“Be glad now and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things.” (Joel 2:21)
You’ve heard it and maybe even sung it. But do you know what Hava Nagila means?
Since their wilderness wanderings, the Jewish people have danced and praised, shouted and sung in the good times and the bad.
Several Hebrew words describe such joy: simcha, sameach, soos, are a few. But another word stands out above the rest thanks to the lively song, Hava Nagila! הבה נגילה, which means Let us rejoice!
Nagila comes from the root gheel, meaning to rejoice, as in be glad, joyful, exhilarated. It is in the form of a command, giving instruction to rejoice!
There’s nothing more encouraging to tell ourselves at the beginning of a new day, whatever prospects may await, than “this is the day that the Lord has made” and “I will rejoice and be glad in it!”
That is what Psalm 118:24 says and that is the foundation for the lyrics of “Hava Nagila,” which goes like this:
Hava nagila, hava nagila
Let us rejoice, let us rejoice
Hava nagila ve-nismecha
Let us rejoice and be glad
Hava neranena, hava neranena
Let us sing, let us sing
Hava neranena ve-nismecha
Let us sing and be glad
Uru, uru achim
Awake, awake brothers
Uru achim b’lev sameach
Awake brothers with a joyful heart
The Beginnings of a Musical Legend
Hava Nagila began as a wordless tune, which in Hebrew is called a nigun.
In the early 19th century, the Hasidic communities in Eastern Europe and Russia were known for humming these nigunim (tunes).
They did so as a way to maintain a level of joy and happiness in the face of oppressive regimes, pogroms, and ruthless anti-Semitism.
In the early 20th century, a group of Hasidic Jews from Sadigora, Ukraine brought their tunes with them to Israel. One in particular caught the attention of a Jewish composer and musicologist, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn.
A passionate Zionist who immigrated to Israel in 1905, he wanted to unite the Jewish People (the early pilgrims to Israel) in song through the music they brought with them and the newly revived Hebrew language.
Idelsohn transcribed the tune into sheet music and is credited with adding the lyrics while serving as a bandmaster in the Ottoman Army during WWI. In 1918, a choir sang his rendition for a celebration concert in Jerusalem after the British Army defeated the Turks.
It caught on and quickly became an all-occasion song.
From High Holy Day feasts to informal folk dances, Jewish weddings, and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, Hava Nagila is a staple song.
In the 1950s, the famous Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte helped to popularize it among the non-Jewish world by closing his performances with the joyful song.
Today, a version of it exists in most any music style, such as mambo, surf rock, and even heavy metal.
Bob Dylan, a famous American Jewish singer, named his rendition “Talkin’ Hava Nagila Blues,” saying it was “a foreign song I learned in Utah.”
That sums up how familiar this Eastern European Hasidic tune has become to Jew and Gentile around the world.
Why so much attention?
Because it really is a happy, joyful tune.
However, Idelsohn secularized Psalm 118 by removing references to the Lord, and few who sing it know how much God delights to hear us rejoice in song to honor Him!
Rejoicing in Our Maker
“Sing [shout, rejoice] joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise Him.” (Psalm 33:1)
The psalmist tells us in many ways to rejoice in our Lord and Maker:
“Let Israel be glad in his Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!” (Psalm 149:2)
Nations are to rejoice in their Maker:
“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,” (Psalm 67:4)
Even the natural world is to join in the joy:
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice … Let all creation rejoice before the Lord (YHVH), for He comes, He comes to judge the earth.” (Psalm 96:11, 13)
The Rabbis also teach that it is forbidden to be sad on the Sabbath, based on the Scripture that says we are to “call the Sabbath a delight.” (Isaiah 58:13)
Singing and rejoicing in God ourselves, thanking Him for all He has done, is a crucial part of drawing near Him.
Rejoicing in Our Salvation
King David made rejoicing a very personal matter when even after the sin of sleeping with a married woman and murdering a man, he wrote:
“Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.” (Psalm 51:14 -15)
He always kept his eyes on the source of his salvation:
“I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation (Yeshua).” (Psalm 13:5)
The disciples of Yeshua echoed the Tanakh (Old Testament) that joy is not optional:
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matthew 5:12)
“Rejoice that your names are written in Heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
“Rejoice in hope… Rejoice with those who rejoice.” (Romans 12:12, 15)
“Finally, brothers, rejoice!” (2 Corinthians 13:11)
Rejoicing in Our Salvation Leads to Victory
“Is rejoicing really that important?” you might ask.
When we consider that joy is one of our spiritual weapons, the answer is yes!
Rejoicing is linked to praise, and praise is linked to victory!
When we rejoice, we put on the “garment of praise [tehilah] for a spirit of heaviness [dullness, depression].” (Isaiah 61:3)
The enemy would dearly like to destroy our joy; it’s one of his weapons to separate us from God. So, it’s critical that we remember to rejoice.
God Rejoices over Israel!
An end-time prophecy is being fulfilled right now.
Only one time in the whole Bible does God say He will do something with all of His heart and all of His soul.
It is the planting of His Chosen Jewish people back in the Land that He gave to them as an everlasting possession:
“I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all My heart and all My soul.” (Jeremiah 32:41)
Jerusalem, the City of the Great King, is “created to be a delight” (Isaiah 65:18) and again, God says that He Himself will “rejoice over Jerusalem” and “take delight” in His people. (Isaiah 65:19)
Yeshua wept over His city 2,000 years ago (Luke 19:41) because the people rejected Him.
Today the people of Israel still reject Yeshua and His salvation, but He is coming soon! And at that time, they will “rejoice greatly” as they sing and shout out what is prophesied in Psalm 118 and Matthew 23:
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”
The Jewish people will then be singing songs to the Lamb and who knows, maybe also Hava Nagila!