The melody is based on a Hassidic Nigun. It was composed in 1918, to celebrate the Balfour Declaration and the British victory over the Turks in 1917. It was first performed in a mixed choir concert in Jerusalem.
Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (1882–1938), a professor at Hebrew University, began cataloging all known Jewish music and teaching classes in musical composition; one of his students was a promising cantorial student, Moshe Nathanson, who with the rest of his class was presented by the professor with a 19th-century, slow, melodious, chant (niggun or nigun) and assigned to add rhythm and words to fashion a modern Hebrew song. There are competing claims regarding Hava Nagila’s composer, with both Idelsohn and Nathanson being suggested.
The niggun has been attributed to the Sadigurer Chasidim, who lived in what is now Ukraine. This version has been recreated by Daniel Gil. The text was probably refined by Idelsohn. Members of the community began to immigrate to Jerusalem in 1915, and Idelsohn wrote in 1932 that he had been inspired by that melody.