The Fondation Pro mahJ has recently been donated an exceptional Haggadah, the account of the exodus from Egypt read during the Passover Seder, the ritual meal beginning the family’s celebration of the Passover. Copied and decorated in ink on parchment in 1731 by an anonymous scribe, this exceptional manuscript was donated by Philippe, Michel and Florence Léon, who inherited it from their mother, Françoise Lévy-Bruhl.
The title page takes the usual form in the modern era: an architectural gateway leading the reader into the text, ornately decorated with the figures of Moses and Aaron on either side and King David playing a lyre in the middle of the pediment. Note also Yakhin and Boaz, the two pillars supporting the porch of the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, and two vases of flowers, a popular motif symbolising the Tree of Life, to which the Torah is assimilated.
The book’s title in large letters is followed by a description in two columns: “With drawings of all the signs and wonders that befell our forefathers in Egypt, in the sea and in the desert and all the holy Seder and the ablution and all the plagues of Egypt and other very beautiful things”. The medallion below bears the Hebrew date: “the year 491 D” (5491 since the creation of the World or 1731 in the Gregorian calendar). Biblical verses in small characters surround the text on three sides.
The distinctive feature of this haggadah (pl. haggadot) is the freshness of its illustrations in ink. Their captions are in cursive Yiddish, complementing the rectangular Hebrew script of the main text for the instructions that participants must follow throughout the meal.
The overall composition and the vignettes were inspired by a famous haggadah with commentaries composed by Daniel Zafrani de Guastalla, printed in Venice in 1609 by Giovanni di Gara in three versions (Judaeo-Spanish, Yiddish and Judaeo-Italian) to cater for the different communities then living in the peninsula. It was reprinted with a few variations in 1629 by Pietro Alvise and Lorenzo Bragadin. This manuscript is closer to the second version, yet the use of Yiddish, the calligraphy and the name of an owner written at the end of the book, “Zalman, son of Elkhanan Oppenheim”, suggest a Germanic origin. Although research has not yet identified this person, the donors’ family has a German branch, with several ancestors from Bavaria, Frankfurt and Worms and the surname Oppenheim attested.
As the title page states, the manuscript’s twenty-five folios are ornately decorated with thirty-four horizontal illustrations at the bottom or top of the page (sometimes both) and three pages divided into small vignettes, two with the stages of the seder and another illustrating the ten plagues of Egypt. All the subjects are from the Haggadah, but this biblical narrative is often enriched with details from the Midrash (a corpus of biblical exegeses compiled in the first centuries AD). The text is framed by columns entwined with foliation, sometimes replaced by the figures of Moses and Aaron or David and Solomon, and surmounted by pediments in the Mannerist style.
18th-century haggadot manuscripts were produced for a very wealthy clientele – the common people had to content themselves with cheaply printed books. Their illustrations were very often inspired by the finest printed editions and sometimes heightened with colour.
The most frequently copied model (several score have been identified) is the haggadah printed in Amsterdam in 1695 by Asher Anshel ben Eliezer and reprinted in 1712 by Solomon Proops, whose copperplate engravings were adapted by Abraham Bar Yaacov, a German priest converted to Judaism, from the Iconae Biblicae by Matthäus Merian, known as Matthew the Elder (1593-1650) illustrating Luther’s Bible. This model circulated widely and has inspired hundreds of editions in all the major Hebrew printing centres until today.
The woodcuts for Daniel Zafrani’s Venetian haggadah prompted the donation to the mahJ. Their origin is unknown (their composition and iconography are more archaic) and they were much less frequently copied. They were reproduced in the 19th century in Livorno in Judaeo-Spanish editions intended for the Sephardic diaspora but apparently less known by Ashkenazi scribes. The only other known examples of manuscripts inspired by this model are three haggadot copied by the same scribe, Abraham of Irhringen (named after a small town in Baden-Württemberg not far from the Alsatian frontier), the first in 1732, only a year after this manuscript, and the following in 1740 and 1656. These manuscripts are respectively in the Israel Museum, the collection of the late Victor Klagsbald and the Jewish Museum in London. Research into the history of this magnificent work is still ongoing.
This donation is a major enrichment of the mahJ’s collection. It will be displayed in the mahJ’s permanent collection as soon as the museum opens again after the Coronavirus crisis.