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A Haggadah with a Chinese Touch

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“Haggadah,” Amsterdam: Widow and Sons of Jacob Proops, 1781.

On the shelves of the Hebraic rare book collection, housed in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, sits a Haggadah published in Amsterdam in 1781, by the Widow and Sons of Jacob Proops, a very well-established Hebrew printing press. According to Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist, this Haggadah is listed in two classic bibliographies: “Yacari 199” and “Yudlov 300.” The text follows both the Ashkenazi and Sefardi practices and all of the text — including commentaries and discussions of Passover laws — comes from a Haggadah printed in Metz in 1767, known as “Beit Horin.”

The Library’s copy is complete, with 52 leaves and in excellent condition. It contains illustrations in copperplate as well as a fold-out map of the Holy Land and the routes taken by the Children of Israel through the desert. Brener explains that all these are taken from the classic Amsterdam Haggadah printed in 1695.

Haggadah map
Fold-out map of the Holy Land and the routes taken by the Children of Israel through the desert.

The “JUL 5 1933” stamp on the title page could indicate the date this book was accessioned. However, a closer look at the Library’s annual reports for fiscal years 1933 and 1934 did not yield any findings as to how this particular item came to the Library. Instead, page 136 of the 1933 report offers this statement:

“The bulk of the Hebrew collection containing more than 40,000 volumes is still uncataloged, a task the completion of which must await the provision of additional competent assistance.”

Inscription: “Samuel Hart. Passover Book January 28th 1784.”

Though Brener commented that many copies of this edition still exist, she made two surprising discoveries in the Library’s copy. First, an inscription on the back leaf that reads: “Samuel Hart. Passover Book January 28th 1784;” second, there is a Chinese calendar glued onto a page toward the end of this volume — probably an act that took place almost eight decades later.

Printed in traditional Chinese characters, this calendar was for the 1861 Gregorian year and for 中華甲子 (pronounced “Zhonghua jia zi”), the first year in the Chinese ancient sixty-year calendar cycle. It is a simple diagram with multiple lines that indicate the progression of time, and show some of the major historical figures and events from around the world from its beginning up to 1861. Among the major individuals mentioned are biblical figures such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses; Confucius; Jesus; Muhammad the Prophet; Kublai Khan who founded the Yuan Dynasty in China and George Washington. Historical events that are chronicled in this calendar include the arrival of Buddhism in China, the rise of the Russian Empire, the compilation of the Old and the New Testaments, the destruction of Jerusalem, the expansion of Christianity in Europe, the discovery of America, book exchanges between China and the West, and trade between China and America. On the upper part of the diagram a line prominently reads 聯邦開國 (pronounced “lianbang kai guo;” interpreted as “the beginning of the federation”). The “federation” being referred to is not described.

The tipped-in Chinese calendar.

With a mysterious inscription and a tipped-in Chinese calendar, this Haggadah raises many unanswered questions. For instance, who was Samuel Hart? Was the later owner who tipped in this calendar related to him?

It is known that Hart is the Anglicized form of Hirsch in Yiddish, meaning “deer” or “stag.” Apart from that, the name “Samuel Hart” appears to be common enough that additional clues are needed to identify our Samuel Hart. With little information offered by the Haggadah in hand, Brener managed to identify an 18th-century “Samuel Hart” (1747-1810) who could possibly have owned this work. Born in England of Jewish heritage, Hart moved to Philadelphia prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. After the war, in 1785, he relocated to Halifax from New York City and conducted a general import-export business. According to entries in the diary of Simeon Perkins (1735-1912), a Liverpool merchant, Hart was very active in the West Indies trade and handled a wide range of commodities. Aspiring to social recognition, he had himself baptized as Anglican in 1793 and for a while this proved to be a smart move for his business and social standing. Unfortunately, toward the end of his life business failures and the accompanying social alienations eventually led to insanity and death. It is not certain whether this is our Samuel Hart. If anything, his international connections may have ignited his descendants’ interest in China.

American Board of Commission for Foreign Missionaries
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions group. American Panoramic View Co. c1901. Prints and Photographs Division.

One can only imagine through a change of hand how many places this Haggadah must have traveled, and how much history it must have witnessed, particularly from the end of the 18th century to the 1860s. This was a time filled with both turmoil and opportunities for both America and China. In 1784, following the conclusion of the American Revolution, and in order to explore new business opportunities in place of the British West Indies, a vessel, “the Empress of China,” departed from New York and became the first American commercial ship to enter Chinese waters. This ship arrived at a time when the corrupt Qing Dynasty in China was declining rapidly. China was confronted by a rebellious society demanding reforms and by growing external pressures from Western powers that would resort to military means to force China to open its ports to trade. Two Opium Wars between 1839 and 1860, mainly led by the British with French participation in the second war, resulted in trade treaties, granting Western countries most favored nation status. In the case of the U.S., the Treaty of Wangxia (望厦條約, pronounced “Wangxia tiao yue”) was signed in 1844, which marked the beginning of official diplomatic relations between the two countries. (Wangxia was spelled “Wang Hiya” or “Wanghia,” according to the press at the time. Details of the treaty were covered widely in the papers. One example was the Weekly National Intelligencer. Washington [D.C.], 25 Jan. 1845. Additional newspapers are accessible via the Library’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

Chinese God
Chinese God. History of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Joseph Tracy 1793?-1874. Worcester, Spooner & Howland, 1840. p. 201.

The tipped-in Chinese calendar offers a glimpse into the U.S.-China relations at that time. The diagram notes a historical event “新民至玭理某” (pronounced “xin min zhi pinlimou;” interpretation: “new people’s arrival in Plymouth”). The Americans were called the “new people” by the Chinese (even though they were also called “foreign devils,” a name for all Westerners). The term “玭理某” (“pinlimou”) was the Chinese translation of Plymouth, Massachusetts, coined by Elijah Coleman Bridgman (1801-1861; aka 裨治文 or 高理文 in Chinese), one of the first two American missionaries sent to China in 1830 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Bridgman was one of the first Americans to undertake the study of China’s history and culture. Among the works published by Bridgman are “美理哥合省國志略” (pronounced “Meilige he sheng quo zhi lue;” interpretation: “) in 1838, which was a Chinese language history of the U.S, “A Chinese Chrestomathy in the Canton Dialect” in 1841, and the “Chinese Repository,” an influential missionary periodical published between 1832 and 1851 by Bridgman and S. Wells Williams (1812-1884, an American missionary and sinologist).

Although the mystery of this Haggadah remains unsolved, it is likely that the people who once held this book could have told fascinating stories of a time in history when the East and the West converged unexpectedly.

Comments (3)

  1. I enjoy the Library of Congress site. It helps me put together what happened and when. This in turn helps me to get a better grasp of history as a whole.

    Thank you

  2. I added a comment at the bottom of the text. Then hit enter. The page came right back with “Add a Comment”. So I don’t really know if my comment was sent?

    • Dear Mr. Putnam,
      Thanks for your comments and interest in the Library’s website and blogs. Both your comments have been received.
      We will continue to do our very best to highlight the Library’s international collections. Your interest and support are always appreciated.

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