Reviewed by Joseph Tabory (Bar-Ilan University and Machon Lander)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
A Fascinating Study, a Work of Art, and a Treasure of Judaica
The Washington Haggadah is a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Passover Haggadah found today in the Library of Congress. It is a Judaic art treasure, celebrated for its rich, colorful illustrations.
The first facsimile edition of this Haggadah was published in 1965 by B. D. Drenger for the Diskin Orphan Hospital Ward of Israel. Part of a fundraising project, each year, for a number of years, Drenger published a facsimile edition of a different manuscript of the Haggadah, which was disseminated to potential contributors to the Diskin orphan home. According to a newspaper report, thousands of copies of this edition were printed and distributed. The publications had short introductions, sometimes by eminent scholars, such as Cecil Roth, but the quality of reproduction was very poor. They were all printed in a standard small size in black and white and the rich illuminations were often just a sea of mud.
The second edition of the Washington Haggadah, published in 1991, was a sumptuous publication that was printed in a limited edition, 550 numbered copies. This edition consisted of two volumes, one for the text and one that contained original research into almost every facet of the Haggadah by scholars who were experts in each field.
This third edition reminds me of the story of the three bears. The first edition was too little; the second was too much for most people; and the third is just right. The facsimile edition is beautifully produced in almost full size. This is the first edition of this Haggadah to include an English translation of the text, modified from the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation to reflect the particular version of this Haggadah. However, this Haggadah itself is not totally appropriate for use at a modern seder for some of the later accretions to the seder, such as the popular Had Gadya, are not found in it. The wonderful reproduction of the Haggadah will provide sufficient reason to buy this book for anyone interested in Judaica and Jewish art.
This edition is enhanced by two important scholarly studies: a general study by David Stern, a scholar of the Hebrew book; and a unique discussion of the artwork by the noted art historian, Katrin Kogman-Appel. Stern's study is freely acknowledged as based, to a large extent, on the work done by earlier scholars, especially studies written for the 1991 edition. The importance of Stern's essay is that he provides a comprehensive overview of many issues connected with the Haggadah that have not been dealt with in earlier research. He includes a summary of the history of the Passover seder followed by a description of the history of the Haggadah as a book--from its earliest appearance in manuscript form as part of a comprehensive prayer book to its appearance as an independent printed book. From here Stern turns to the present book, describing in detail its text and illustrations. He focuses on the scribe, Joel ben Simeon, giving his biography and explaining how he composed the illustrations and the text. Finally, a section about the afterlife of this Haggadah is provided, describing how it finally ended up in the Library of Congress. Stern remarks that a note in the Haggadah shows that it was still in use in 1879. Sometime after that it turned into a trophy book, a book that was a treasure of Judaica but no longer used or even useful. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, the book still had an interesting role to play as a source for public controversy.
To tell this story, a little introductory material is necessary. The scribe left several blank pages at the end of the Haggadah. On the first two, he added two rituals that were customarily performed in connection with Passover and they appear at the beginning in many Haggadahs. Stern suggests that these rituals were added to the Haggadah by a buyer who wished to have these texts available. These two rituals are of different nature.
The first, known as eruv hatserot (mixing of courtyards), is a ritual usually performed on Friday and its purpose is to permit people to carry on Sabbath within a confined community by preparing bread that would be shared by all members of the community. (This is correctly noted in the translation of the text on page 161. However, on page 37, this ritual is included with the next ritual as one that is performed when the two days of Passover fall on Thursday and Friday.) The theory is that a community which shares its bread may be considered as a single home. This ritual was unnecessary on the eve of a festival because it was permitted to carry on a festival. The ritual would be conducted on Friday and there would be at least one Friday during the festival. It would be performed on the eve of Passover in the event that Passover began on Sabbath. This ritual was especially connected to Pesach because it was convenient to set aside this food once a year for the whole year. The food used was matza, both because matza would last for a whole year, unlike bread that might become moldy, and because bread would not be suitable for use on the Sabbath of Pesach. Thus, this ritual became associated with Pesach even though it had nothing to do with the Pesach festival.
