Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Halakhah and Haggadah - Manuscript Illustrations and their Halakhic and Customary Significance

This post is part of a series of posts regarding illustrations adorning manuscript and print Haggadot. Our first post dealt with a new work on the topic and can be viewed here. In this post we will focus upon the some of the Halachik implications of these illustrations.

In many Ashkenazic manuscripts, the Passover illustrations begin chronologically earlier than the Seder. Many begin with the preparation of the matzah. For example, in the Second Nuremberg Haggadah[1], (the manuscript is online here) a 15th century Ashkenazic haggadah, contains ten scenes devoted to the matzah process. A similar haggadah, likely illustrated by the same artist, also includes numerous matzah baking scenes. All of these, however, begin with the bringing of the grain to the miller. This is in contrast to today's practice whereby the matzah producing process begins earlier, with the cutting of the wheat.

(All images may be clicked for larger viewing.)

That is, for many today, matzah shmurah means shmurah (watched) from the time of harvest and not from the time of grinding. But, in reality the reason for the illustrations beginning where these haggadot do, is simply because they reflect the practice in Ashkenaz, based upon the R. Ya’akov ben Asher, the author of the Tur, that only from the time of grinding is it necessary to “watch” the grain. Matzah Shmurah in Ashkenaz in the medieval period meant grain which had been watched from the time of grinding not cutting.[2]

Turning to a Sefardic custom, the Barcelona Haggadah, produced after 1350, is the earliest record of the custom to place the Seder Plate on someone's head during the recitation of Ha Lahma Ania (Ashkenazim remove the plate from the table).

Only some three hundred years later is this custom mentioned in printed sources. Additionally, there is a difference between the Sefardic and Ashkenazic haggadot regarding what the Seder Plate actually was, with the Ashkenaz depicting a plate, whereas the Sefardic manuscripts depict a basket.[3]

When it comes to marror and what vegetable that is, we have at least two different types depicted in various manuscripts. In the Brother to the Rylands Haggadah, marror is depicted as an artichoke, as is in the case with the Sarajevo Haggadah.

While in many manuscripts, marror is a leafy vegetable.[4]

Setting aside the issue of what marror is, another custom related to marror can be found in both printed and manuscript haggadot. In the Prague, 1526, the first illustrated printed haggadah, there is a picture of a man pointing at his wife with the legend, “there is a custom that a man points to his wife when mentioning marror based upon the verse Ecclesiastes 7:26 “Now I find woman more bitter than death.”

A.Y. Hyman the scholar of Jewish liturgy was appalled when he came across this. In his autobiography, he claims that there is no basis whatsoever for this “custom.” Hyman is wrong.[5] If you look at the Brother to the Rylands Haggadah you can see that it shows this custom. As does the Washington Haggadah.

Likewise, the Rothschild Miscellany shows the same custom.

It’s worth noting that the Rothschild Miscellany shows another custom at the time, mid-14th century, that of mixed dancing.

The mixed dancing is that of couples, husband and wives dancing with each other, and not that of unmarried men and women dancing[6] In Italy, where this manuscript was composed, mixed dancing was apparently common during this period.[7]

Returning to the gesturing at one’s wife at marror, in the Hiluq and Biluq Haggadah this custom takes on a somewhat more humorous dialogue with the wife no longer passive but instead returns the compliment. In that haggadah it includes speech balloons and they record the following: The husband states “touching marror I must recall that this one, too is bitter [as gall].” To which the wife replies, “It is you [my husband] is one of the causes of bitterness as well.” After which, we have a play on the 13 attributes of Rabbi Yishmael and the haggadah provides that “the third comes between them [perhaps the marror itself] and makes a stink” - or in Hebrew ve-yavo ha-shlishei ve-yakhriach benehem.[8]

Similarly, in some Ashkenazic haggadot manuscripts, they show the the husband and wife pointing at one another.[9]

Finally we get to a halachik error in a manuscript haggadah. The Washington Haggadah was written by a scribe calledJoel ben Simon. This haggadah was first printed as part of the Diskin Orphan House haggadah series in 1965. The Library of Congress didn’t publish its facsimile edition until 1991, and last year another facsimile edition of this haggadah was published as well.[10] Although this haggadah was written close to 300 years prior to Diskin publishing it, until that time a significant scribal error escaped notice. Specifically, in the text for eruv tavshilin rather than just saying “with this eruv I am allowed to cook from Yom Yov for Shabbat,” it continues and says “and on Shabbat for Yom Tov.”

