Skip to main content

Rejoice and Be Glad

I am looking forward to the moment when the band leader says, “It’s Hora time. Everyone to the dance floor!” And we jump from our seats and join in dancing and singing the words of Hava Nagila. “Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice. Let us rejoice and be glad. Let us sing. Let us sing. Let us sing and be glad. Awaken brethren. Awaken brethren with a joyful heart.”

And then my heart will most certainly rejoice.

Few realize that the words to this familiar song are not that old. In fact, the tune is based on a Hasidic niggun, prevalent among Jews living in nineteenth century Ukraine. And many nigguns are based on what was then popular songs. The Hasidic rebbes removed the words from these songs and transformed them into wordless, religious melodies.
Hava Nagila is no different. It is apparently very similar to a Ukrainian folk song.

The Hasidic movement gave these wordless melodies meaning and import. They were known to sing them over and over, their voices growing softer and then louder. They would sing and dance to welcome Shabbat, to rejoice at a holiday’s arrival, to celebrate a young couple getting married. They were passed from one generation to the next. They are typically attributed to specific rebbes. It was the belief of Hasidic Jews that singing helps connect us to God. Music is the universal language. It was also their belief that no words can suffice in approaching God and so we are left with their wordless melodies.

And so, the Hava Nagila tune was carried by such Hasidic Jews when they came to Jerusalem from the Ukraine. It was there that Abraham Idelsohn soon discovered it.
He is considered the dean of Jewish musicologists. Some believe that he authored the accompanying words in 1918 to celebrate the victory of the British in World War I. The song soon spread throughout Palestine and then made its way to the United States.
By the 1950’s it had become what we recognize today: the staple at Jewish parties and simchas.

There is nothing quite like it. Despite the song’s relative youth—at least as measured against Jewish history, it has come to define our celebrations.

And I am looking forward to hearing its words once gain.

The Torah reports: “These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt…. They set out from…. They set out from…. They set out from…”
(Numbers 33)

I would like to think that once again our journeys, and our marches, and our lives, will again be defined, and uplifted by the simchas at which we sing and dance.

“Awaken brethren with a cheerful heart! Let us sing and be glad. Let us rejoice and be glad.”