the Grimm collection differ from "Had Gadya"? Both texts open with an exposition in which there is a trivial event: Father buys a little goat; the master wants to eat a pear. Further along, five significant differences stand out. The first of these has to do with the plot: doing as compared with not doing. While every phase of the piyyut "Had Gadya" begins with a new action, the German song is based on refusals to act. The brothers Grimm song is built on a sharp and clear conflict and ends happily.

The second difference stems from the first and has to do with causality versus chance. In the German version, the causal relationship between each stage is explicit and clear: The refusal and unwillingness to act on the part of each actor causes the master to send the next, stronger actor, so that the pear will fall. In the Aramaic version, however, it is not clear why these things happen, why a new actor appears and to what end - until the Holy One, blessed be He appears.

The third difference is structural: the order from big to little. "Big" is identified with strong and "little" with weak. In the trajectory of a doing plot, the direction is linear - from little to big. In a non-doing plot, the structure is different and more complex. In the German folk song, at the top of the pyramid is the master who appears right at the beginning, in the exposition and also at every stage of the plot. The movement in the song is in two directions: first from small to bigger in ascending order, and then from the biggest to smaller. The two movements are symmetrical and their appearance together represents a kind of upside-down world.

The extent of the damage is different in the folk song and the piyyut, and herein lies the fourth difference, which reveals the dramatic aspect. In "Had Gadya," the destruction is total, and only he whose glory reigns forever remains in the end. This format is possible in the ascending progression from small to big. In the folk song, the potential for power is not exercised; the threat of the hangman is enough to motivate the other actors to stop refusing to carry out their master's will.

The fifth difference between the texts lies in the message and significance: religious or secular. The Holy One blessed be He is revealed at the end of "Had Gadya" as all-powerful: He is the reason for all that happens, indeed, the cause of all that happens on the face of the earth. The events in the piyyut (and perhaps in our lives ) sometimes appear to be without a reason and arbitrary only because of the limits of human understanding, whereas the German folk song deals entirely with the terrestrial and its tone is secular. Egoism, greed, violence, deterrence and punishment intertwine in it. The strong master wants something and he gets it. Obedience to the master is presented as essential for the existing class order.

Undermining hierarchy

"The Tale of the Master and Jocki" is an Austrian folk song that parallels "Little Pear Doesn't Want to Fall." Nearly all the elements of the German song appear in it. The one difference is the exposition: "The master sent Jocki, a naughty child / To reap his barley rows. / But Jocki didn't reap the field / And didn't come back home."

The conflict between the village master and his worker erupts when Jocki refuses to work in the fields and disappears, thereby daring to disturb and undermine the traditional hierarchy. The group expands and adds the Devil, who is placed above the hangman (in the brothers Grimm song, the hangman's place is at the top of the scale ). The Devil in the Austrian version is similar in his standing to the Angel of Death in "Had Gadya." Here is the final stanza of the song: "So the master himself went out / And found a solution fast. / The Devil dashed to slash / And the hangman hastened to hang / And the butcher bustled to slaughter / And the heifer hurried to lap the water. / The water quickened to quench/ And the fire flew to burn, / And the stick sped to beat / And the hound hastened to bite. / Then Jocki did the barley reap / And ran directly home to sleep."

The didactic aspect of this song is evident. As compared to the rich allegorical meanings in "Had Gadya," the moral of the Austrian song is functional. And the concealed wish - which folklore researchers find in every text that they examine - is different: The desire for young boys to learn that their role in life is to work and obey the master. There are many and varied German versions in the pattern of the pear song. The songs are characterized by refusal and non-doing, and their frame story has to do with village life and work in the fields: reaping and harvesting. The person assigning the task is a master or farmer. The group that assembles around the task includes inanimate objects, plants, animals and birds, human beings (of various ages and positions in society ), forces of nature and supernatural beings.

There is no doubt that a plot of refusal and non-doing is wittier and more surprising than a plot of doing: Its course is more complicated and the poetic invention is richer. The revolt by the small and weak figure who says no to someone stronger and the subversive element in the song are progressive (or anarchic ) ideas from the perspective of the social order. Thus, it is possible to read this poetic text as a document expressing popular protest.

