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Hebraic Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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Beauty in Holiness

The Washington Haggadah
The Washington Haggadah (Central Europe, January 29, 1478). Known as the Washington Haggadah because of its presence in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., this manuscript is the Library's most important illuminated Hebrew manuscript. The illustration here depicts the Messiah heralded. It features the Messiah -- or Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah -- approaching Jerusalem astride a donkey.

The commandment of hiddur mitzvah, which urges one to adorn and beautify the implements of holiness, is the fundamental justification within Judaism for the embellishment, through the ages, of the books, manuscripts, documents, and ritual artifacts of Jewish life.

The Library's most important Hebrew illuminated manuscript is known as the "Washington Haggadah" because of its location in Washington, D.C. A haggadah (the plural is haggadot) is a liturgical work that is recited in the home at the festive evening meal of Passover, in order to fulfill the biblical injunction (Exodus 13:8) to recount the story of the Exodus to each generation. Haggadot are often illustrated, the theory being that this will keep the children interested and awake during the reciting of the text. Completed on January 29, 1478, the Washington Haggadah was signed by Joel ben Simeon, a well-known scribe and artist responsible for more than a dozen other Hebrew illuminated manuscripts found in collections around the world. In addition to the full text of the Passover night liturgy, the Washington Haggadah features stunningly intricate illuminated panels and a series of Passover illustrations that include depictions of "The Four Sons," "The Search for Leaven," and "The Messiah Heralded." The enduring popularity of Joel ben Simeon's miniatures is reflected in the many reproductions of his work that have appeared over the years in anthologies of Jewish art and manuscript painting.

In 1991, the Library of Congress published a facsimile edition of the Washington Haggadah, accompanied by a companion volume with a detailed scholarly description, analysis, and assessment of the manuscript.

Scrolls of Esther were often decorated with scenes that tell the story of Purim. The Library's collections include a profusely illustrated eighteenth-century Italian megillah with images drawn in a simple folk-art style depicting the events recounted in the biblical story of Esther. Accompanying the scroll is a decorated plaque with the text of the blessings recited by the megillah reader.

Minhagim (Amsterdam, 1707). This early eighteenth-century woodcut illustrates a scene under the marriage canopy.

Ketubah. (Madallena on the Po, 1839). The double archway decorating this ketubah is surrounded by birds and flowers. The words in the banner held in the birds' beaks reads, "He who has found a wife, has found virtue."

One of Judaism's most joyous events is the celebration of a marriage. To mark the event, a marriage contract, or ketubah (plural, ketuboth), is drawn up, delineating the obligations of each of the parties to the union. The custom of decorating the ketubah, which flows quite naturally from the concept of hiddur mitzvah, often results in the creation of a legal document that is both a charming work of art and a meaningful keepsake.

Among the ketuboth in the Library's collection is one marking the wedding of Aaron ben Hayim Cesana of Corfu to Sara bat Mordecai d'Ovadia, which took place in the Italian port city of Ancona on 15 Sivan 5565, which corresponds to Wednesday, 12 June 1805 (see cover illustration). A second Italian ketubah, this one from Madallena on the Po, celebrates the marriage of David Hayim Norzi to Estellina Bianchini on 13 Elul 5599, according to the Jewish reckoning, which corresponds to Friday, 23 August 1839.

Shivviti Plaque
(Meshed, Persia, 1889). This ketubah, decorated in the style of an ornate prayer rug, originates in Persia and shines with gold and blue colors, accented with reds.

Nonrepresentational decorations appear on a ketubah from the Persian city of Meshed marking the marriage of Rahamim to Malkah in 1889. Just fifty years before this wedding, the Jews of Meshed were forced to convert to Islam en masse. Though officially Muslims, the forced converts of Meshed continued to practice Judaism in secret.

Shivviti plaques, inscribed with phrase "I Have Set the Lord before Me Always," (Psalms 16:8), were used both in the synagogue and in the home, where they were hung on the wall to designate the correct direction to face in prayer. The Library's shivviti features a seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah, adorned with a crown bearing the four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton. This shivviti was completed by the Holy Land emissary Shneur Zalman Mendelowitz in the late nineteenth century.

