Dayenu is a 15-line poem recording the stages of redemption, from the exodus from Egypt through the giving of the Torah, to the building of the Temple. After each stage, we exclaim that had G-d stopped there, and not taken the Israelites any closer to their final destination, dayenu - that would have been enough for us.
The earliest full version of the poem appears in the 9th century, in the very first prayer book, compiled by Rav Amram Gaon in Babylonia. Perhaps it originated there amongst diaspora Jews. However, many people think it originated in Israel far earlier, possibly even 250+ years before the destruction of the second Temple, as its version of history seems to end on a triumphant note, with the Temple's construction. It seems hard to believe - some argue - that had the poem been written when the Temple was no longer in existence, it would make no reference to the tragedy or express the desire to see the Temple rebuilt.
Either way, the problem with the song is that is makes no sense. Would it really have been enough had God split the Red Sea, but not brought us through it? We would all have died! Would it really have been enough had God brought us before Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah? There would be no meaning to Jewish life!
The best way to understand Dayenu is to look at its position in the Haggadah and its context. For Dayenu is not a stand-alone. Immediately following the poem comes a reiteration of its themes, this time in prose form rather than song (" al achat kama ve-chama "). We are obligated to God, this version reads, because he took us out of Egypt, punished the Egyptians, destroyed their Gods - and so on and so forth, through the same 15 stages of redemption, until the building of the Temple. In this version, there is no Dayenu - no implication that any of these deeds, by themselves, would have been "enough". The point is that we survived, physically and spiritually, and can recognise God's benevolence -- because he committed them all.
Traditionally, we read this second iteration as a continuation of Dayenu, an answer of sorts: If we are grateful for one act of God, how much more so for the whole package. But Daniel Goldschmidt, in his Haggadah Shlemah, offers an intriguing historical insight. It seems likely, he argues, that these two parts of Dayenu were originally not meant to be read together, but were rather different versions of the same song, edited differently. In fact, he says, the second shorter paragraph probably came first, as it is more concise and -- crucially -- it lacks the puzzling implication that we could have survived without crossing the Red Sea, entering the land of Israel etc (he stops just short of accusing whoever expanded the paragraph into a whole song of sloppiness). A later editor decided to present the two versions side-by-side, and perhaps even changed the introductory lines so that they continued on from each other.
At a stroke, Goldschmidt wipes out the central puzzle of Dayenu - that none of these things would have actually been "enough". That was never the intention of the original author.
But now that this is the text we have, how can we make sense of Dayenu after all?
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag offers a neat explanation that similarly looks to Dayenu's position in the Haggadah for its meaning.
Dayenu, he points out, comes at the very end of our telling of the story of the Exodus, following a discussion of the plagues, but before we say Hallel, the section of praise and thanksgiving following the meal. The Mishnah tells us that we must start the story with a derogatory comment, but end it with praise. Dayenu both fits the bill, and is transitional:
"The refrain of 'dayenu' has an implicit suffix... 'Dayenu' should not be translated simply as 'it would have been enough'; rather 'dayenu' means 'it would have been enough - to praise God', ie to say Hallel - even if God had only taken us out of Egypt, or only if He had split the sea, etc.
In this manner, the poem poetically summarises each significant stage of redemption... stating that each single act of God's kindness in that process obligates us to praise Him, eg:
-- Had He only taken us out of Egypt and not punished the Egyptians, it would have been reason enough to say Hallel
-- Had He split the sea, but not given us the 'manna', that alone would have been reason enough to say Hallel
... And so on.
With this background, the next paragraph of that poem makes perfect sense:
"`Al achat kama vekhama," - How much more so is it proper to thank God for performing ALL these acts of kindness, as He took us out of Egypt, and punished them, and split the sea, and gave us the manna etc."
This explanation fits in nicely with the line that introduces Dayenu: "How many good qualities God has, compared to us!" We are meant to read the subsequent couplets in light of this sentiment. None of God's deeds during the Exodus would have been enough alone to save us, physically or spiritually, but they would have been enough to recognise God's power and superiority.
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