Nusach of the Haggadah

Some Musings on the Music of the Haggadah

From Cantor Rachel Rhodes Eletter  D’var on March 26, 2015:

Passover is such a wonderful time – one in which we gather around our tables, surrounded by family and friends, to practice a tradition that spans thousands of years. We remember the famous story of the parting of the Red Sea and the freedom of the Israelites through familiar text interpreted in different ways each year.

The traditional music of the Haggadah also opens doors of understanding for us. You may not have known that the Haggadah actually has its own special nusach, or chant, assigned to it. The most commonly heard nusach in seders around America originated in Poland, Austria, and Lithuania and incorporates three major modes sung throughout the year.

Learning Mode (Lernsteiger Mode): Back in the days of learning in Talmud and Mishnah in the cheder (school house) students would chant the verses in what was called learning mode. Click here for an example. The vast majority of the Haggadah is chanted in this mode. As you can tell from the recording, this mode allows for the text to be recited quickly and efficiently. There a few reasons behind this tradition: one, the three of the four questions originally come from the Jerusalem Talmud and thus were chanted in this mode during study sessions, and two, we all are supposed to experience the text each year as if we are hearing it as students for the first time. How poignant then, as we gather around our seder tables, that each of us is becomes a student again of our tradition and our text. We are challenged to keep learning from this story of redemption.

Three Festival Trope Mode: Three Festival trope is referenced often during the traditional chanting of the Haggadah. Click here for an example. This trope is applied to the three texts we read on the Three Festivals: Ruth, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. It reminds us of the seasons, and in this case, of spring planting. It is no wonder that it’s incorporated so widely into the chanting of the Haggadah.

Akdamut Mode: The Akdamut is a liturgical poem read by Ahskenazic Jews on Shavuot. It was written about a thousand years ago and has since developed a specific melody that is now used the Three Festivals (Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot) for the Kiddush. The original poem speaks about the intertwining of God, the people of Israel, and the Torah. By referencing this melody on the evening of our Seder, we are reminded of these themes. Click here to hear an example.

I hope that by giving you a glimpse into the traditional chanting of the Haggadah that your Passover Seder will have much more meaning this year. May we be blessed with redemption in our days and always remember to keep learning!  Click here to hear an example.

B’shalom and Chag Sameach,

Cantor Rachel Rhodes

The music:

Four questions, Learners Mode

Haggadah motif, 3 festivals

Kiddush Akdamut example