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Dayenu? Enough Already.

If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke, it might just be ‘Dayenu,’ the Passover punch line that is never enough

Howard Jacobson
April 03, 2012
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock.
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock.
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock.
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the Passover ceremony is the singing, invariably full-throated in my experience, of all 15 verses of “Dayenu”:

Had he brought us out from Egypt, and not carried out judgments against them—Dayenu, it would have sufficed us! Had he carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols—Dayenu, it would have sufficed us! Had he destroyed their idols, and not smitten their first born, Dayenu …

… Enough already!

That, of course, though we thought our comical uncles blasphemous when they said it at the Seder table—“Enough already, when do we eat?”—is what the word Dayenu means. “It would have sufficed”; “it would have been enough”; “we can imagine a point at which we would have been satisfied”—except that as a people we are never satisfied.

In the midst of gratitude there is always a little something else we feel we have to ask for. Isn’t this what the Dayenu means? Hence the number of rogue, shopping-list Dayenus that spring up every day: feminist Dayenus, gay Dayenus, Zionist and anti-Zionist Dayenus, even, I recall reading, a Dayenu praising the invasion of Iraq—“If He had destroyed the Ba’ath party idols, and not smitten Uday and Qusay—Dayenu, it would have been enough for us.” The Dayenu is a please masquerading as a thank-you. We give thanks in order to ask for more.

We sing Dayenu at a solemn moment in the Seder service, soon after we have spilled a drop of wine from our glasses, one drop for each plague. It is a song of praise to the Almighty, thanking Him for our deliverance from slavery in Egypt and for the many gifts, including the Sabbath and the Torah, He bestowed upon us thereafter. As such, it is a spiritual high point of the service. Yet we sing it with immense gusto and, at many a Seder I’ve attended, mirth. A mirth that is over and above the pleasure we take in the inordinacy of God’s munificence. Why? Because we know that we are making a great joke at our own expense.

Without doubt it is owing to God’s bounty and protection that we are in a position to be making jokes at all. But, as with all good jokes, there is a whiff of terror in this one, too. How funny would it have been had God left the job half-done—and each verse pivots around a job half-done—how funny will it be when the things He doesn’t do outweigh the things He does?

Could we say that this dread is no less psychological than historical? We fear abandonment. What happens when the giving stops?

The Dayenu is a series of self-generating conditional clauses, composed, if you like, in that most kop-dreying of all tenses, the Judaeo-hypothetic-preconditional, in which problems are imagined in advance of their occurring, imagined, indeed, in spite of their having been averted, and there is no fathoming the sequence of causation: Do our travails precede our giving thanks, or does our giving thanks occasion our travails? In one sense, our gratitude is forever playing catch-up with His infinite magnanimity; but in another—driven on by the rhythmic expectations of those clauses—it is we who are pushing Him to go on showering us with more favors.

Yet there is purpose in this nudging. Superfluous though we insist each of God’s favors and blessings to us was, the truth is we would have been in serious trouble without any of them. For where would have been the use of His leading us to the Red Sea had He not parted it; or our wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, had He not provided us with Manna? We say the one would have sufficed without the other, but in fact it would not. Thus the song is as much a rehearsal of complaints we might have voiced and might voice yet, as it is a hymn of praise.

Built into this magnificent song of gratitude, therefore, is the fact of our colossal ingratitude. Nothing is enough for us. Not because we are vainglorious or greedy, but because our appetite for intellectual dissatisfaction, like our apprehension of disaster, knows no bounds. Call it the ravenousness of reasoning—the rabbinic “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” Call it our love of striking bargains. Call it hyperbole. Call it what you like, it is the bedrock of Jewish comedy. As it is the bedrock of our faith.

The Jewish joke is above all a strategy for survival. It looks, of necessity, to the future. It anticipates a woe before that woe is visited upon us. It gets in first with the criticism and the cruelty. If anybody is going to knock us around it won’t be the Cossacks, it will be ourselves. So that while a Jewish joke appears to be the perfecting of self-denigration, it is actually the opposite. It is the fruit of a perpetual vigilance and in the process demonstrates an intelligence that is, because it has to be, unremitting.

If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke—and who is to say that the Dayenu is not it?—it would never finish. Ours is a religion of suspense. We wait and wait, for a God who cannot show Himself and a Messiah we would rather never came. We await an end, as we await a punch line, to a narrative that has no end. And just when we thought it was all over, it begins again. What are the last words of the Dayenu? “It would have sufficed us …” But by now our ear demands another clause, another gift, another setback for God to overcome. There is no final thank-you because there is no final sufficiency.

In this way, the grammar of Dayenu hovers on the edge of tragedy. Macbeth’s numbed response to his wife’s death—“There would have been a time for such a word”—gives us insight into how a conditional tense can turn a might-have-been into a cannot-any-longer-be. We can run out of feeling as we can run out of hope. We can lose the words in which to express our own humanity. We too have been in Macbeth’s position. We have supped full with horrors and believed that words will no longer—perhaps should no longer—come.

“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,” declaimed the Anglo-Catholic poet T. S. Eliot. Jewish time is more vertiginous still because of the element of joking we impart to it. “Oy, am I thirsty,” cries the old Jewish man. “Oy, am I thirsty!” Alarmed bystanders give him a drink. Gratefully, he glugs it down. “Oy,” he cries, “was I thirsty!”

Then and now change places in the absurd hyperbole of suffering. But at least to be able to say we were thirsty is a liberation, if not from the memory of thirst, then from thirst itself. This liberation is what the Dayenu commemorates. The comic repetition of “it would have sufficed us” asserts that there still is time for such a word, that it will go on sufficing whatever happens. In this, does it not epitomize the spirit of re-telling, re-making, and re-remembering that is the Passover itself?

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.