Home Opinions Ideas The evolution of the Haggadah: a collector’s perspective

The evolution of the Haggadah: a collector’s perspective

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A page from the 'Bird's Head Haggadah'
A page from the 'Bird's Head Haggadah'

My interest in Haggadahs was sparked by a visit to Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Art Gallery in 1974. Browsing through a Haggadah by Herbert Bronstein, I was captivated by the illustrations of Leonard Baskin. Since then, I have acquired new Haggadot each year in anticipation of the Passover holiday.

My memories of the Passover celebration revert back to my childhood in Mumbai (Bombay), India, seated around the festive table with extended family and friends. We read from a menagerie of well-used Haggadot, each sporting varying degrees of wine stains accumulated over the years. My great-grandparents emigrated from Baghdad, bringing with them Haggadot of the Sephardi liturgy. A few additions to our table were printed in Livorno, Italy, with the Ladino translation. Some Haggadot included an Arabic translation within the Hebrew script, which we read as well, extending the festivities past the midnight hour.

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A product of Diaspora Judaism, the Haggadah was written by the great post-talmudic rabbis studying in Babylonian academies. The earliest extant written manuscript, a relatively complete fragment dated around the ninth and 10th century, was found in the Cairo genizah, a repository for discarded sacred writings.

Prior to the printing press, illuminated Haggadah manuscripts appeared in the 1300s. One of the earliest of these is the Ashkenazi Bird’s Head Haggadah, a manuscript whose illustrations depict humans with bird-like faces wearing conical hats. Such a motif was employed due to the prohibition against graven images of human likeness. Portrayal of human figures with animal and bird-like heads were typically expressed in Jewish manuscripts in south Germany at the time. French Torah scholars, on the other hand, had a more accepting and moderate approach to the portrayal of the human form.

Jews throughout time have created lavishly decorated Haggadot. These are labours of love, the most extensively decorated of all Hebrew manuscripts. The distinctive Golden Haggadah, known for its generous use of gold leaf, emerged around 1320 and currently resides in the British Library. The exquisite Sarajevo Haggadah, which can be found at the National Museum of Sarajevo, is considered to be one of the oldest Sephardi Haggadot. It is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. Originating in Barcelona around 1350, it has had a turbulent history, having changed hands several times and surviving many close calls with destruction.

The birth of the printed Haggadah in the 15th century led to new innovations in creativity. Some Haggadot were illustrated with medieval woodcuts. The most famous of these, the Prague Haggadah of 1526, served as a prototype for those that followed.

Over the years, I have added to my Haggadah collection some older copies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few illustrated from woodcuts or copper engravings. They include one published by Eliyahu ben Amozeg and Sons in Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, in 1865, printed, according to the Baghdad rite, in both Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, and illustrated with woodcut blocks, depicting an embellished Hebrew letter at the start of a paragraph. Another, the Rodelheim Haggadah Shel Pasach, printed in 1863 with a German translation by Abraham Emanuel, illustrates the Exodus story within a medieval backdrop of knights and castles.

During the latter half of the last century, there was an explosion in contemporary Jewish art. Political artists such as Arthur Szyk filled the pages of their Haggadot with Jewish heroes and stunning calligraphy. Early modernist Marc Chagall brought a name to the art form that all could recognize, and later, Israeli artist David Moss revived the art of the illuminated Haggadah. Multiple editions of his prized Moss Haggadah have been published. Printed in elaborate folio editions showcasing full-page illustrations, these books are as suitably displayed on a coffee table as on a seder table.

Modern Jewish history has not only brought changes in printing and illustration methods, but in the very content of the Haggadah. Two major events have significantly contributed to the restructuring of today’s Haggadah: the Holocaust and the struggle for an independent homeland. The Survivors’ Haggadah is a unique post-Holocaust facsimile, created by survivors and displaced persons after the liberation, in preparation for the Passover holiday of 1946. Dedicated to those that escaped, the story of Jewish survival is interwoven with the traditional seder and illustrated with stark woodcuts created by survivor Miklos Adler, depicting the heart-wrenching deliverance to freedom. Escape Velocity is another apocalyptic Passover Haggadah, by Stanley Aaron Lebovic, son of a Holocaust survivor. Lebovic soulfully weaves memories of the decimation of European Jewry into the traditional Haggadah.

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The closing words of the Haggadah, “next year in Jerusalem,” were realized with the establishment of the State of Israel. New Haggadot provided testimony to the lives and ideals of the Jewish state’s builders and depicted the renewed aspirations of Jews in their homeland. A prime example is Chaya and David Harel’s Rebirth of Israel Passover Haggadah, printed in 1968, which provides an analogy of the Exodus story in the framework of the Jewish liberation and birth of Israel. 

The 1969 Freedom Seder, produced in honour of Martin Luther King Jr., launched a new era of diversity in themed Haggadot. These include texts that focus on egalitarianism, feminism, the LGBTQ community, environmentalism and other causes that emphasize social and political justice. They are personalized, revised and recast so that the Haggadah remains relevant to our lives today.

While the structure of the Haggadah remains the same, the text has become a dais of creative ideas, emphasizing the theme of freedom. It has become a means of expression for a people targeted for victimhood. 


Ellis Macmull is an architectural designer/planner.