New Findings about the 'Traditional' Israeli Melody for Mah Nishtanah
Jewish music research rarely considers the Jewish home as a performing stage, even though major ceremonies of Judaism which include music take place within the circle of the immediate or extended family. The Passover seder (lit. “order”) is one of the main home rituals. The Haggadah, the order of texts recounting the Exodus from Egypt, is read before and after the seder meal. This text combines elements of a learning session (casuistry of Oral Law passages and other pedagogical texts) with liturgical ones (blessings, prayers and psalms).
The musical repertoire for the performance of the Haggadah’s texts grew exponentially through time (see for example our Song of the Month archive). The singing of serial folksongs added at the end of the seder is a late medieval European innovation that probably enhanced the process of the Haggadah’s musicalization. These additions also blurred the borderline between the religious and mundane spheres in this domestic Jewish ritual.
The music for different sections of the Haggadah has been maintained and transmitted by oral tradition as well as in written sources since the mid-19th century and, in the 20th century, through recordings. A very accomplished piece of research on the subject is Ruth Sragow Newhouse’s dissertation, The Music of the Passover Seder from Notated Sources (1644-1945) (University of Maryland, 1980.) We have benefitted from her work in the writing of this Song of the Month while expanding her findings in totally new directions.
As a rule, through the ages the Haggadah was performed with diverse techniques of recitation and learning tunes, fitting the character of the texts included in this compilation. As modernity made its inroads into Jewish homes, more metric tunes (such as Hassidic melodies) took over texts of the Haggadah that were performed beforehand using traditional unmetered study or prayer formulae. A canon of tunes developed, first through the printing of musical notations as appendices to Haggadot, and later through the dissemination of commercial recordings and learning kits, many of them produced in Israel.
The subject of this article is the singing of the section known as the Four Questions (Heb. ‘Arba’ kushiyot; see’ Sragow Newhouse, vol. I, pp. 92-93 and vol. II, pp. 143-153). This pedagogical text is certainly among the oldest strata of the Haggadah. The questions appear almost literary as we know them today in the oldest stratum of the Talmud (BT Pesahim 10, 116a), with the exception of the third question that still recalls the Temple sacrifices.
We learned: They poured for him the second cup, and here the son asks his father. And if the son does not have the knowledge [to ask questions of his own], his father teaches him. Why is this night different from all other nights? As on all other nights we eat leavened bread and matza; on this night all matza. As on all other nights we eat other vegetables; on this night bitter herbs. As on all other nights we eat roasted, stewed, cooked meat, on this night all roasted As on all other nights we dip [vegetables in a liquid] once; on this night, twice.
The traditional Ashkenazi learning tune
Already in the late Middle Ages Rabbi Jacob ben Moses ha-Levi Moellin (1360?–1427; referred to as Maharil) wrote that this text should be sung with a pleasant tune (niggun yafeh; see, Sefer Maharil, Jerusalem 1978, Hilkhot seder Pessah, fol. 15a). This remark by the most authoritative source on the Ashkenazi musical minhag (custom) singles out the Four Questions as a particularly musical moment in the seder.
Until the mid-20th century, most Ashkenazi Jews intoned this text with a pentatonic learning tune without clear beat and meter. This tune is variously called the Gemara (Talmud), Mishnah, Lern or Stubentrop nign. Thirty out of the thirty-two notated versions in the corpus investigated by Sragow Newhouse follow this pattern, thus attesting to this deep-rooted musical practice.
A child traditionally recited these Four Questions solo, in a responsorial manner, with the family acting as a choir performing the answers to the questions. In some Ashkenazi communities, a paraphrase in Yiddish followed the Hebrew text phrase by phrase, a common learning technique in religious schools in Eastern Europe. Our website includes two illuminating performances of the Four Questions using this tune sung by Prof. Eliyahu Schleifer, below.
Ma Nishtana Old Nusach: