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    Passover: The history of Haggadah art, and how the illustrators worked

    April 2nd, 2021

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 2 April, 2021.

    A page from the Darmstadt Haggadah

    One year, the trustees of the Blake Prize in Australia included me among the competition’s judges. A journalist strongly objected because he thought rabbis knew nothing about art. He got his ideas from a line of thinking that says that Jewish art is largely non-existent because the Second Commandment bans the depiction of the Divine or anything in God’s Creation.

    There was a fear of graven images, but artistic creativity was not completely prohibited or circumvented. It is true that Judaism has problems with the visual arts, and there are very few artistic works in the synagogues, though the mosaics in ancient synagogues in Israel are often strong and powerful. They do not portray God or human beings, though animals and birds and geometrical designs abound.

    A major category of Jewish art is that of manuscript illumination, though its early history is not greatly known. Among Jewish literary works, the Torah strictly abides by the prohibition of images, but there is a spirit of leniency in other directions. The Passover Haggadah almost always has pictorial illustrations without which it would be a quite different and less exciting book. Haggadot produced in the medieval period are especially embellished with all sorts of illuminations as well as dramatic illustrations.

    Not that the artists always agreed with each other. In the Middle Ages, when manuscript illumination was at its peak, there were two main schools of illustration. As Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz points out in one of his articles about Jewish books, the German school tended to limit itself to depicting the Seder service: the family at Seder, the four sons, the 10 plagues, the rabbis at Bnei Brak, and the hiding of the afikoman.

    The Spanish School concentrated on the creation, depicting what took place on each of the first seven days of history. Apart from the flora and fauna, we see Adam and Eve establishing human history. We see the animals coming to Adam to receive their names. We see Eve emerging from the rib of Adam. Later figures such as the patriarchs Moses, Aaron and David were also depicted.

    Among the works of artists who believed that the Second Commandment prohibited depictions of the human shape, we see the so-called Bird’s Head Haggadah, where human heads are replaced by birds. Most illustrators, whatever their provenance, depict biblical themes, though sometimes they give a contemporary appearance to figures from the Bible.

    In Dutch Haggadot of pre-modern vintage, Moses looks like an Amsterdam burgher of the time of Rembrandt. Rembrandt himself produced quite a number of Jewish-themed paintings. In more recent Haggadot, the wise son looks charedi, ultra-Orthodox. The wicked son looks like a Cossack. The simple son has nothing special about him. The son that knows not how to ask looks quite puzzled. One of the strangest Haggadot shows the head of the family pointing to his wife when referring to the bitter herbs!

    Illustrations became commonplace on Seder plates. They depict the family seated around the festival table and often go back into history with the finding of baby Moses, the Hebrew serfs laboring for Pharaoh, the people in flight from Egypt, and even the first Passover celebrated the year after the Exodus. These Seder plates became popular amongst the well-to-do, more among Ashkenazim than Sephardim.

    One of the wedding presents my wife and I received was an Arthur Szyk Seder plate, which we use to this day. It was given to us by the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain, whose religious director I was at the time.

    What happened with the Blake Prize of which I was one of the judges? There was public support for my nomination, and the other judges recorded their appreciation of my contribution to the discussions. The religion writer for The Australian, a national daily, said I was an urbane man and widely respected.

    I think gratefully that my parents chose well when they gave me the Hebrew name of Bezalel. I was named after my grandfather but have had a lifetime yearning to deserve the name, since the original Bezalel was “filled with the spirit of God in wisdom, understanding and knowledge” and had the instinct to know what turned a building into a sanctuary.


    Freedom – the day after

    March 29th, 2021

    The great achievement of Judaism was that it decided not to leave its ideals to theory.

    It believed in freedom but didn’t just talk or write about it. It turned it into an event, a public demonstration. It told the tale of freedom and reconstructed it.

    Jews re-lived it all, the enslavement in Egypt, the dream of liberation, the emergence into a new free world.

    Not that it left it at that. It did not limit itself to a crowd of ex-serfs standing outside the prison gates wondering what came next. It said, “Now you are free you have to have somewhere to go and something to do!”

