Detail of a page from The Washington Haggadah.(Library of Congress and Harvard University Press)
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National Treasure

A critical edition of The Washington Haggadah, a 1478 manuscript housed at the Library of Congress, shows how much—and how little—Passover has changed since the 15th century

Adam Kirsch
April 12, 2011
Detail of a page from The Washington Haggadah.(Library of Congress and Harvard University Press)

This week, Jews everywhere will engage in the annual ritual of digging out their haggadahs from the bookshelves and closets where they have been stored since last Passover. The typical haggadah is only used a couple of nights a year, far less than a prayer book or a Bible. But somehow, the words and images of the haggadah—whether it’s an Artscroll tome or a flimsy Maxwell House booklet—have a way of sinking deep into the memory. At many Seder tables, the haggadah itself becomes a record of meals past, with wine drops discoloring the page that lists the Ten Plagues and food stains marking the sections for matzoh and maror.

Perhaps the power of the haggadah has to do with the way Passover is celebrated at home, rather than in synagogue; perhaps it comes from the way children are enlisted in the Seder early on, with important roles like reciting the Four Questions and finding the afikoman. And surely it is related to the fact that the Passover liturgy constantly insists on the importance of remembering and reenacting the past. This memorial purpose is emphasized at the very moment the holiday is instituted, in chapter 12 of Exodus: “And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the Lord will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.”

There is a striking dislocation of time here: Even before the Lord has smitten the Egyptians, even before the Israelites have been freed, Moses is already looking forward to an era when these events will have to be recollected. The haggadah itself can be seen as a tool for collapsing time. To explain the holiday to the son “who does not know how to ask,” it instructs, “you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt’ ”—as though each Jew still had the foam of the Red Sea on his shoes.

No run-of-the-mill haggadah is quite as effective at making the past present, however, as The Washington Haggadah (Harvard University Press, $39.95). This beautifully produced book is a detailed facsimile of a 500-year-old haggadah in the collection of the Library of Congress, which explains the name (although it is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Thanks to an inscription near the end of the book, we even know the exact day it was finished—January 29, 1478—and the name of the scribe who produced it: “The work was completed, and it is sufficient. And today is the twenty-fifth day of the month of Shevat in the year 238 according to the short enumeration. The work of the least of the scribes, Joel, the son of Simeon of blessed memory.”

But Joel ben Simeon was being too modest. Far from being “the least of the scribes,” he is described by David Stern, in the introduction to this edition, as “one of the most important and prolific scribes and illustrators in the history of the Jewish book.” Ten manuscripts bearing Joel’s signature survive, and another four to nine can be attributed to him based on peculiarities of his style, which combines the traditions of his native Germany with those of northern Italy, where he spent much of his working life.

The first thing that strikes the contemporary reader of this 15th-century book is that, if you threw away your haggadahs and replaced them with copies of The Washington Haggadah, you would hardly notice the difference—except, of course, for the aesthetic improvement. The Hebrew and Aramaic text is the same one we use today. There are the same mishnaic passages (“Said Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaryah: Look! I am seventy years old, and I never merited understanding why the Exodus should be mentioned in the evening until Ben Zoma interpreted the following verse.”), and even, on the first page, the same mnemonic for the order of the Seder (“Kadesh Urchatz Karpas Yachatz”).

This concrete evidence of the way the Seder has been performed for centuries is a powerful lesson in what is dryly called “Jewish continuity.” More powerful still, however, are the illustrations that Joel ben Simeon added to the margins of the text (usefully, The Washington Haggadah includes a descriptive catalog of all these illustrations). On the first page of the manuscript, for instance, underneath the blessing for getting rid of chametz, there is a picture of a man peering into a cupboard, holding a candle for better light and a feather for sweeping stray crumbs. Behind him, another man, wearing red tights, a blue singlet, and a green cap, uses a bellows to fan a fire where the collected chametz is being burned. This kind of charming, lifelike, instantly legible drawing will be familiar to anyone who has looked at medieval Latin manuscripts; but here they are translated to a Jewish context, offering glimpses of how our ancestors lived before Columbus discovered America.

Sometimes, the pictures communicate more than you’d expect. The four sons, explains Katrin Kogman-Appel in her essay on “The Illustrations of the Washington Haggadah,” were a popular theme for medieval illustrators, giving the chance to depict different human and social types. In The Washington Haggadah, the wise son is shown as a scholar, seated on a chair with a book open on his lap and a thoughtful expression. He is effectively contrasted with the simple son, who sits on the floor and peers suspiciously at an open book he’s clearly having a hard time with. The son who doesn’t know how to ask is a jester, wearing a cap and bells and beating a drum. But the most interesting drawing is the wicked son: He is depicted as a Christian knight, wearing armor and holding a sword and lance. This image, so familiar even today as the embodiment of chivalric virtue, appears to the Jews as a symbol of vice—the proud, violent face of the oppressor. It’s a small gesture that succeeds in overturning our received ideas about the Christian and Jewish past.

A more domestic kind of realism can be seen in other drawings. Underneath the “Dayenu,” just at the point in the Seder when mealtime is approaching, Joel has drawn a scene of two women stirring a pot over a blazing fire, while a man next to them turns a spit. The man, we note, has a prominent goiter—a symptom of iodine deficiency that would have been a common sight in certain regions of Germany in the Middle Ages. More pointedly, Joel illustrates the text about maror with a picture of a man and woman, evidently a married couple; the woman is holding a sword, an emblem of discord, while the man tries to stuff a bitter herb into her mouth. It’s a wry commentary on family life, somehow made more affecting by the way it sits across the page from a whimsical drawing of a monkey brandishing a piece of matzoh.

Food leaves its trace in The Washington Haggadah in a more concrete way, as well. The publishers have reproduced the manuscript so accurately that you can see wine and food spots on several pages, as well as places where the ink has smeared after being touched with a wet hand. And on one of the blank pages at the end of the manuscript, there is a handwritten note. Hard to make out, it is explained by David Stern: It was written “by one Ettore Finzi in German, dated April 7, 1879, which was indeed Passover eve that year … he writes that they are sitting at the seder table, where they have just sung the first part of the ‘Gada,’ and are awaiting the food. After the food arrives, they start eating, and he signs off, ‘Guten Appetit.’ ” From the Exodus to the Rabbis to 1478 to 1879 to 2011—in these pages, if anywhere, the past is present and the present past.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.