Needless to say this did not escape the eagle eyes of some who feared that someone may use this haggadah (we note that contrary to the other reproductions mentioned, the Diskin version is a poor copy) and inadvertently think it is permissible to cook on Shabbat. So, the ever wise Aggudat ha-Rabbonim took out ads in the Yiddish daily, Der Tag, and the Forward to let its readers know of this error. The publishers took this one step further and mailed out a letter, with the provocative title, “Heresy or Blunder,” after Passover indicating the error and also included a letter from Cecil Roth, who had written about manuscript haggadot.

In his letter he indicates that indeed this was most likely inadvertent and that Joel did not have a different tradition regarding eruv tavshilin. Indeed, we know from Joel’s other manuscripts, where he records the correct blessing, that the Washington Haggadah’s version was simply a scribal error.

This is not the only error related to halakha and haggadah illustrations. R. S.H. Kook, criticizes two aspects of illustrations that appear in the Prague 1526 Haggadah. Both of these issues center around how the wine glass is depicted. Specifically, he takes issue with the fact that in many of the illustrations show the wine glass in the left hand and not the right. Additionally, he complains that the illustration show the holder grasping the glass at the stem and not at with his fingers cupping the bottom of the glass.

Regarding the first issue, that of left handedness, this anomaly may be attributed to the fact that this was the first completely illustrated woodcut haggadah. And, as it was the first, it was not necessarily perfectly executed. But, before we continue we must digress and explain about woodcuts in order to get to the left handedness. A woodcut when inked and put on paper produces a mirror image of whatever the woodcut depicts. Thus, if the woodcut was of a right hand, when pressed on paper would produce a left handed image. Additionally, when copies were made, the copyist were not careful and would reverse the images. That is, they were working off the printed image and would copy it directly rather than accounting for reversing the image to ensure that when it was used it would produce the same and not a mirror image. So, as has been explained, during the early history of woodcuts “copies [of woodcuts] were constantly being made, with or without leave, for copyright hardly existed, and the same printer would often have to replace worn cuts by new blocks in successive editions. It is not always an easy task to distinguish copy from original. Immediately recognizable as from different blocks are subjects which appear in reverse directions, for the copyist who does not take the trouble to reverse his drawing from the original print, will make a block that will print the subject reversed.”[11] We can now explain why the images are left handed, presumably, they were copied and the woodcutter was not careful to reverse the image, thus producing a left handed image.

As an aside, another example of copying which reverses the images may be seen when the Prague 1526 Haggadah was itself used as a model for a woodcut. The border surrounding Shefokh was reused in the Levush. As is apparent, the images are that appear on the right in the Prague 1526 Haggadah appear on the left in the Levush. And, those on the left appear on the right.

Regarding the second point, the failure to cup the glass rather than grasp the stem, this can be attributed to an error on R. Kook’s part and not the woodcutter. While today it may be commonplace to cup the glass, this was only popularized by R. Yeshaya Horowitz, in his book, Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, (Shelah). R. Horowitz wasn’t born when the Prague 1526 Haggadah was printed - he lived between 1565-1630. Moreover, his book was published posthumously, in 1648, more than 120 after the Prague 1526 Haggadah was published. Thus, it is unremarkable that the Prague 1526 Haggadah failed to account for a custom that didn’t exist at that time. This is another example of why bibliography is important, for other examples see here.

Finally, we conclude this part of the series regarding halachot and Passover in general, and specifically, the notion that on Passover we are stricter than normal. At times it appears that some go overboard with the various humrot on Passover as well as cleaning all sorts of items that seemingly don’t require cleaning. But, from the evidence of manuscript illustrations, this notion of stringency is not a new one. The Golden Haggadah, circa 1320, includes this very nice image of cleaning and searching for leaven. If one looks closely they will note that the woman on the left is apparently sweeping the ceiling! Thus, indicating that perhaps going overboard has been the case for some while. Also of note is that the father is performing bedikat hametz and he is bareheaded (as is the son).[12]

[1] Its title is a reference to the fact that from the mid-nineteenth century until 1957 it was housed in Nuremberg, after which it moved to the Schocken Library, and then to a private collector. The reason it is the the Second, is because Nuremberg also had another manuscript haggadah - now known as the First Nuremberg Haggadah. It too is no longer in Nuremberg. Today it is in the Israel Museum.

[2] See Steven Fine, “The Halakhic Motif in Jewish Iconography: The Matzah-Baking Cycles of the Yahuda and Second Nurnberg Haggadahs,” in A Crown for a King, Gefen, Jerusalem-New York: 2000, pp. 106-07.

