Beauty in Holiness
The Washington Haggadah (Central
Europe, January 29, 1478). Known as the Washington Haggadah
because of its presence in the Library of Congress in Washington,
D.C., this manuscript is the Library's most important illuminated
Hebrew manuscript. The illustration here depicts the Messiah
heralded. It features the Messiah -- or Elijah, the harbinger
of the Messiah -- approaching Jerusalem astride a donkey.
The commandment of hiddur mitzvah, which urges one to
adorn and beautify the implements of holiness, is the fundamental
justification within Judaism for the embellishment, through the
ages, of the books, manuscripts, documents, and ritual artifacts
of Jewish life.
The Library's most important Hebrew illuminated manuscript is
known as the "Washington Haggadah" because of its location in
Washington, D.C. A haggadah (the plural is haggadot)
is a liturgical work that is recited in the home at the festive
evening meal of Passover, in order to fulfill the biblical injunction
(Exodus 13:8) to recount the story of the Exodus to each generation.
Haggadot are often illustrated, the theory being that this will
keep the children interested and awake during the reciting of
the text. Completed on January 29, 1478, the Washington Haggadah
was signed by Joel ben Simeon, a well-known scribe and artist
responsible for more than a dozen other Hebrew illuminated manuscripts
found in collections around the world. In addition to the full
text of the Passover night liturgy, the Washington Haggadah features
stunningly intricate illuminated panels and a series of Passover
illustrations that include depictions of "The Four Sons," "The
Search for Leaven," and "The Messiah Heralded." The enduring popularity
of Joel ben Simeon's miniatures is reflected in the many reproductions
of his work that have appeared over the years in anthologies of
Jewish art and manuscript painting.
In 1991, the Library of Congress published a facsimile edition
of the Washington Haggadah, accompanied by a companion volume
with a detailed scholarly description, analysis, and assessment
of the manuscript.
Scrolls of Esther were often decorated with scenes that tell
the story of Purim. The Library's collections include a profusely
illustrated eighteenth-century Italian megillah with
images drawn in a simple folk-art style depicting the events recounted
in the biblical story of Esther.
Accompanying the scroll is a decorated plaque with the text of
the blessings recited by the megillah reader.
1707). This early eighteenth-century woodcut illustrates
a scene under the marriage canopy.
Ketubah. (Madallena on the
Po, 1839). The double archway decorating this ketubah is
surrounded by birds and flowers. The words in the banner
held in the birds' beaks reads, "He who has found a wife,
has found virtue."
One of Judaism's most joyous events is the celebration of a marriage.
To mark the event, a marriage contract, or ketubah (plural,
ketuboth), is drawn up, delineating the obligations of
each of the parties to the union. The custom of decorating the
ketubah, which flows quite naturally from the concept of hiddur
mitzvah, often results in the creation of a legal document
that is both a charming work of art and a meaningful keepsake.
Among the ketuboth in the Library's collection is one marking
the wedding of Aaron ben Hayim Cesana of Corfu to Sara bat Mordecai
d'Ovadia, which took place in the Italian port city of Ancona
on 15 Sivan 5565, which corresponds to Wednesday, 12 June 1805
(see cover illustration). A second Italian ketubah, this one from
Madallena on the Po, celebrates the marriage of David Hayim Norzi
to Estellina Bianchini on 13 Elul 5599, according to the Jewish
reckoning, which corresponds to Friday, 23 August 1839.
Ketubah (Meshed, Persia, 1889). This ketubah, decorated
in the style of an ornate prayer rug, originates in Persia
and shines with gold and blue colors, accented with reds.
Nonrepresentational decorations appear on a ketubah from the
Persian city of Meshed marking the marriage of Rahamim to Malkah
in 1889. Just fifty years before this wedding, the Jews of Meshed
were forced to convert to Islam en masse. Though officially Muslims,
the forced converts of Meshed continued to practice Judaism in
Shivviti plaques, inscribed with phrase "I Have Set the Lord
before Me Always," (Psalms 16:8), were used both in the synagogue
and in the home, where they were hung on the wall to designate
the correct direction to face in prayer. The Library's shivviti
features a seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah, adorned
with a crown bearing the four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton.
This shivviti was completed by the Holy Land emissary Shneur Zalman
Mendelowitz in the late nineteenth century.
