Search our Archives:
» Opinion & Society
Listen to the Passover SongAdir Hu: Its Meaning and Melody
By Jonathan L. Friedmann
Passover is a holiday of redemption. With the annual retelling of the Exodus drama, Jews are reminded of their ancestors' escape from the physical and spiritual shackles of Egyptian slavery. This theme is captured in the phrase z'man cheiruteinu ("the season of freedom"), which inspires the Jewish people to reflect on their past struggles, and to give thanks for the blessings of the present.
Passover's redemptive message also led to the association of the holiday with ultimate redemption: the coming of the Messiah and building of the Third Temple. There is, in fact, a belief that the Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt on the first night of Passover. And while Jewish law forbids building during a festival, the Talmud states that the Temple will not be built by human hands, but will descend from heaven (Shevuot 15b). So, Rashi concluded, the construction of the Temple on Passover is permissible, since it will be divinely formed.
Out of this tradition emerged Adir Hu ("Mighty is He"), a hymn sung by Ashkenazim at the conclusion of the seder meal. Addir Hu is one of several hymns that were added to the Passover Haggadah in the Middle Ages. It consists of two thematic elements: a list of God's qualities (greatness, majesty, dependability, grace, etc.), and a plea that "He build His Temple soon, quickly, quickly, soon in our days."
Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), the German-Jewish scholar who pioneered the critical investigation of Jewish literature, hymnody, and ritual, dated the text to the sixth or seventh century. However, it did not appear in printed form until the latter part of the fifteenth century, and was originally included in all festivalsnot just Passoveras indicated in the Avignon Machzor (1775).
Addir Hu is sung to essentially the same melody throughout the world's Ashkenazi communities, and its familiar tune has become the "signature sound" of Passover. In synagogue services during the festival, the melody is often used for the singing of other prayers, such as Mi Chamocha and various parts of Hallel.
The tune took different forms before arriving at its present shape. The first known musical transcription was printed in a 1644 German Haggadah, but its character, according to Rabbi Francis L. Cohen (1862-1934), was of "a droning intonation rather than a set melody." By the eighteenth century, the tune as we know it today was in widespread use in Germany and other parts of Europe, and even found its way into various cantorial Passover compositions.
The continued popularity of the Adir Hu melody can be explained, at least in part, by its simplicity and pleasantness. It stays within an octave range, has a basic chord progression, and is in a decidedly major mode. Its easy-flowing and singable melodic line captures perfectly the text's unequivocal praise of God and its hopeful message of redemption. As a result, the communal singing of Addir Hu during Passover accomplishes two central functions of Jewish sacred music: it uplifts the spirit and elevates the prayer toward heaven.
Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the editor of two books, Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (Paragon House, 2008) and The Value of Sacred Music (McFarland, 2009). Listen to him sing Adir Hu.
* * * * *
For more on Passover, see our Passover Archives
from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine
Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (www.something.com)