The Sarajevo Haggadah in pictures

The Sarajevo Haggadah illustrates the concluding moment of Genesis—Joseph’s embalmed body in its coffin—with a colorful midrashic expansion, that the Egyptians sank Joseph’s coffin into the Nile as a kind of cadaverous good luck charm.  The image is composed of Joseph in an open gold box, hovering over a wavy blue river, surrounded by human figures on both sides.  This picture immediately borders an illustration of baby Moses rescued from the Nile—composed of Moses in an open gold box, hovering over a wavy blue river, surrounded by human figures on both sides.  These images convey the symbolic genius of the midrash.  In the midrashic imagination, Joseph and Moses are symbols of the people Israel.  The Jewish descent into slavery begins with a lifeless Joseph sunk into Egypt’s Nile, while Jewish salvation commences with a newborn Moses raised up from the watery depths.

The Haggadah starts with pictures of Creation and the origins of the Jewish people.

Early haggadahs featured hand-drawn illustrations and in more recent times, pictures were inserted to stimulate the “curiosity of the children…[and served] as a lively medium of visual instruction, much like today’s picture books,” Yerushalmi writes.

Every page is beautiful and it  reminds you how important the visual appearance of books is.The illustrations are brilliant and the Hebrew is surprisingly readable.

The Haggadah is arguably the most popular Jewish book read by Jews. Literally thousands of editions have been published, catering to every imaginable taste, and it has appeared in every language ever spoken by Jews, and even in some that are not spoken at all, such as Klingon and Lawyerese.

Like the holiday for which it is the chief prop, the Haggadah celebrates the Exodus, the central Jewish story of redemption, when God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert, into a covenant, and ultimately into the Promised Land.  On a basic level, the Haggadah serves as a guide for the Seder, a ritual meal held in most Jewish homes during Passover.

Indeed, these medieval illuminations can raise, as powerfully as text, the most essential questions in Jewish theology.  Both the Golden Haggadah and Nuremberg Haggadah (ca. 1450) illustrate Exodus 14:8: “The Children of Israel left [Egypt] with an upraised hand.”  In the Nuremberg Haggadah, the Israelites’ upraised hands bear the spears and swords of medieval insurrection. This Exodus is armed: God leads the charge, but His people are ready to fight.  In contrast, salvation in the Golden Haggadah is a faith-based initiative: The Israelites exit Egypt with their hands upraised in supplication and praise to God.  Their Egyptian pursuers, pictured nearby, foolishly rely on force of arms; the Jews merit redemption through the power of prayer alone.

The original Exodus is a model of Jewish salvations to come, so these vastly different images of the Jewish past reflect alternative visions of the Jewish future.  When the creators and readers of the Nuremberg Haggadah contemplated their own redemption, they likely saw a legion of armed Jews; those who produced and cherished the Golden Haggadah awaited the moment at which Hebrew piety would finally prove sufficient.  Jewish art talks Jewish theology.

Today—and in the past—Jewish men, women, and children assemble around an elaborately set table for a complex meal, which commemorates the Exodus and the importance of freedom from slavery.   Everyone participates in this ritual, with the youngest child being assigned the special role of asking the traditional Four Questions.  Whether the child asks the questions in Klingon, English, Yiddish, or any other language depends on the home.

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