By Rachel Ariel, Guest Contributor and Librarian for Jewish Studies, Duke University
Duke University Libraries hold a vast collection of more than 600 illustrated Passover Haggadot (plural of Haggadah). These Haggadot were created in the last 800 years by a wide array of scribes, artists and printers, in different locations, several languages, and many styles. The collection ranges from limited edition facsimiles of early rare manuscripts to a rich variety of printed and artistic Haggadot, created all over the Jewish Diaspora and in Israel. The collection also holds modern, non-traditional Kibbutz Haggadot, recent Haggadot that represent the feminist and gender revolutions and unique Haggadot created by well-known contemporary artists.
Many of the Haggadot in the collection, together with numerous books, were given to Duke Libraries by Dr. Frances Pascher Kanof and Dr. Abram Kanof, art lovers and generous donors.
Each illustrated Haggadah is the product of the time, culture and space in which it has been created. The time period in which Haggadot were created and the cultural and artistic environment in which the artists lived and worked, influenced the style and imagery that accompany the traditional text. The illustrations that describe Biblical scenes and themes from the Midrash represent the artistic style, architecture and fashion of the time. The images of preparations for Pesach and the various parts of the Seder reflect the lives of the Jews at that particular period, their customs and traditions.
In some illuminated Haggadot of the late medieval and early modern periods, the landscapes of the Land of Canaan and of Egypt feature medieval castles surrounded by green valleys and wooded European mountains. Such sceneries serve as background to the events that took place in Egypt, while Pharaoh and the Egyptian army appear as knights in medieval armor. Moses searching for his stray sheep in front of Mount Horev in the desert looks like a shepherd in the Alps.
In the Duke collection we find a facsimile of a 13th century manuscript from Southern Germany, The Birds’ Head Haggadah. In it the Jewish figures are given birds’ heads instead of human heads. Scholars differ in their explanations for that strange choice and the Haggadah remains a mystery. This is the oldest complete Haggadah known to us, and it contains very detailed images describing various steps in the preparation of the Matzah.
Another facsimile of the fifteenth-century Rothschild Haggadah (Northern Italy, 1479) shows a man using a feather and a lit candle in search of breadcrumbs in preparation for Passover, followed by illustrations of the making of the Matzah. The opposite page shows a couple sitting at the table ready to celebrate the Seder.
Eighteenth-century Haggadot in the collection follow the artistic style of the time and show Pharaoh and his men wearing the latest fashion of German courtiers. Images adorning Haggadot printed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are often replicas or variations of Christian illustrations of the Bible. These illustrations can be found in printed Haggadot for generations to come. The oldest original Haggadah in the collection was printed in Amsterdam in 1695 “according to the custom of Ashkenaz and Sefarad” and contains the first map of the Land of Israel printed entirely in Hebrew by the cartographer Abraham ben Jacob.
Among the Twentieth Century Haggadot we find an “Order of Service for Passover (Haggada)… Issued by the Jewish War Services Committee for India”, printed in Calcutta in 1918 for the Jewish Soldiers in India. In Casablanca, Morocco, in 1943, Alliance Israelite Universelle prepared a Haggadah of Passover “for use of Jewish Personnel of the Army and Navy of the United States in French North Africa”. In a Haggadah created by Holocaust survivors in Munich in 1946, the hard labor of the slaves under Egyptian taskmasters is portrayed as forced labor in a Nazi Concentration Camp.
Modern Artists such as Ze’ev Raban, Arthur Szyk, Maty Grunberg, David Moss and others bring to their illustrated Haggadot recent historical events, current issues and contemporary ideologies that have permeated Jewish life since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. An impressive example is The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah for Passover by Arthur I. Waskow, prepared for The Freedom Seder which was celebrated on the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and centers around human and civil rights.
For images and more information see: https://exhibits.library.duke.edu/exhibits/show/haggadot/intro