May 5, 2023
If there is one Jewish song known by Jews and non-Jews alike, it is undoubtedly Hava Nagila, which is Hebrew for “let us rejoice.” From its obscure origins in early 20th-century Palestine, the song has gone on to become a perennial favorite at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and Jewish — and non-Jewish — cultural events around the world. With its short lyrics and simple yet distinctive melody, Hava Nagila has been recorded hundreds of times by musicians ranging from Neil Diamond, the Barry Sisters, and Harry Belafonte. Yet for all its widespread popularity, few know the history of this global Jewish hit.
Hava Nagila actually began its life as a Hasidic melody in Eastern Europe. There the tune was sung as a nigun (wordless melody) among the Sadigorer Hasidim, who took their name from the small town of Sadigora in Bukovina (present-day Ukraine), where the Rizhiner Rebbe, Reb Yisroel Friedman (1798-1850), had settled from Russia and established his court in 1845.
At some point around the turn of the last century, a group of Sadigorer Hasidim emigrated to Jerusalem and brought the nigun with them. There the melody might have remained in the cloistered world of Jerusalem’s Hasidic community.
Avraham Zvi Idelsohn, considered the father of Jewish musicology, sought to collect and preserve the folk music of Jewish communities from around the world, using a phonograph to record the traditional melodies of Yemenite, Russian, German, Moroccan and other communities he encountered in Jerusalem. At the same time, he sought to pioneer a new style of modern national music that would unify the Jewish people as they returned to their historic homeland in Palestine.
To that end, he arranged and composed many new Hebrew-language songs based on traditional melodies. These modern songs with ancient roots quickly became popular as new Hebrew folk songs, sung in kibbutzim, moshavim, and printed in songbooks in the Jewish community of pre-state Israel and beyond. Among them was Hava Nagila.
Idelsohn transcribed the Sadigorer melody in 1915 and added the now familiar Hebrew text, which is derived from the sentiments of the Hallel text found in the Book of Psalms (118:24)
Please feel free to listen and dance with this fun rendition before Shabbat!