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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 069-150(WS)-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Library History
Joint Meeting with: Information Technology co-sponsored by Hebraica Libraries Group (UK)/Association of Jewish Librarians (USA)
Meeting Number: 150.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

The Early Printed Passover Haggadah: a Tale of Four Cities: Prague, Mantua, Venice, Amsterdam

Nanette Stahl
Yale University Library
New Haven, Connecticut


The Passover Haggadah--a compilation of biblical passages, prayers, hymns, and rabbinic literature--was probably assembled sometime during the early post-biblical period in Palestine and is meant to be read during the Passover Seder, a ceremonial meal held in Jewish homes to commemorate the Israelite redemption from Egypt in biblical times. The earliest extant version appeared in a 10th. century prayer book in Babylonia (modern Iraq). The Haggadah became a cherished text for Jews all over the world and nowhere is this high regard more evident than in the illustrations lavished on it by generations of Jewish artists or artists employed by Jews from mediaeval times to the present. These illuminations represent Biblical scenes as well as scenes from rabbinic legends.

The first printed version of the Haggadah would appear to have been published in Guadalajara in 1482, just ten years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. We cannot be certain, however, since no place or date of publication is given in the text. The first Haggadah printed with illustrations that has come down to us in its entirety was produced in Prague in 1526. This was the first in a long line of printed illustrated Haggadot, a tradition that continues to this day.

In modern times, the Haggadah has taken on a new significance as Jewish life has changed and evolved. The text and the illustrations which were fixed for centuries have begun to vary as the Haggadah has increasingly come to reflect not only Israel's ancient history but also contemporary Jewish agendas and events. Some of the most interesting modern Haggadah editions come from Israel where the importance of the return to Zion predominates as a theme both in the text and in the illustrations. The various movements in American Jewish life have produced Haggadot (plural for Haggadah) which reflect their own vision of Judaism and their understanding of themselves as American Jews. Major modern Jewish artists such as Arthur Szyk, Ben Shahn, and Yaakov Agam have illustrated Haggadah editions thereby further enriching the modern repertoire.

It is my intention, however, to discuss in this paper the four earliest printed and illustrated Haggadot. They are: the Prague edition of 1526; Mantua, 1560; Venice, 1609; and Amsterdam, 1695. These four editions were the trailblazers, as it were, and most printed Haggadot of the 18th, 19th, and even the 20th century were derivative of them. I would like to consider each of these editions in turn and with the aid of slides discuss their distinguishing features.

Prague Edition

The continuous record of the illustrated printed Haggadah begins with the Prague edition of 1526. Prague was the first city north of the Alps where Hebrew books were printed. Of the early printers in Prague, Gershom ben Solomon Cohen was the leading figure. And in 1526 together with his brother Gronem (Jerome) he produced a Haggadah that is considered by many scholars to be the finest ever printed. The artistic work may have been done in part by Hayyim Shahor (Schwartz), a Prague printer, but since he is not defintely identified, we cannot be sure. The magnificence of the work lies in the majestic type and in the balance of the pages. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Haggadah and History says of the Prague Haggadah: "it is one of the chief glories in the annals of Hebrew printing as a whole, and, for that matter, in the history of typography in any language." (p. 30) Sixty woodcuts lavishly illustrated its pages; the first words of new sections were ornately decorated and illuminated; and three pages that began new sections were engraved with borders in monumental Gothic style. The typography was modeled on the contemporary German "black-letter" style and on the Hebrew manuscript tradition of Central Europe. The Prague Haggadah continued the tradition of illumination begun in Haggadah manuscripts and established the iconographic genres that were to appear in the illustrated Haggadot that followed. Yerushalmi groups them as follows: "scenes and symbols of the Passover ritual; illustrations of the biblical and rabbinic elements that actually appear in the Haggadah text; and scenes and figures from biblical or other sources that play no role in the Haggadah itself, but have either past or future redemptive associations" (p. 33-34). Some of the illustrations were derived from non-Jewish works including the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1484. But others do seem to be of Jewish origin and in all probability were created specifically for this work.

I would now like to show several slides from the Prague Haggadah and point out some of its distinguishing features.

Mantua Haggadah

We now move from Bohemia in central Europe to the Italian city of Mantua. It was in there that the next great Haggadah was produced in 1560. It was printed in the press of Giacomo Rufinelli, a Christian under the supervision of Isaac ben Solomon, the sexton of a Mantua synagogue. One just needs to turn to the first page to see the debt it owes to the Prague edition. The Mantua reproduced the text of the Prague page for page; it is typographically identical to it. It introduced, however, new illustrations and marginal decorations. Whereas the Prague only had three pages with borders, all the pages of the Mantua are surrounded by borders. The art is also quite different. The Prague had a more Teutonic feel to it, while the art of Renaissance Italy dominates the Mantua; much of it is probably borrowed from other non-Jewish books. The marginal illustrations were also redone in the Italian style. For example, Abraham crossing the river Euphrates on his way to Canaan is depicted in this edition sailing in a gondola. The Wise Son--the first of the four sons mentioned in the Haggadah--is a replica of Michaelangelo's painting of the prophet Jeremiah. Since he now appears in a Jewish book, he is wearing a hat as is required of Jewish males. The Evil Son is depicted as an Italian Condottiere. The most successful fusion of styles--as you will shortly see on the slides I will show--is found on the page which depicts the Messiah entering Jerusalem. The Teutonic/Gothic letters are inserted into an Italian style floral background and the small woodcut of the Messiah of the Prague Haggadah is enlarged to a fully realized scene of the Messiah approaching Jerusalem heralded by Elijah the Prophet. The landscape and the architecture of this illustration, however, are Italian.

