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In Fiddler on the Roof, in Tevye's song "If I Were a Rich Man," there is a line "all day long I'd bidi-bidi-bum." According to Wikipedia this is a reference to prayer.

A repeated phrase throughout the song, "all day long I'd bidi-bidi-bum," is often misunderstood to refer to Tevye's desire not to have to work. However, the phrase "bidi-bidi-bum" is a reference to the practice of Jewish prayer[citation needed], in particular davening.

However, Wikipedia says a citation is needed. Is Wikipedia correct?

Along those lines, is there any significance to other lines in the song that are not English words? I thought they were nonsense syllables, but if "bidi-bidi-bum" is meaningful, maybe other lines are too.

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John, welcome to Judaism.SE and thank you for the interesting question. I can't think of any prayer that that references, but let's see what the community has to say. I look forward to seeing you around! – Double AA Feb 7 '12 at 5:34
up vote 32 down vote accepted

In this interview with Terry Gross (around 5:08), those lyrics' author, Sheldon Harnick, says that he basically made up syllables that he thought would "give the effect" of "Chassidic chanting," despite not being familiar with such chanting from his own background. The first person to play Tevye, Zero Mostel, then replaced the syllables Harnick had written with ones that Mostel thought would be more authentic, based on his background.

So, I wouldn't ascribe too much significance to the particular syllables used in Fiddler. There is definitely a history of Jewish Chazanim (cantors) embellishing their singing of prayers with non-semantic syllables, but I'm not sure if there was ever any particular significance in the practice itself or the particular syllables chosen, other than in their effect in enhancing the aesthetic and emotional impact of the sung prayers.

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+1 Great answer.. and now someone can update that Wikipedia article with a citation! – Dave Feb 7 '12 at 6:00

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