Haggadah History

The Second Commandment says “You shall not make for yourself a graven image” but somehow I never thought this applied to cartoonists.

It all started with Bezalel, the camp artist for the Jews in the dessert, who carved a couple of 'cherubs’ into the Ark. He was neither struck dead by lightning nor swallowed up by the earth. In fact, Moses and the rest of the tribe admired his handiwork and thought it divinely inspired.

Through the ages, this decorative urge of Jewish artists has found its greatest expression in the 3500 editions of the Passover Haggadah. Let them make pictures, thought the ancient scholars, it's just a story for kids.

The Haggadah, which means “The Telling” was probably first told just as soon as the Jews were out of Egypt. Over the millennia, many elements were added to the original Torah story. Sometime during the middle ages there appeared separate Haggadah manuscripts. Wealthy Jews would commission special illuminated versions. The first real Haggadah, as a book, was printed in Spain in the late 14th century. As the printing press spread so did the Haggadahs and illustration was added to them. Collaboration between Christian printers and Jewish artists spread along with the new editions of the Haggadah.

There are many beautiful Haggadahs from this period but my two favorites are the Bird’s Head Haggadah, and the Second Nuremburg Haggadah.

The Bird’s Head, created around 1300 by an unknown artist and the scribe Manahim, gets its name from the illustrated characters dressed as southern Germans with bird’s heads. The illustrations have a stiff but delicate wood engraved feel.

They decorate the border around the text and closely follow the story. There a few extra illustrations thrown in like the sacrifice of Isaac and how to bake matzah. Although there are similarities to contemporary Christian art, no one knows for sure what inspired the artist with this unique ornithological vision. My own theory is that the artist locked up in a drafty atelier in the Jewish ghetto, looked out the one small window of the damp, cold room and longingly watched the sparrows on a nearby roof, hoping around and freely flying off to heaven.

On the other hand, The Second Nuremberg Haggadah, from the 15th century, done by good old Anonymous, is like a Renaissance comic book. The illustrations are in the margins and are lively realistic depictions of the average Jewish working class. Quoting from Hebrew Illustrated Manuscripts by Bezalel Narkiss, “The illustrations are followed by explanatory rhyming captions, which are written somewhat comically in popular Hebrew mixed with Yiddish within flying banners. Two examples are… “Moses had much pleasure and fun, with the seven daughters of Midian”. . . “Daughters of Israel, lovely to behold, carry in their pockets, pieces of gold.”

The Haggadah has stretched and grown over the centuries but it continues to be a mirror on the state of the Jewish mind and world. Sometimes it celebrates the simple joys of everyday life; sometimes it reflects the worst horrors of history. Yet it always ends on the optimistic prayer, “Next Year In Jerusalem.” That’s what keeps artists and scribes coming back to do just one more version of the story of Passover.


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