Gathered Around the Seder Table: Images from the Passover Haggadah

(The following is a guest post by Sharon Horowitz, reference librarian in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Exodus 23:15 tells us that Passover should be celebrated in the spring. The rabbis understood this to mean it was their job to maintain the holiday in the spring, which required some manipulation of the lunar-based Jewish calendar because the lunar calendar has fewer days than the solar year. Were it not for the intervention of the rabbis to establish leap years, Passover would occur during various seasons, shifting around our solar year. In order to keep Passover in the spring, Rabbi Hillel II created a perpetual calendar in the fourth century. Since that time, an extra month of 29 days is inserted into the Jewish calendar seven times in a 19-year cycle.

Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the exodus of the Biblical Israelites from Egypt, has as its central ritual an event called the seder. This evening ritual usually takes place in the home, as opposed to the synagogue. As described in the Book of Exodus, groups of extended family and friends were the milieu of this ritual. In the Bible, instructions for the Paschal sacrifice and its meal required that the meat be completely consumed (no leftovers). The most practical way of accomplishing this was to band together in groups. Today, the seder continues to be a good opportunity for family reunions.

The seder rituals include reciting prayers, telling the story of the Exodus, eating certain special foods, singing songs and sharing a meal. The text for the seder is called the Haggadah. The Haggadah serves as a guide, instructional manual and script for the ritual re-enactment of the Exodus.

The oldest complete printed version of the Haggadah is found in a 10th century prayer book compiled by Rabbi Saadia Gaon, who was head of the academy in Sura, Babylonia. The earliest printed Haggadot appeared in either of two formats: as a separate entity or as part of a prayer book that contained prayers for various services of Passover and other festivals. Only in the 19th century did it become common for each person to have his or her own copy of the Haggadah at the seder. Prior to that time only the person leading the seder had a Haggadah.

Most early printed editions of the Haggadah were not illustrated. The focus was on the text and on written commentaries to the text. Over time, illustrations in the printed Haggadah set the scene and filled in various narrative lacunae for its readers. Despite the fact that on the night of Passover Jews are to narrate the Exodus, the received Haggadah text does not include extensive excerpts from the actual story in the Book of Exodus. The illustrations work together with the text to create a cohesive narrative. Illustrations also help to keep young children occupied during the evening.

Let’s look at several illustrations showing families participating in the seder rituals.

*All illustrations are from the African and Middle Eastern Division collections

The illustrations sometimes reflect local customs, such as in the Poona Haggadah. Notice that only men are sitting at the seder table. Women are included elsewhere, however, in a page showing them baking matzah.

These family scenes, with individuals in local dress and with their period interiors, are wonderful to look at. Are the luxurious surroundings of the family sitting at the table scenes real or idealized? Professor of Religion Marc Michael Epstein at Vassar College has suggested that the sumptuousness in these family images was exaggerated and not real. They were meant to bolster identity and assuage insecurities of the privileged class about their privileges and fear of losing them. He suggests we should resist seeing these family scenes as evidence of social mores and physical culture. Passover was a time to “show the face of free people” despite the types of subjugations that the 18th- and 19th-century Jews suffered.

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