Micrography, the creation of shapes and forms using minuscule letters and words, is a traditional Jewish art form that dates back to the micrographic representations of the massoretic notes that often appeared in the margins of ancient Bible codices. The Ship of Jonah by Moses Elijah Goldstein depicts the story of Jonah and the whale -- showing the ship, Jonah, and the whale using the Hebrew text of the biblical Book of Jonah. According to the handwritten inscription at the bottom of the engraving, the artist presented this micrography to Gustav May in 1897.

Shneur Zalman Mendelowitz, Shivviti Plaque (late nineteenth century). This colorful Shivviti Plaque includes, at its base, depictions of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Jerusalem's Western Wall.

Sefinat Yonah (The Ship of Jonah)
Micrography: Moses Elijah Goldstein, Sefinat Yonah (The Ship of Jonah) (1897). The words of the Book of Jonah form this depiction of Jonah and the whale.

The Passover Haggadah is one of Judaism's most popular books, with the Hebraic Section holding more than 3,000 printed editions from all over the world. Like decorated ketuboth and megillot, these printed works are often beautifully illustrated.

Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover Haggadah)
Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover Haggadah) (Venice, 1629). The illustrations on these printed pages of the Venice Haggadah depict events in the life of the patriarch Abraham. The binding of Isaac is illustrated in the woodcut on the bottom left.

A haggadah published in Venice in 1609 and then again twenty years later, in 1629, quickly became a prototype for subsequent Sefardi editions of the haggadah. Both editions were issued in three versions -- each with a different vernacular translation, but flanked by the same decorative borders and including the same illustrations. The vernaculars were Judeo-Italian, Judeo-German, and Judeo- Spanish -- all three written in Hebrew characters. The illustrations, by an unknown artist, were used in a variety of haggadot over the course of more than 150 years. The 1629 edition added the commentary of the noted Venetian rabbi Leone da Modena.

An equally influential haggadah, which became the prototype for subsequent Ashkenazi haggadot, appeared in Amsterdam in 1695. Known as "The Amsterdam Haggadah," it was extensively illustrated with copper engravings executed by the proselyte Abraham ben Jacob, who based his depictions on those of Matthaeus Merian, a Christian artist popular in the early seventeenth century. The Amsterdam Haggadah's illustrations were widely imitated and copied over the course of the next century both in printed works and in manuscripts.

Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover Haggadah)
Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover Haggadah) (Amsterdam, 1695). Moses (right and above) and Aaron, his older brother and the founder of the Jewish priesthood, are depicted on the title page of the Amsterdam Haggadah.

Seder Haggadah le-Pesah, Form and Relation of the Two First Nights of the Feast of Passover
Seder Haggadah le-Pesah, Form and Relation of the Two First Nights of the Feast of Passover (New York, 1878). An American family seated at the seder table presents a new version of the depiction of the "four sons" described in the haggadah. The Wise Son, kippah (or skullcap) on head, is looking at the haggadah before him. The Wicked Son, bare-headed, his chair tilted back, is smoking a cigarette.

Haggadot were printed virtually everywhere Jews lived. In 1874, a haggadah was published in Poona, India, for use by the Bene Israel, a community of Indian Jews, which featured seder illustrations with a distinctly Indian flavor. The Indian haggadah included a Marathi translation, as well as the illustrations for each step in the traditional order of the seder service.

Titled simply The Haggadah, Arthur Szyk's masterpiece of illumination is considered by many to be the most exquisite haggadah produced in the twentieth century. Arthur Szyk, the Polish expatriot who revived the art of medieval manuscript illumination, devoted his great artistic gifts to the fashioning of this haggadah, completed on the eve of World War II, after seven years of labor. Dedicated to King George V of England, it was published in an edition of 250 signed and numbered copies on French-fold vellum, half for distribution in England and half to be distributed in the United States.

The Poona Haggadah
The Poona Haggadah (Poona, 1874). A haggadah published for the Bene Israel community in India features seder illustrations that show Indian dress and customs.

The Haggadah
The Haggadah
, copied and illustrated by Arthur Szyk, edited by Cecil Roth (London, 1940). The purpose of the haggadah, opened here to Arthur Szyk's illumination of the "Four Questions," is to transmit from one generation to the next the story of the Exodus. The young boy asks: "Why is this night different than all other nights?" The master of the house replies: "Because we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt," and then continues to tell the story of the Exodus. (Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

  HOME  Foreword  In the Beginning...  The Books of the People of the Book  Beauty in Holiness  The Holy Land
  In the New World  A Note to Researchers  Publications on the Hebraic and Judaic Collections

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( November 15, 2010 )
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