Let us look now at several slides of this innovative and simultaneously derivative Haggadah. It is in many ways a transitional work situated as it is between the monumental Prague Haggadah that preceeded it, and the beautiful and elegant Venice Haggadah which followed.

Venice Haggadah

From Mantua we now move to Venice, the center of Hebrew printing in the 17th century. One of the highpoints of this flowering of Hebrew letters there was the Haggadah produced by the Jewish printer Israel Zifroni of Guastalla. Since Jews were not allowed to own presses, it was printed for him in the publishing house of Giovanni da Gara in 1609. The Venice Haggadah contained completely new illustrations prepared especially for it and was set in bold type. Its most striking feature was the classical architectural border in which every single page was set. Illustrations were placed at either the foot or the top of almost every page at the beginning of the book, and less often at the end. They are almost entirely concerned with the Exodus in the first part of the Haggadah (before the meal) while the illustrations of the second half are devoted to diverse biblical episodes and to illustrations whose motifs relate to the Jewish longing for the future Messianic deliverance. The lovely large woodcut initial letters found throughout the text contain tiny illustrations of the Seder service. One of the notable innovations of the Venice Haggadah is at the beginning where a page divided into thirteen rectangular woodcuts depicts the various stages of the Seder (a word whose original meaning is "order, sequence"). This technique is repeated later on where another page illustrates the Ten Plagues brought by God upon Egypt with ten rectangular cuts each depicting one of the Plagues. The illustrations became so popular that they continued to be copied in Haggadah editions printed by Jews in the Mediterranean region well into the 20th century.

I would now like to show you slides of this magnificent Haggadah. I must admit that it is my favorite.

Amsterdam Haggadah

The last of the great early printed Haggadot was the Amsterdam Haggadah printed in 1695. This is by way of paying tribute to the great city in which we are meeting, and by way of acknowledging the illustrious history of Hebrew printing in this city. Amsterdam emerged as a major center of Jewish life in the 17th century after the Dutch achieved independence from Spain. Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal arrived in Amsterdam in large numbers and thanks to the tolerant and open environment prevalent in the Netherlands, flourished here. Unlike Venice, there were no restrictions on Jewish ownership of printing presses in Amsterdam and the number of Hebrew presses here grew rapidly. As Yerushalmi says "soon the words

Defus Amsterdam

("Printed in Amsterdam") became a byword for typographic excellence, stateliness of design, and textual reliability."

Of all the early printed illustrated Passover Haggadot, the Amsterdam Haggadah had the greatest impact on subsequent editions. There is some irony in this since the artist Abraham ben Jacob--a convert to Judaism--borrowed most of the illustrations from a Christian artist. Between 1625 and 1630 Mathaeus Merian of Basel, while residing in Frankfurt produced a large number of illustrations for both Bibles and history books which were well known all over Europe. It was from among these engravings that Ben Jacob, a former Christian clergyman, chose the illustrations for the Amsterdam Haggadah. And though he adapted many of them for a Jewish audience, as you will see shortly, their origins in Merian's illustrations is unmistakable. Their popularity with the Jews of Europe was such that they were copied and recopied in succeeding Haggadot printed in Europe and later in the United States well into the 20th century.

The innovations introduced by the Amsterdam Haggadah were not so much in their originality but rather in the technique used to reproduce them. The Amsterdam was the first Haggadah ever to be illustrated by engraved copperplates rather than woodcuts. This new technique allowed for a far more precise and detailed graphic image. In addition, Ben Jacob introduced a whole new iconographic approach to Haggadah illustration. Among his innovations were "the Image of the Temple" in Jerusalem, and a map of Canaan with the route of the Exodus and the boundaries of the Land. The map was the first ever printed in Hebrew and is indicative of Dutch Jewry's steadfast belief in the eventual redemption and return to Zion.

In 1712 a second edition was published in Amsterdam. The frontispiece was changed and two new illustrations were added. The other additions, however, came from the Venice Haggadah though now engraved from copperplates rather than woodcuts. With the Amsterdam Haggadah, the great period of Haggadah design and illustration came to an end. Those that followed with few exceptions basically copied the Venice and the Amsterdam editions. It was not until the 20th century that the art of Haggadah illustration flourished again.

In conclusion, I will show you slides of the Amsterdam Haggadah and also several of Merian's illustrations so that you can see the similarity between them. Merian's art in its new context takes on a life of its own; Ben Jacob gave it new meaning even if it did not originate with him.