The Washington Haggadah
by Joel ben Simon. Translated by David Stern.
(Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $39.95)
Collectors can now enjoy a facsimile edition of artist-scribe Joel ben Simon’s 1478 Haggada; the original was written in Germany, traveled to Italy and is now in the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress. Its publication does more than simply allow us to enjoy the beautiful calligraphy and art of its talented creator. Two accompanying essays give the history of the Haggada’s evolution from two biblical commandments (to bring a sacrifice in Egypt the night of the Exodus and to observe a festival of unleavened bread) to, by 220 C.E., a script for the Seder, and what ben Simon’s illustrations say about his society.
In his essay, “The Life of a Book,” David Stern, the Moritz and Joseph Berg Professor of Classical Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, points out the influence of the Greco-Roman banquet on the Seder, the root of the word afikoman—and how the first Haggadas were published as part of the regular prayer book (they were detached in the 13th century).
Katrin Kogman-Appel, associate professor of the arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, explains that because ben Simon traveled between Germany and Italy, the Haggada has unusual, Italianate forms of artistic flourishes, visual puns and iconography one would not usually find in an Ashkenazic-scripted Haggada. Ben Simon excelled in scribal techniques, the use of varying sizes for initial words, incorporating colors and using delicate filigreed panels as well as grotesques.
Interestingly, his “son who does not know how to ask” is represented as a jester, which figured regularly in medieval illuminated manuscripts; ben Simon’s jester points to his mouth, perhaps because he cannot speak.
The Washington Haggadahserves many purposes: to please the eye; to fulfill a ritual; to provide a history lesson; and to bring us into ben Simon’s world.
The Szyk Haggadah
by Arthur Szyk. Translation and commentary by Byron L. Sherwin and Irvin Ungar.
(Abrams, 130 pp. $40 cloth, $16.95 paper)
People who drooled over the luxury limited edition of The Szyk Haggadah produced by Historicana in 2008 take heart. There are now two affordable editions to bring to the Seder table. (Bring another Haggada as well because Szyk’s Hebrew calligraphy is hard to read.) It is one of many projects shepherded by Irvin Ungar, a historian-curator who has brought Arthur Szyk’s brilliant artwork back into the public eye.
Szyk’s Haggada was first published in 1940; the new edition is divided in two sections—the Haggada, translation and commentary go from right to left, the introduction and essays start at left. You can appreciate this work for the visual midrash alone; the artwork is full of scholarly, theological and political implications.
From explaining Passover’s names—among them Hag He-Aviv (the Festival of Spring) and Z’man Heruteinu (Time of Our Freedom)—to the requirements of ridding the house of hametz, both the functional and spiritual aspects of the holiday are given. It is written that “…we must take care to rid ourselves of our internal hametz in the self through searching for it in every nook and cranny of the soul, then by eliminating it through introspection, repentance, and good deeds.”
Szyk asks: What is the story we are telling? What does it mean that “We begin with shame and conclude with redemption”? Where is Moses in the Haggada? Szyk consistently linked current affairs to ancient Egyptian oppression and felt Jews had to fight for their own liberation. He also offers Hasidic interpretations of redemption—communal and individual—a discussion of the plagues and the question of just retribution.
Szyk’s version has been updated to include rituals such as blessing the children and a Miriam’s cup. Originally created on parchment in Poland, Szyk’s Haggada is still fabulous and fresh.
Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families
by Cokie and Steve Roberts
(Harper, 137 pp. $19.99)
This small book has a lot of heart. In its two introductions, Steve Roberts, son of secular Jewish parents, and his wife, Cokie Roberts, a church-going Catholic, describe their decision to marry despite religious differences and family objections. To make their marriage work, they resolved to incorporate and honor both traditions.
The Roberts’s annual Seder—with invitations extended to other interfaith couples—led to the family’s homespun Haggada. The decision to publish it, Cokie Roberts says, makes it available to other “non-Jews who want to sit at the Passover table.”
This Haggada is a primer for the uninitiated to make their own Seder, with enough explanation to make the traditions meaningful. Included are basic instructions on setting the table and discussions about whether one must buy a Seder plate or matza cover. The rules of hametz, the four cups of wine, the dipping and the songs are related. Cokie Roberts, who is from New Orleans, decided that an authentic Passover meal should be Sefardic rather than East European cuisine, and a chapter of recipes is included.
Those who avail themselves of this Haggada will likely thank Cokie and Steve Roberts for sharing.
Rabbi David Silber’s contribution to the Haggada bookshelf is actually twofold. From right to left is the Hebrew Haggada with accompanying English translation and commentary. Book two, from left to right, comprises eight scholarly essays. Silber explores “Arami Oved Avi” (usually translated as “An Aramean [Lavan] wanted to destroy my father”), considered the core text of the Haggada, which relates the near destruction of the Israelites in Egypt. Other topics are God’s covenant wth the Jewish people; seeing the Exodus as an individual and collective coming of age; rereading the plagues; the paschal sacrifice and the shaping of a nation; Lot and the destruction of Sodom; andHallel as a song of redemption.
Silber, founder and dean of Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, which advances Jewish learning for women, and Rachel Furst, who teaches Talmud and Rabbinic literature in Jerusalem, have created an erudite work.