Micrography, the creation of shapes and forms using minuscule
letters and words, is a traditional Jewish art form that dates
back to the micrographic representations of the massoretic notes
that often appeared in the margins of ancient Bible codices. The
Ship of Jonah by Moses Elijah Goldstein depicts the story
of Jonah and the whale -- showing the ship, Jonah, and the whale
using the Hebrew text of the biblical Book of Jonah. According
to the handwritten inscription at the bottom of the engraving,
the artist presented this micrography to Gustav May in 1897.
Shneur Zalman Mendelowitz, Shivviti
Plaque (late nineteenth century). This colorful Shivviti
Plaque includes, at its base, depictions of the Cave of
the Patriarchs in Hebron and Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Micrography: Moses Elijah Goldstein, Sefinat
Yonah (The Ship of
Jonah) (1897). The words of the Book of Jonah form this
depiction of Jonah and the whale.
The Passover Haggadah is one of Judaism's most popular books,
with the Hebraic Section holding more than 3,000 printed editions
from all over the world. Like decorated ketuboth and megillot,
these printed works are often beautifully illustrated.
Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover
Haggadah) (Venice, 1629). The illustrations on these
printed pages of the Venice Haggadah depict events in the
life of the patriarch Abraham. The binding of Isaac is illustrated
in the woodcut on the bottom left.
A haggadah published in Venice in 1609 and then again twenty
years later, in 1629, quickly became a prototype for subsequent
Sefardi editions of the haggadah. Both editions were issued in
three versions -- each with a different vernacular translation,
but flanked by the same decorative borders and including the same
illustrations. The vernaculars were Judeo-Italian, Judeo-German,
and Judeo- Spanish -- all three written in Hebrew characters.
The illustrations, by an unknown artist, were used in a variety
of haggadot over the course of more than 150 years. The 1629 edition
added the commentary of the noted Venetian rabbi Leone da Modena.
An equally influential haggadah, which became the prototype for
subsequent Ashkenazi haggadot, appeared in Amsterdam in 1695.
Known as "The Amsterdam Haggadah," it was extensively illustrated
with copper engravings executed by the proselyte Abraham ben Jacob,
who based his depictions on those of Matthaeus Merian, a Christian
artist popular in the early seventeenth century. The Amsterdam
Haggadah's illustrations were widely imitated and copied over
the course of the next century both in printed works and in manuscripts.
Seder Haggadah shel Pesah
(Amsterdam, 1695). Moses (right and above)
and Aaron, his older brother and the founder of the Jewish
priesthood, are depicted on the title page of the Amsterdam
Seder Haggadah le-Pesah,
Form and Relation of the Two First Nights of the Feast of
Passover (New York, 1878). An American family seated
at the seder table presents a new version of the depiction
of the "four sons" described in the haggadah. The Wise
Son, kippah (or skullcap) on head, is looking
at the haggadah before him. The Wicked Son, bare-headed,
his chair tilted back, is smoking a cigarette.
Haggadot were printed virtually everywhere Jews lived. In 1874,
a haggadah was published in Poona, India, for use by the Bene
Israel, a community of Indian Jews, which featured seder illustrations
with a distinctly Indian flavor. The Indian haggadah included
a Marathi translation, as well as the illustrations for each step
in the traditional order of the seder service.
Titled simply The Haggadah, Arthur Szyk's masterpiece
of illumination is considered by many to be the most exquisite
haggadah produced in the twentieth century. Arthur Szyk, the Polish
expatriot who revived the art of medieval manuscript illumination,
devoted his great artistic gifts to the fashioning of this haggadah,
completed on the eve of World War II, after seven years of labor.
Dedicated to King George V of England, it was published in an
edition of 250 signed and numbered copies on French-fold vellum,
half for distribution in England and half to be distributed in
the United States.
The Poona Haggadah (Poona,
1874). A haggadah published for the Bene Israel community
in India features seder illustrations that show Indian dress
The Haggadah, copied
and illustrated by Arthur Szyk, edited by Cecil Roth (London,
1940). The purpose of the haggadah, opened here to Arthur
Szyk's illumination of the "Four Questions," is to transmit
from one generation to the next the story of the Exodus.
The young boy asks: "Why is this night different than all
other nights?" The master of the house replies: "Because
we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt," and then continues
to tell the story of the Exodus. (Rare
Book and Special Collections Division)