[3] See Evelyn M. Cohen, “Seder Foods & Customs in Illuminated Medieval Haggadot,” in The Experience of Jewish Liturgy, D.R. Blank ed., Brill, Leiden:2011, 24-25. We note that while this article provides a summary of some of the images and text accompanying medieval haggadot, the article provides little context for various practices. Indeed, the article fails to provide sources which support many of the illustrations and texts and instead merely parrots what the the manuscripts say or depict.

[4] On this issue of which vegetable is preferable for marror see Zohar Amar, Merorim, n.p., 2008.

[5] His comments appear in the Misrad Hasikon 1965 reprint of the Prague 1526 Haggadah at pp. 14-15.

[6] See Therese & Mendel Metzger, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, Chartwell Books, Inc.:1982, 216-17.

[7] See the sources collected by R. Henkin, Shu”t Benei Banim, vol. 1, Jerusalem: 1998, no. 37, esp. section 5 where he discusses Italian sources. Thanks to R. Weinfeld for bring this source to our attention.

[8] See Bezalel Narkiss, “Art of the Washington Haggadah,” in The Washington Haggadah, Commentary, M. Weinstein, ed., Washington D.C.: 1991, pp. 73-75, discussing manuscripts that contain the marror/wife images, as well as the source in the following note.

[9] See R. Yisrael Mordechi Peles, “Controversies Regarding Customs That Can Be Gleaned from Haggadot,” in HaMaayan, Nissan: 5771 (51,3), pp. 13-14, available here.

[10] The 1991 edition was accompanied by a commentary volume. The 2011 edition also includes some articles with the color reproduction of the haggadah.

[11] Arthur M. Hind, An Introduction to the History of Woodcut, Boston: 1935, vol. 1, pp. 284-85, quoted in R. Charles Wengrov, Haggadah and Woodcut, New York: 1967, pp. 87-88. In general Wengrov’s book provides a wealth of information regarding the images contained in the Prague 1526 Haggadah.

[12] Mendel Metzger, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, supra, p. 148 discussing generally medieval manuscripts and depictions of headcovering or lack thereof.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

New seforim list with some random comments

New seforim list and some random comments

By Eliezer Brodt

This is a list of some of the recent seforim I have seen around during my seforim shopping. This is not an attempt to include everything or even close to that. I just like to list a wide variety of works. I note by some of these works that I can provide a table of contents if you request so, via emailing me at,


א. אוצר הגאונים מסכת בבא מציעא, מכון אופק ראה כאן. I will return to this work in a post shortly.

ב. ראב"ן [ג' חלקים] מהדיר: ר' דוד דבליצקי [ניתן לקבל ה'מבוא'].

ג. מחזור כמנהג רומה- שונצין קזאל מיורי רמ"ו (1485-1486) מהדורת פקסימיליה, וחלק נוסף, קובץ מחקרים בערכית אנג'לו מרדכי פיאטלי, 170 עמודים. I will return to this work in a post shortly.

ד. שלחן מלכים, יורה דעה, ר' יצחק בואינו, מכון ירושלים.

ה. אמת ליעקב, ר' ישראל יעקב אלגאזי, על הלכות קריאת התורה, כולל ספרו, חוג הארץ על הלכות פורים כשחל בשבת לבני ירושלים, חזון למועד, דינים לבני חו"ל הבאים לארץ ישראל, ומפתחות, ש"ו + לד עמודים.

ו. כתבי החיד"א: מורה באצבע\ צפורן שמיר\ קשר גדול\ כף אחת\ יוסף בסדר\ סנסן ליאיר\ שומר ישראל\ מכון אהבת שלום, עם הערות.

ז. מגילת ספר, לר' יעקב עמדין, מהדיר ר' אברהם בומבך, רעא עמודים. [ניתן לקבל דוגמא של הספר].

This is the third time this famous work has been printed in Hebrew. This time the manuscript was consulted and many things from previous versions were corrected. This work contains a nice overview and many useful notes and an index of names. The editor is a known expert of Rav Yakov Emden's writings and his notes are good. However this editor felt that he needed to edit the work and certain parts such what he writes about Reb Yonason Eybechutz and the like was removed, so once again a perfect edition remains a need. Of interest is the aeppendix at the end dealing with what the argument between Rav Emden and Eybeschuetz was about. This is another attempt to deal with this sad time in history. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if he is convinced by what he suggests.

ח. שו"ת אור השנים לבעל ה'פרדס'- ר' אריה לייב הלוי עפשטיין, קסה עמודים. כולל כמה ספרים של ר' שריה דבליצקי, א. יראו עינינו, בענין תפלת ותיקן. ב. פאר יעקב, מצות תפילין וק' על מצות תפלין כל היום. ג. הידורי תפלין. ד. פלגי מים, תענית גשמים וברכות גשמים בזמן הזה.

ט. כתר ראש לר' חיים מוואלאזין, עם מקורות ביאורים והערות, קמו עמודים+ 110 עמודים ועוד.

This sefer looks beautiful but is lacking one thing: a proper introduction to enumerate what it exactly is adding to what we already have. For a partial introduction to this work see Rabbi Dovid Kamentsky's article in the latest issue of Yeshurun 26 (2012), pp. 790-797.

י. פנים יפות מהדורא תנינא, מכתב יד, תקא עמודים.

This is a completely new work of the Haflaah's, never before printed, which will help in the now famous ongoing debate about the Haflaah and his ties to Chassidim, especially in his written works. For recent articles on this topic See Rabbi Dovid Kamenetsky's article in Yerushasenu 4 (2010), pp. 251-274 and Rabbi Yitzchak Weiss in one of the recent issues of Kovetz Beis Aharon Ve-Yisroel. [Email me if you would like to see these articles]. I have been told that there will be more on this in the near future.

יא. תפילת הסופר, עניני תפילה, ממרן החתם סופר, קצט עמודים.

יב. מנחת עני על התורה לבעל ה'ערוך לנר', כולל מפתחות, ושאר הוסופות, תקלט עמודים.

יג. שערי צדק, שער החצר, ר' שמעון בן דוד, שני חלקים, בעניני ארץ ישראל, כולל מבוא, מפתחות והערות.

יד. כתר תורה, ר' מאיר מבארדיטשוב, בנו של בעל ה'קדושת לוי', על התורה רמב"ם וש"ס ועוד, תלה עמודים.

טו. ספר תהלים עם ביאור 'תהילות יעקב' לר' יעקב פריימאן [מכת"י], שהיה רב בפוזן בברלין ועוד מקומות, מהדיר של הספר לקט יושר, 305 עמודים.

טז. גנזים ושו"ת חזון איש, חלק ב, תכה עמודים.

יז. הליכות חנוך, הוראות עובדות והנהגות מרן ר' חנוך דוד פדוואר, בעל שו"ת חשב האפוד, שנג עמודים

יח. תולדות נח, ר' אליהו ברכה, בעניני שבע מצות בני נח בהלכה ואגדה, תתסג עמודים.

יט. לאוקמי גירסא, ביצה- תיקונים והוספות ברש"י מכתבי יד, ר' ישראל גרינבוים, לח עמודים, [ניתן לקבל דוגמא].

כ. ספר הזכרון בצאת ישראל, כולל גנוזות, תורת ראשי הישיבות וחכמי התורה, ומאמרי מוסר ודעת, על פסח, חול המועד, ספירת העומר ושבועות, תתמו עמודים.

Of special interest to me was the few Teshuvot printed here from manuscript related to putting on Tefillin on Chol Hamoed.

כא. חומש שמות עם פירוש 'מעט צרי' על תרגום אונקלוס.

כב. התהלים המפורש, ר' יעקב וינגרטן, תקסו עמודים ומבוא על עניני תהלים 137 עמודים. This work simply put is just beautifully done.

כג. סנסן ליאיר ר' מזוז, עניני פורים.

כד. מגידים חדשים, ר' דוד ווייס, ספר במדבר, תתיט עמודים. [מלא חומר חשוב ומעניין].

כה. חזון איש- שמונה עשרה שעות עם פירוש פשר חזון מר' ישראל רוטנברג, קכה עמודים.

כו. דרכי העיון, מאמרים בשיטת הלימוד, ר' מאיר מזוז, רנא עמודים. כולל הערות על ספרים 'עליות אליהו' ו'תולדות אדם'.

There is a lot to say about this sefer, hopefully I will have time to write it up in near the future.

כז. כבודה של תורה, עובדות והלכיות מחיי ר' רפאל שמואל ברנבוים, קפב עמודים.

כח. והארץ לעולם עומדת, ר' שלמה רוזנר, צז עמודים.

כט. שיגרא דלישנא, הפתגם ומקורו ככתבו וכלשונו, ר' אברהם מייזעלס, 95 עמודים.

ל. קונטרס אור לגויים, ר' יאיר עובדיה, ליקוט בעניני מעונן, מכשף, כתובת קעקע, חוקות הגויים ודרכי האמורי ורפואה מנכרי, 119 עמודים.

לא. עיטוש להלכה [Sneezing] ר' יששכר הופמן, פג עמודים.

לב. איגרתא חדא, לר' שריה דבליצקי,- דיני ביעור מעשרות, ברכות האילנות, פסח שחל בשבת, עירוב תבשילין, צ עמודים.

לג. רמב"ם עפ פירוש יד פשוטה, שופטים [ג' חלקים], ר' נחום רבינוביץ.

לד. מנחת אהרן, חג הפסח, ר' אהרן מיאסניק, תנ עמודים.

לה. עשן הכבשן, הבנת השואה לאור התורה סיבותיה ולימודיה, מלוקט מחיבורי ושיעורי רבי אביגדור מילר, ריז עמודים.

לו. ימי פורים, ר' דוד הכהן, תרלג עמודים.

לז. הברת החסידים\ כללי עברי, ר' נפתלי צבי דעמביצער, שלו עמודים+קח עמודים. ביאור הברת לשון הקודש למנהג בני פולין ואונגארן וסדר השתלשלות המבטא מימי קדם עד היום ויישוב דברי הפוסקים בכמה ענינים ובירור מבטא לשון הקודש על פי דקדוק.

See page 307 in this work about quoting Shadal.

לח. משיח כהלכה: קובץ דקדוקי תורה\ קונטרס פרק בשיר\ ספר מחברת התיגאן\ ספר חלק הדקדוק, ר' אריאל הלוי.

לט. פרקי אבות לפי פירוש רוח חיים של ר' חיים מוולואז'ין, - ישעיהו ליבוביץ, 335 עמודים.

מ. מכתב ישראל חלק ב מכתבים של ר' ישראל אליהו ויינטרויב.

מא. This volume is full of regular Torah of his on different topics the back has a few pages interesting stuff on random things. Just to mention three points he writes:

קבר הגר"א, שאלתיו בנוגע לנסיעה לקברי רבותינו שמידי פעם עורכים נסיעות כאלו, שלכאורה אסור לצאת לחו"ל לצורך זה. והשיבני... כמו שללמוד תורה ולפרנסה מותר, כמו כן מי שיגע הרבה בכתבי הגר"א ז"ל יכול להבין מה שהוצאתי מההשתטחות על קברי הגר"א ז"ל... (עמ' רצו).

ירדית דורנו... המצב היום גרוע מאוד, כל אחד יכול לשבת עם המחשב על הסטנדר ואלפי ספרים עולים לו בלי מאמץ, ולא צריך להתייגע מה שלא היה אף פעם... (עמ' רצח).

אודות ספר מסילת ישרים ויכוח שהופיע בחמש עשרה שנים האחרונות, אמר לי מו"ר שלא לעיין בו משום שהוא מהדורא קמא של המסילת ישרים והדברים באים שם באופן של שאלה ותשובה, אשר זה מראה כביכול יש כאן אפשרות לצד אחר, וזה עושה נזקים, [ורק] המסילת ישרים [שלפנינו] ששם באו הדברים בצורה ברורה בלא שום צד אחר חלילה (עמ' שח).


א. ישורון כו, ניתן לקבל תוכן הענינים. Just to highlight some of the great looking sections

1. חידושי הריטב"א מסכת ביצה

2. עניני תפילה מספר המשכיל

3. פ' הגדה של פסח לר"י גיקטיליא

4. ספר הגור על מכות מצרים

5. ק' גבעת פנחס לזכרו של ר' פנחס הירשפרונג, כולל זכרונות על רבו ר' מאיר שפירא

6. ק' פרי עץ חיים לזכרו ר' אברהם יעקב זלזניק

7. ק' אור זורח לזכרו רבי זרח שפירא כולל מכתבים ופסקים ממרן בעל החזון איש

8. להקים שם על נחלתו- על חידושי ר' יהושע ליב דיסקין על התורה

9. אגרות הקודש ותולדות הגאון ר' אפרים חרל"פ- ר' דוד קנמצקי

10. תוס' ותוס' רא"ש על מסכת ביצה- ע"י ר' משה מיימון

11. הלכות ברכת הראייה במסגרת הספר מעגל טוב לחיד"א, - ולענין ללכת לגן החיות ועוד, ממני אליעזר בראדט

ב. מקבציאל, גליון לח, תתעט עמודים. Just to highlight some of the great looking sections

1. קטעי גניזה מפירוש הרא"ה למסכת ברכות.

2. נועם ה' לר' אברהם ב"ר אלעיזר הלוי

3. קונטרס אמרי דעת לר' מנחם די לונזאני

4. פסקי תוס' מסכת חולין

5. סבוב רבי פסתחיה מרגנשבורג (98 עמודים)

6. תולדות חכמי הדורות וחיבוריהם לר' יצחק כדורי

ג. המעין גליון 201

ד. היכל הבעל שם טוב, לג

One article worth pointing out is related to Chasidus and the Mussar of Kelm including the writing of Rabbi Blch, Reb Yeruchem, Lev Eliyhau and Rav Dessler.

ה. אור ישראל גליון סד

Of special interest to me in this volume was the article of Rabbi Asher Miller which is a nice collection of comments on Rabbi Shmuel Ashkenazi’s recent work Alpha Beta Tenyusah DeShmuel Zeira.

ו. עץ חיים גליון יז –ניתן לקבל תוכן הענינים.

ז. היכלא, גליון ב' בעניני פסח, שפא עמודים, ניתן לקבל תוכן הענינים.

ח. סידרא, חלק כו

ט. דעת חלק 71


א. מברכת משה, קובץ מאמרים במשנת הרמב"ם לכבודו של הרב נחום אליעזר רבינוביץ, ב' חלקים, מעלה אדומים, ניתן לקבל תוכן הענינים.

These two volumes are an excellent collection of material related to many aspects of the Rambam.

ב. צמחי המקרא, זהר עמר, בחינה מחודשת לזיהוי כל הצמחים הנזכרים בתנ"ך לאור מקורות ישראל, והמחקר המדעי, 288 עמודים.

ג. אשנב לספרות התשובות, שמואל גליק, 422 עמודים.

This work is a very useful tool for understanding the Shut literature.

ד. מחקרים בהלכה ובתולדותיה, שלום אלבק, הוצאת בר אילן, 210 עמודים.

ה. גנזי חז"ל בספרות הקראית בימי הביניים, עפרה תירוש בקר, ב' חלקים, כרך א' עיונים פילולוגיים ובלשניים כרך ב מהדורה מדעית מוערת של הטקסטים. מוסד ביאליק.

ו. מוצא העם העברי ואמונתו, אהרון תומר, מוסד ביאליק.

ז. על דעת הקהל, ספר היובל לכבוד א' רציצקי, שני חלקים מרכז זלמן שזר.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A review of Marc Michael Epstein's The Medieval Haggadah, Narrative & Religious Imagination

Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah, Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven & London: 2011, 12, 324 pp.

Most discussions regarding the Haggadah begin with the tired canard that the Haggadah is one of the most popular books in Jewish literature, if not the most popular, and has been treasured as such throughout the centuries. Over sixty years ago, Isaac Rivkin noted that as a matter of fact, only since the 19th century has the Haggadah become one of the most printed Jewish books. Prior to the 19th century, the Haggadah is neither the most printed nor most written about work in the Jewish cannon.[1] Epstein does not fall prey to this canard nor any other of the many associated with the Haggadah. Dr. Epstein’s survey of four Jewish medieval manuscripts is novel, vibrant, and sheds new light on these manuscripts, as well as Jewish manuscripts and the Haggadah generally.

Epstein covers four well-known medieval Haggadah manuscripts:[2] The Birds’ Head Haggadah, The Golden Haggadah,[3] The Rylands Haggadah,[4] and the Brother to the Rylands Haggadah.

First, a word about manuscript titles. Sometimes manuscripts are referred to by the city or institution that houses or housed the manuscript, while in other instances, especially when a manuscript contains a unique marking or the like, that unique identifier may be used to describe the manuscript. The Rylands Haggadah (currently housed at the John Rylands Museum, Manchester, UK), is an example of the former, and the Birds’ Head Haggadah is an example of the latter. In the case of the Birds’ Head, most of the figures depicted in the manuscript are drawn not with human heads, but with birds’ heads. Similarly, the Golden Haggadah is another example which gets its title due to the proliferation of gold borders and filler. Finally, the Brother to the Rylands, gets its title from the similarly of its illustrations to that of the Rylands, indicating some connection or modeling between the two manuscripts.

As alluded to above, Epstein is not the first to discuss these manuscripts. Indeed, in the case of both the Birds’ Head and the Golden Haggadah, book length surveys have already been published.[5] Epstein, however, differs with his predecessors both in terms of his method as well as what he is willing to assume. Regarding assumptions, previously, many would take the path of least resistance in explaining difficult images and attribute confusing or complex illustrations to errors or lack of precision of the illustrator. Rather than assume error, Epstein gives the illustrations and illustrators their due and, in so far as possible assumes that the images are “both coherent and intentional.” As an extension of his “humility in the face of iconography,” Epstein attempts “to understand how the authors understood it rather than assume that [he] must know better than they did.” He does “not fault the authorship for what” he, “as a twenty-first century viewer, might fail to notice or understand concerning the structure or details of the iconography.” Furthermore, engaging with illustrations not only from tracing the history of how the image came into being but, more importantly, how that image was interpreted and what meaning it carried for its audience throughout its transmission is also one of Epstein’s goals. In furtherance of these goals, Epstein is all too aware of his own limitations and throughout the book, Epstein willingly admits both where the evidence can lead and, what is pure speculation. All of this translates into a highly satisfying and illuminating (no pun intended) perspective on these and Jewish manuscripts in general.

The book is divided among the four manuscripts, with each getting its own section, with the exception of the Rylands and its Brother that are included in a single section. At the beginning of each section, all of the relevant pages from the manuscript are reproduced. The reproductions are excellent. This is not always the case in other books that reproduce these images. Indeed, in Narkiss, et al. who compiled an Index of Jewish Art that includes detailed discussions regarding a variety of medieval Haggadah manuscripts, only reproduce the images in black and white.[6] Similarly, Metzger, in her La Haggada Enluminée, also only reproduces the images in black and white (and many times the images are of poor quality). Here, each page containing an image is reproduced in full, in a high quality format that allows the reader to fully appreciate the image under discussion. Appreciating that to obtain similar high quality images requires the purchase of an authorized facsimile edition, which in some instances can be cost prohibitive highlights the importance and attention to detail that characterizes Epstein’s work on the whole.

The Birds’ Head Haggadah is the oldest illustrated Haggadah text, dated to around the early 1300s. This manuscript is not the only Jewish manuscript to use zoophilic (the combination of man and beast) images. Zoophilic images can be found in a variety of contexts in Jewish manuscripts. For example, in the manuscript known as Tripartite Machzor, men are drawn normally while the women are drawn with animal heads.[7] Or, the well-known manuscript illustrator Joel ben Simon playfully illustrates the prayer God should save both man and beast, which can be read as God should save the man/beast, with a half human-half beast:

When it comes to the Birds’ Head manuscript, a variety of reasons have been offered for its imagery, running the gamut from halachik concerns to the rather incredible notion that the images are actually anti-Semitic with a bird’s beak standing in for the Jewish nose trope. Epstein ably summarizes the positions and based upon a close examination of the illustrations as well as his stated methodology, dismisses much of the prior theories. His ultimate conclusion, which builds upon the halachik position, is more nuanced and, hence, more believable, than his predecessors.

The Birds’ Head provides a striking example where Epstein’s unwillingness to simply ignore complexity by claiming error, demonstrates the interpretative rewards offered to a close reader of the illustrations. While most of the images carry a bird’s head, there are a few exceptions. Most notably, non-Jews, both corporal and spiritual do not. Instead, non-Jewish humans as well as angels have blank circles instead of faces. But, there is one scene that poses a problem. One illustration shows the Jews fleeing Egypt (all with birds’ heads), being pursued by Pharaoh and his army. But, unlike the rest of the figures in Pharaoh’s army, two figures appear with birds’ heads. Some write this off to carelessness on the illustrator’s part. Epstein, who credits his (then) ten-year old son for a novel explanation, offers that these two figures are Datan and Aviram, two prominent members of the erev rav, those Jews who elected to remain behind. The inclusion of these persons, and allowing them to remain with their “Jewish” bird’s head, may be a statement regarding sin, and specifically, the Jewish view that even when a Jew sins, they still retain their Jewish identity. Sin, and including sinners as Jews, are motifs that are highlighted on Pesach with the mention of the wicked son and perhaps is also indicated with this illustration. The illustrator could have left Datan and Aviram out entirely or decided to mark them some other way rather than the Birds’ head. Thus, utilizing this explanation allows for the illustrator to enable a broader discussion about not only the exodus and the Egyptian army’s chase, but expands the discussion to sin, repentance, Jewish identity, inclusiveness and exclusiveness and other related themes.

(click to enlarge)

Epstein’s discussions of the other manuscripts are similarly eye-opening. For instance, the Golden Haggadah is an example of the Sefard manuscript Haggadah genre. Manuscript haggadahs are placed in two broad categories, Ashkenaz and Sefard. The former’s illustrations appear in the margins and generally explain the text or refer to Pesach scenes such as baking matzo or looking for hametz. The latter’s illustrations appear before the text and are a series of illustrations, appearing either in two or four panels on a single page, depicting the beginning of Jewish history with Adam and Eve, or in the case of the Sarajevo haggadah, the actual creation sequence. The illustrations culminate with the exodus. But, unlike the Ashkenaz examples, the Sefard manuscripts generally do not illustrate the Haggadah text (with the exception of HaLachmanya, a picture of matzo or the like). The Golden Haggadah follows the Sefard conventions and includes the Jewish history scenes. Epstein demonstrates, however, that the images should not just be read chronologically. Rather, the Golden Haggadah illustrator subtly linked events that did not necessarily follow in time. For example, the placement of the water in a scene depicting Jacob’s blessing to Pharaoh is linked to the scene, occurring much later, to the boys being thrown in the Nile and is similarly linked by imagery to Moses being saved from the Nile, as well as Moses rescuing Jethro’s daughters. Epstein connects all of these scenes by noting the unique method and placement of the water in the scenes. But the linkage is not merely water, instead, this interpretation affords insight into God’s blessings, promises, the parameters and methods of His divine punishment of “measure for measure,” gratitude, and salvation. Again, this is but one example where close examination of the illustrations enriches the Haggadah discussion.

All of Epstein’s discussions display his keen awareness and erudition regarding illustrations appearing in both the manuscript as well as print Haggadahs. Although the work employs end notes, which we find generally to indicate that the notes are unnecessary for the text, the notes should not be ignored. They are full of interesting sidebars as well as additional information on the illustrations discussed and the history of Haggadah illustration.[8]

As a testament to the importance of this work, as well as its accessibility, the book was originally published after Pesach last year (hence our belated review) and, already, before even a single Pesach, its publisher is sold out. The work has already received numerous accolades from numerous others to which we add our small voice. This is an incredible work in terms of its insights, methods, and production values that is a welcome breath of fresh air to stale and repetitive Haggadah genre.

[1] See Isaac Rivkin, The Passover Haggada Through the Generations, New York: 1961, pp. 3-4.

[2] We note that unlike most other Jewish books which ceased being produced in manuscript at, or soon after the advent of the printing press, manuscripts of the Haggadah are still being commissioned even today. This is not to suggest that all Haggadah manuscripts are equal. Many of the haggadah manuscripts produced after the printing press are very similar, and especially those produced after the Venice 1609 and Amsterdam 1695 and 1712, most of the illustrations that adore manuscript haggadahs are identical or virtually identical to their printed counterparts. See, e.g., Haviva Peled-Carmel, Illustrated Haggadot of the Eighteenth Century, Jerusalem, The Israel Museum: 1983 (Hebrew).

[3] The link for viewing the Golden Haggadah at the bottom of page here or in a fully sizable and zoomable image here.

[4] The Rylands Haggadah is currently on display at the Met in NYC until September 30, 2012.

[5] M. Spitzer, The Birds Head Haggadah of the Bezalel National Art Musuem in Jerusalem, Jerusalem: 1965; B. Narkiss, The Golden Haggadah: A Fourteenth-Century Illuminated Hebrew Manuscript in the British Museum, London: 1970.

[6] Iconograhical Index of Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. Bezalel Narkiss & Gabrielle Sed-Rajina, vol. I, Jerusalem: 1976 (containing Birds’ Head among other Haggadah manuscripts); similarly, see Narkiss’ Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Isles, Oxford & New York: 1982.

[7] On the use of zoophilic images in the Tripartite Machzor, see Zsofia Buda, “Animals Gazing at Women, Zoocephalic Figures in the Tripartite Machzor,” in Animal Diversities, ed. Gerhard Jaritz & Alice Choyke, Krems: 2005, pp. 136-64 (available at this link). The Tripartite Machzor is another example of an unusual manuscript title. Its title is derived from Bezalel Narkiss’s conclusion that the work is comprised of three parts, one of which is housed in the Kaufmann Collection in Budapest, Hungry, while the other two parts are currently in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The Kaufmann portion is available online here.

[8] We note that Epstein’s discussion of headcovering is in conflict with Rivkin. Compare Epstein, p. 278 n.2 with Isaac Rivkin, “The Responsum of R. Judah Areyeh of Modena on Going Bareheaded,” in Sefer Ha-Yovel le-Kovod Levi Ginzberg, ed. Saul Lieberman, New York: 1946, pp. 401-03 n.1.

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