"Little Pear Doesn't Want to Fall" is a version of a type of international folktale - as classified in the Aarne-Thompson typology of folktales. In "The Types of the Folktale" (Helsinki, 1961 ), Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson classified folktales into eight well-defined types, established an identifying number for each type of plot and added the countries where it is found. In this classification, among the chain stories in a subcategory entitled "Members of chain are not interrelated," there is the type of "The Goat who would not Leave the Hazel Bush." Final formula: The devil goes to strangle the Jew, the Jew to kill the ox, the ox to drink the water, the water to quench the fire, the fire to burn the stone, the stone to blunt the axe, the axe to cut the rope, the rope to tie the hunter, the hunter to shoot the goat - the goat leaves the hazel bush, the wee goat leaves the hazel bush" (p. 524 ).

In the universal type, we see an ambivalent attitude toward the Jew, who appears as a link in the chain. The Jew stands high in the hierarchy (like the slaughterer in "Had Gadya" ), but the plot implies he is condemned to be slaughtered by the Devil. The structure of a "cumulative song" or a "chain song" is linked: The textual units are short and piled on top of one another, the actions flow and change rapidly and the rhythm is emphatic. The perfect order of the plot is blatantly exaggerated. The listener is amused to find automatic behavior replacing a more complex and flexible reality he knows from everyday life. The playful element in the song, which repeats the list of items in every stanza, enables the audience of listeners to participate in public performances of the text.

Any system of actions and events that gives us the illusion of life conducting itself in a mechanical arrangement is comic, according to the French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1900 treatise "Laughter." The idea of replacing the natural with the artificial, repetition - a repeating concatenation of circumstances appearing in the same way a number of times. The creation of independent series and the inversion of the familiar order are among the modes of classical comedy. These are the characteristics that build "Had Gadya" and are even more emphasized in the Grimm brothers version. The lighthearted tone of the stubborn pear song is suited to a popular text addressing the masses and is less common in a religious text. The shaping of a text in a chained structure (in prose or in poetry ) is earlier and is also found in our sources.

In Bereshit Raba (38 A ), a theosophical debate in Aramaic between the pagan Nimrod and Abraham, follows this pattern. The subject of the debate: the search for the stronger or strongest power in the universe, in order to worship and admire him. This midrash serves, among other things, as an argument for those who see in "Had Gadya" an original Jewish text: "[Nimrod] told him: Worship the Fire! Abraham said to him: Shall I then worship the water, which puts off the fire! Nimrod told him: Worship the water! [Abraham] said to him: If so, shall I worship the cloud, which carries the water? [Nimrod] told him: Worship the cloud! [Abraham] said to him: If so, shall I worship the wind, which scatters the clouds? [Nimrod] said to him: Worship the wind! [Abraham] said to him: And shall we worship the human, who withstands the wind? Said [Nimrod] to him: You pile words upon words, I bow to none but the fire - in it shall I throw you, and let the God to whom you bow come and save you from it!"

Hidden in the walls

The piyyut "Had Gadya" first appeared in a Passover Haggadah printed in Prague in 1590. It was apparently accompanied by a Yiddish-German translation. The aim of the text was to amuse the children and keep them awake until the end of the Passover seder. "Had Gadya" never appeared in Passover rituals among Sephardic or Yemenite Jews (entering these communities only in the 20th century ).

There is earlier evidence of "Had Gadya" (as well as of the poem "Who Knows One" ) at the beginning of the 15th century (1406 ) - in a siddur (prayer book ) apparently hidden in the walls of the beit midrash (house of learning ) in the city of Worms in the Rhineland. In a study published in the academic journal Asupot (1988 ), Prof. Harry Fox suggests the origin of the song is in Provence. From there, he posits, it went to Ashkenaz with the Jews expelled from France in the 14th century to the town of Worms and thence to Prague and perhaps also to Ashkenazi communities in Italy.

Fox bases his thesis on a prayer book in the tradition of Provence written and illuminated on parchment, apparently from the 13th or 14th century. At the end of this siddur, there is a special version of "Had Gadya" that can be classified as non-liturgical poetry. The text is well-written by hand in flawless Aramaic.

Many scholars believe the origin of "Had Gadya" is external. Others cling to the belief that the German versions of the song are of Jewish origin, from the Passover Haggadah - apparently influenced by the folk version of the song in Yiddish.



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