*The traditional greeting for the intermediate days of Passover: A wish for a good festival time
Monday evening many of my Jewish friends opened their Haggadah, said the Kadeish blessing and asked the age old question that begins the first Sedar of Passover: Why is this night different from all other nights?
The rituals and observances of this holy festival – one of the three in the Jewish calendar along with Sukkot, Shavu’ot – have been passed from generation to generation in these guides to the story and rituals of Passover. The text itself is the fulfillment of the commandment in Exodus 13:8: And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.
As with many ritual texts the origins of the order and form of Passover Seder are a matter of both conjecture and contention. Some scholars date it as early as 170 CE with the latest date suggested being 360 CE. The first complete existing manuscript is from the 10th century in a prayer book compiled by the Egyptian rabbi and philosopher Saadia ben Joseph Al-Fayyumi.
Since that time Haggadot have existed in many forms from gloriously illuminated manuscripts that speak to the artistry in Jewish communities throughout the world to a few sheets of mimeographed paper stapled together as handouts from local kosher butchers. One of the largest private collections in the world belongs to Stephen Durchslag, a Chicago lawyer. And the over 4,500 ritual guides in his collection represent Haggadot in all their forms – from the most elaborate to the simplest.
Many of the most beautiful early manuscripts were created in Spain and were amongst the belongings that Jews were allowed to take with them after the Alhambra Decree in 1492 expelled Jews from their Most Catholic Majesties kingdoms. As the Shepardim moved throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire their art and artifacts influenced and were influenced by the places they settled. Amongst the many illuminated manuscripts now residing in museums throughout the world are the Sarajevo Haggadah, the Barcelona Haggadah, the Washington Haggadah, the Rylands Haggadah and the Golden Haggadah. Most of these priceless books show that, as well as being beautiful, they served their intended purpose – wine stains, turned down pages, every day wear and tear indicate their use at many Passover Seders.
One of the things that makes a Haggadot different from most other Jewish books are the images that appear amongst – and often replacing – the text. The admonition against “graven images” does not apply as the book is not intended as religious text but as a ritual guide. However Menaham, the German scribe who created the Birds’ Head Haggadah in the 13th century took no chances – the very human bodies telling the Exodus story and making the preparations for the feast all have, as its title suggests, birds’ heads – a conceit that delights to this day.
The earliest known copy using a mechanical press was printed in 1486 in Soncino, Lombardy. The Italian Ashkenazi family of printers took their name from their home town and members of the Soncino family were a major influence in the spreading of “printing” in Italy and the middle-East. Their output included religious and secular texts – many illustrated with elaborate engravings or hand-painted detail.
As printing became more widespread the form and appearance of Haggadot changed with the times. They reflected – as they always had – the cultural and world around them. One famous recent example is the Szyk Haggadah created in the mid-1930s by Polish artist Athur Szyk. Known for his political caricatures during the Second World War, his Haggadah reflected the events happening in Europe prior to the outbreak of that War. In his original version the forces of Egypt wore swastikas on their armbands – this detail was removed prior to it publication in England in 1940.
And even today Haggadot are changing with the time: a quick search on the Internet shows that they can be found in many forms – facsimiles of manuscripts, reprints of previous editions, modern editions, children’s editions (including that delightful pop-up version of the Birds’ Head), web versions, even an iPad fascimile of the Golden Haggadah and even an iPhone app. The method may change but the ritual, the tradition remains the same.
April 18 – 1961: The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, a cornerstone of modern international relations, is adopted.