    The test was not just leaving the prison and hearing the gates clang behind the Israelites. The test was what came next.

    And that is why the next stage was the journey to Sinai. Sinai gave the free people an agenda: now they were free and now they had a task which would prove what they could do with their freedom. They could regard every other human being as a person with dignity and rights.

    Sinai taught them to mean what they said on Pesach, “Whoever is hungry, come and eat with us; whoever is needy, come and share the world” – to say it, and make it into a way of life.

    This is freedom in practice, not just in theory. It joins Emma Lazarus in saying the words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me.”


    Respect for the Egyptians

    March 29th, 2021

    Spilling a drop of wine at the mention of each of the ten plagues is said to be a tear of sympathy for the Egyptians.

    Egyptians drowning in the sea, Venice Haggadah, 1609

    The Midrash Avkir and the Gemara in Sanhedrin 39b tell us that the ministering angels began to celebrate when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea in safety, but God said, “You dare to sing to me when My creatures are drowning in the sea? Where is your humanity?”

    This reprimand is deservedly famous, but few people know what precedes it in the rabbinic text.

    The dialogue begins with the guardian angel of Egypt, Uzza, who saw that God was about to drown the Egyptians in the sea and said, “God, You created the universe with Your attribute of mercy – how can You drown my children in the water of the sea?”

    God turned to the whole heavenly array and asked them to decide between Him and Uzza. The guardian angels of all the other nations spoke up in support of Uzza but the angel Gabriel went down to Egypt where the buildings and pyramids had been erected.

    He removed a brick behind which the taskmasters had placed the body of a Jewish child in order to strengthen the building, and he said: “O God, look at what they have done with your children!”

    God and the other angels were shocked. He decided according to the attribute of justice and decided to drown the Egyptians in the sea.

    Those who are interested will find this anecdote relevant to the bitter final verse in Psalm 137.


    Shir HaShirim: Fact or fantasy?

    March 29th, 2021

    Pesach is marked by the reading of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Solomon Schechter called it “one of the finest pieces of religious poetry in existence”. Rabbi Akiva said it was “holy of holies”.

    How can it be holy if it neither mentions God or religious practice and ethics? If it is religious, either the author masked its nature or it is an allegory – but of what?

    Its content is the love of a shepherd boy and girl despite all the hindrances that come between them.

    There are two main interpretations, literalist and secularist. The literalist interpretation is that the narrator is telling us what the young couple dream of. The secularist interpretations see it as a drama, a wedding song, a love song, or a fertility rite.

    But a third category of interpretation sees the book as an allegory of the love between God and the people of Israel with the Torah as the ketubah, the contract between them. Or perhaps the allegory is about the love between God and his Torah. In Christianity there is also an allegorical view, though the details are not the concern of the Jewish reader.

    Rabbi Akiva’s characterisation of the book as supremely holy assures us that though the language is sometimes daring, the book brings us into the deepest love affair there is in religion, the spiritual closeness of God and Israel.

    In Judaism the book is not a mere song or entertainment, not titillation but inspiration, an articulation of holiness.

    Whatever interpretation you choose, there is a dimension that should never be overlooked – the dignity and beauty of nature, which is the setting of the story and shows the splendour with which God has clothed His Creation.

    Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said he prayed that every day he would be able to go outdoors among the trees and flowers and open his heart and tongue to acclaim the Creator. He said, “May all the foliage of the field awake at my coming, and send the power of their life into the words of my prayer.”

    AJ Cronin said that an old gardener in Italy told him, “I see my cherry trees in bud, then in flower, then in fruit. And then I believe in God!”

    The more you read Shir HaShirim, the more you see God’s smile shining from every leaf in nature and every loving impulse in the human heart.


    Will Elijah be coming this Passover?

    March 26th, 2021

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 26 March, 2021.

    Painting depicting Elijah the Prophet, by Zalman Kleinman

    This year, the Jewish Passover festival begins this weekend. Such is its fascination that four out of every five Jews will sit down to the home ceremonial, the Seder.

    Some think that Jesus’s Last Supper was a Seder, but this has never been conclusively proven. However, Jesus as a Jew would have celebrated the Passover as well as the Sabbath and other festivals; he would have eaten kosher food and prayed in Hebrew.