The second ritual, known as eruv tavshilin (mixing of cooked dishes), was performed only in the event that Friday was a festival day. Although cooking is permitted on a festival day, one may cook only for that day's needs and not for the following day. Thus, when the first or second day of a festival fell on a Friday, it was necessary to perform this ritual. (An error creeps into the note on page 161 which declares this ritual as being performed when Passover falls on Friday [with the first seder on Thursday night]. This is impossible according to the modern Jewish calendar. However, the ritual is necessary when the last day of Passover falls on a Friday.)
The scribe made a serious error in copying these rituals. In the ritual for eruv tavshilin he states that this ritual permits one to cook "on the holiday for the Sabbath and on the Sabbath for the holiday" (p. 156 and folio 35v). As Stern points out, there is no way that cooking may be permitted on the Sabbath and the inclusion of this phrase is simply a scribal error. However, when Drenger published his facsimile edition in 1964, some rabbis noted this error and thought that people might be misled by it. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States put advertisements in the local Yiddish papers calling on people not to be misled by this publication. (For documentation of this story, see http://seforim.blogspot.com/2012/04/halakhah-and-haggadah-manuscript.html.)
Lapses of this type are not unique to ancient scribes. An error, possibly one of typesetting, appears on page 117 where the text refers to the short version of grace that is said after eating "the seven species of grain and wine." This should read "the seven species [which are the pride of the land of Israel, which include] grain and wine."
The second enhancement of this publication is a comprehensive study of the art in this Haggadah by the eminent art historian Kogman-Appel. It is again a broad panoramic study not only of art technique but also of culture as represented in art. She starts with a biography of the scribe Joel ben Simeon, followed by a description of the Haggadah and its illustrations. The importance of the scribe's biography for this study is that he traveled back and forth from Germany to Italy and utilized techniques taken from both cultures for his work. She describes how his work developed over the years, showing how cultural influences affected his technique and iconography. She incorporates short histories of themes appearing in a wide range of early haggadahs with emphasis on the transferring of Ashkenazi motifs to haggadahs written in Italy and vice versa. For instance, Kogman-Appel tells us that the first appearance of the theme of a man pointing to his wife when he declares "this bitter herb," in an Ashkenazi context, is in the Hileq and Bileq Haggadah although "known earlier--even though rarely--only in Sephardic contexts" (p. 80). In the illustration of this theme in the Washington Haggadah "the man seems to be forcing the bitter herbs into his wife's mouth." In the detailed description of the picture the doubt is resolved: "the young man ... pushes at her head and attempts to force the bitter herbs into her mouth" (pp. 108-109). The picture shows the man with his hand on his wife's hand while holding the bitter herb in his other hand. Since his body is almost in profile, it might seem that he is trying to force her to eat the bitter herb, but this may be only a question of perspective.
The general discussion is followed by a more detailed description of the representation of society in art. It includes discussions about the representation of types of individuals: wealthy people and workmen, scholars and jesters, and others. Finally, a description of each illustration of the Haggadah, according to the order in which they appear, is provided.
This last section could have been improved by including a reference to the earlier discussion of each illustration within the framework of the more general discussion. Just to give an example, the description of the illustration of a walled town that appears next to the citation of Ps. 118:5 (Out of the straits I called upon the Lord) states: "One of the buildings ... has a window through which a man ... can be discerned in profile, raising, as it seems, his hands in prayer" (p. 110). The connection between this illustration and the text is explained elsewhere (p. 60), in connection with what Kogman-Appel calls Joel's penchant for verbal puns. Here she suggests that there was a play on the similarity of the word mezar, which means "strait," with the word matsor, which means "siege," thus justifying the depiction of a fortified town. Here she also mentions that the face in the window is that of an imprisoned man. This is correct for the illustration shows clearly that the window is barred. If the man in the picture is imprisoned, there is no reason to assume that the town is also being besieged. There is also no reason to suggest that the illustrator is depicting a "siege." If Joel wished to present an illustration based on the literal meaning of the word, he should have portrayed the person praying as trapped between rocks, an illustration that does appear in the Rothschild Miscellany. It is possible that Simeon understood the verse as the cry of one who was in prison. A late rabbinic midrash states that this verse was recited by Joseph when he was thrown into the pit (Bereshit Rabbati, mikez, p. 190).
To sum up, this book, a work of art and a treasure of Judaica, provides fascinating information about a wide range of subjects connected to the Haggadah.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Joseph Tabory. Review of Simeon, Joel ben, The Washington Haggadah.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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