Saturday, April 5, 2008

You Shall Tell Your Children: The Passover Haggadah in the Yale University Library Collection

A handwritten illuminated Passover Haggadah from 18th century Germany, a beautiful facsimile of the famous Sarajevo Haggadah (originally from 13th century Spain), and the facsimile of one of the most ornate and intricate modern illuminated manuscript Haggadot--calligraphy and decorations by David Moss--are just some of the items that are on display in this on-line exhibit of the Passover Haggadah from the Yale University collections.

The exhibit includes Haggadot from both the Sterling Memorial Library and Beinecke Library collections. Among them are facsimiles of some of the most famous illustrated Haggadot from the middle ages and a selection of modern Haggadot reflecting current Jewish events and perspectives.

The Haggadah--a compilation of biblical passages, prayers, hymns, and rabbinic literature--was probably assembled sometime during the Second Temple period in Palestine and was meant to be read during the Passover Seder, a ceremony held in Jewish homes to commemorate the Israelite redemption from Egypt in biblical times. The earliest extant version, however, appeared in a 10th century prayerbook in Babylonia. The Haggadah became a beloved and cherished text for Jews all over the world and nowhere is this high regard more evident than in the illustrations lavished on it by generations of Jewish artists from mediaeval times to the present. These illuminations represent Biblical scenes as well as scenes from rabbinic legends. Many illuminated Haggadot, most of which were produced in Europe in the middle ages, depict the preparations for the holiday and the celebration of the Seder itself thus giving us a visual image of Jewish life in earlier times.

The first printed version of the Haggadah--a facsimile of which is on display--was published in Guadalajara in 1482, just ten years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. A facsimile of the first Haggadah printed with illustrations, produced in Prague in 1526, is also on view. This was the first in a long line of printed illustrated Haggadot, a tradition that continues to this day.

In modern times, the Haggadah has taken on a new significance as Jewish life has changed and evolved. The Haggadah has begun to increasingly reflect not only Israel's ancient history but also contemporary Jewish agendas and events. Some of the most interesting new editions and versions of the Haggadah were produced in Israel. The kibbutz movement Haggadot, for example, include themes relating to labor and socialism while eliminating much or all Jewish religious references. In these versions God is often conspicuously absent. Other Haggadot reflect the importance of the establishment of the State of Israel, or changes in Jewish tradition due to modernity. The various movements in American Jewish life have produced Haggadot which reflect their own vision of Judaism and their understanding of themselves as American Jews.

One of the most visually powerful Haggadot in the exhibit is the Pessach Haggadah in Memory of the Holocaust (Haifa, Israel, 1988) which combines the themes of the Exodus, the Holocaust and the rebirth of the State of Israel in its iconography.

As David Moss, the calligrapher and illustrator of the exquisitely beautiful Haggadah, Shir ha-Ma'alot le-David (A Song of Ascent of David, 1987) explained: "Though my inspiration came from the Diaspora of the Middle Ages, the historical situation in which I was living was radically new." To some degree, each generation recreates the Haggadah in its own image. Thus it does not only keep the memory of Israel's ancient liberation from slavery alive, but constantly gives the theme of freedom new and renewed expression as each generation of Jews sits down to read it every year during the Passover Seder.

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