    Despite the passing of the centuries, Passover — the festival of freedom — remains a highlight of the Jewish year. These days, no matter how far some Jews seem to be from the traditions and tenets of the Jewish heritage, Seder night will attract them all.

    And with all the colour, the aroma, the symbolism of the Seder, one of the most dramatic moments in the ritual will come when the door of the house is opened and, in hushed anticipation, the assembled family waits to welcome Elijah the prophet. There is even a special wine cup of Elijah on the table.

    Elijah’s involvement is not really as ancient as people think. The custom probably dates only from the fifteenth century. Manuscript copies of the Passover ritual book, the Haggadah, deriving from southern Germany and northern Italy at this period, illustrate the entry of Elijah as precursor of the Messiah.

    In a northern Italian Haggadah dated 1478, the head of the household is seen at the open door, holding a cup of wine, ready to welcome the messianic guest. The Messiah is a bearded old man on a richly adorned ass. With him on the ass are a man and a boy; on the tail are a woman and a girl, while another youngster is clinging to the tail. It all seems to suggest the Messiah leading the intergenerational family to the redemption.

    Long before this time, rabbinic literature had taught that, just as there was a historical Passover when the Hebrew serfs left bondage in Egypt, so the final redemption would occur on Passover. No wonder the Jews of the medieval communities, suffering such oppression, persecution and misery, gave dramatic shape to their yearning for that redemption.

    Some find significant linkage in the Christian custom prevalent in southern Germany of holding Palm Sunday processions with wooden models of Jesus and his messianic ass being carried to the gates of the holy city of Jerusalem.

    Possibly this annual scene exerted an influence on the illustrations that became part of the Haggadah — certainly, the Christian claim that the biblical prophecies of the Messiah had been fulfilled in Jesus made it necessary to demonstrate the Jewish conviction that the long-awaited Messiah was still to come.

    But why was it Elijah, rather than the Messiah himself, who became the subject of the Seder-night welcome?

    It has to do with the concept of the prophet as precursor: once he has arrived, the Messiah will not be far behind. There is an echo in early Christianity in the concept of John the Baptist as the precursor of Jesus. (There are details in my book, “New Testament People”.)

    Though many Jewish thinkers analysed the messianic doctrine, popular imagination was unable to depict the Messiah as colourfully as legend, song, and folklore enabled it to do with Elijah.

    The stories of Elijah as the warm, compassionate, and wise defender who had so often arrived in the nick of time, made him a real person, a familiar figure, one of the family. People brought up on Jewish tradition lived daily with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with Moses — and with Elijah. These heroes were there every moment of the day, unseen presences who were part of the family.

    How do we link the welcome to Elijah and the wine-cup of Elijah?

    In late antiquity, the sages of Sura said that five cups of wine had to be drunk at the Seder, while the sages of Pumbedita argued for four. Since there is a doubt as to the correct view, a fifth cup is filled in deference to Sura, but in deference to Pumbedita it is left untasted.

    In time to come, according to Jewish opinion, Elijah will solve the accumulated problems of the ages. Hence the disputed cup is set aside for Elijah.

    Another interpretation recalls that the four Divine promises (see the sixth chapter of Exodus) to redeem Israel: “I will take you out”; “I will deliver you”; “I will redeem you”; and “I will take you”. The four cups drunk on Seder night are like toasts to the historic fulfilment of these four promises.

    But, in fact, there is a fifth promise: “I will bring you in” — that is, to the land of Israel. Logically, therefore, there should be five cups, not four. Yet the final promise is still in progress.

    The fifth cup is that of Elijah, because when the prophet comes to announce the Messiah, we will know the fifth promise is fulfilled. Indeed, some people — notably Menachem Kasher, in his “Israel Passover Haggadah” — argue that now there is a State of Israel and the ingathering is under way, it is already time to drink a fifth cup.

    Hopefully, this will be the Passover when Elijah comes to visit, solving humanity’s problems, fulfilling the age-old dreams of Utopia and bearing the long-awaited message that the universal redemption is dawning.