Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912–2012

Hidur mitzvah, or the beautification of objects pertaining to Jewish religious observance, has a long and varied tradition harking back to the Bible. The Book of Exodus recounts that the artisan Bezalel ben Hur fashioned the Ark of the Covenant and its implements with lavish ornamentation and beauty. The First Book of Kings details the sumptuous architecture and grandeur of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. And, archaeological finds across the ancient world have uncovered the remains of a rich and ongoing tradition of Jewish ceremonial art from later times. Today, as in the Middle Ages, not only objects of ritual use are decorated and embellished but also the scrolls and texts accompanying specific religious occasions and holidays. Chief amongst these are the Passover Haggadah, the Purim Megillah (or scroll), and the Jewish marriage contract, known as the Ketubbah—each with its own unique traditions of iconology. From Gothic monsters and Renaissance cherubs to Islamic arabesques and post-Modernist cubes, Jewish ceremonial and decorated text reflect a constant tension between content and form and between tradition and innovation in the ongoing desire to combine beauty with holiness..

A Song of Songs for the Twenty-First Century

Israeli artist Tamar Messer created this modern edition of the biblical book Song of Songs, whose 117 verses are customarily attributed to King Solomon. The traditional commentary views the text as an allegory of God’s love for the Jewish people. Others treat the text literally as a description of the love between a man and a woman. Messer notes that for her rendition she chose to emphasize the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The bright colors in each of the twenty prints stunningly illustrate the flora, fauna, and landscapes of ancient Israel. Each of the twenty illustrations is silkscreened, using twenty to thirty color plates per image.

Gallery/Studio Tamar Messer. ריש םירישה רשא המלשל (The Songs of Solomon). Haifa, 2001. Text in Hebrew and English. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (037.00.00)

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Haggadah with a Twist

French-born artist Eliyahu Sidi moved to Israel in 1967. His artwork is creative, captivating, charming, and colorful. In this haggadah, Sidi uses a red, blue, and yellow palette accented with black and green for his cartoon-like images. The wooden cover for the haggadah depicts the Exodus from Egypt via a magical bus filled with bearded passengers and driver, each dressed in blue uniforms. The accompanying notes to the haggadah by Noam Zion and David Moss suggest that the uniforms recall the Israeli army. The full beards recall the ancient Egyptian iconography for Semitic slaves. Riding atop the bus—the symbol of the Exodus—are cats and a rooster, animals that appear in other Sidi works. Added here is the traditional Passover paschal lamb ready to be sacrificed.

Eliayhu Sidi. The Eliayhu Sidi Haggadah. Jerusalem, 2007. Printed at the workshop of The Jerusalem Fine Arts Prints under the supervision of David Moss and Yair Medinah. Boxes produced by Yaacov Ben Harush. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (036.00.00)

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Highly Stylized Modern Passover Haggadah

Born in Bulgaria, Asher Kalderon immigrated to Israel in 1948. A graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Kalderon is an esteemed artist, graphic designer, and creator of tapestries, posters, postage stamps, coins, and medals. His work frequently covers traditional Jewish subjects presented in a unique and modern style. For The New Passover Haggadah, Kalderon created a special Hebrew type for the font and headlines and matched it to highly stylized drawings. The Ten Plagues from the Book of Exodus are depicted here in vivid colors.

Asher Kalderon. תדגה חספ השדחה (The New Passover Haggadah). [Israel], 2006. Gift of the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Trust Fund at the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00)

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The Washington Haggadah

This fifteenth century medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscript is called the Washington Haggadah because of its presence in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It is the Library’s most important illuminated Hebrew manuscript, completed on the 25th of Shevat, 5238 [January 29, 1478]. The colophon is also signed by the well-known scribe and artist Joel ben Simeon who was responsible for more than a dozen other illuminated Hebrew manuscripts found in collections around the world. Several facsimile reproductions of the Washington Haggadah with its vivid illuminations attest to the manuscript’s enduring popularity.

The Washington Haggadah. Germany, 1478. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (034.00.00)

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The Washington Megillah

The biblical Scroll of Esther, which tells the story of the Jewish girl chosen to be Queen of Persia and the miraculous salvation of the Persian Jews from their enemy, Haman, is at the core of the joyous holiday of Purim, the “Feast of Lots.” It is also one of the most frequently illustrated texts in Jewish tradition, the earliest examples going back to the seventeenth century. Though we do not know the name of the scribe who wrote the text of this scroll or of the artist who created its charming vignettes, certain details, such as dress, musical instruments—even the presence of dancing couples—all point to an origin in early eighteenth-century Italy.

תלגמ רתסא (The Washington Scroll of Esther). Vellum. Italy, ca. eighteenth century. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (038.00.00)

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The Story of Esther

Over a two-year period, Israeli artist Avner Moriah created four different scrolls of the book of Esther. As the artist notes, “Each of my Scrolls of Esther is like a storyboard of a play, broken up into various segments that impart to the viewer a sense of drama, while relaying a visual interpretation of the written text.” In this limited edition scroll, images and colors reminiscent of medieval Persian art convey the historical background of the biblical story while creating rich layers of meaning drawn from traditional rabbinic interpretations of the text. The Hebrew was hand-lettered by Ukrainian-born calligrapher Avraham-Hersh Borshevsky, who received his artistic training in the Ukraine. He now lives in Israel where he is a professional Torah scribe and expert in Jewish scribal arts.

Avner Moriah. Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther). Limited edition paper scroll. Jerusalem, ca. 2003. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00)

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Miniature Esther Scroll

This miniature scroll of the biblical Book of Esther is opened to reveal several scenes from the story in which the Jewish Queen Esther saves her people in Persia from destruction at the hands of the court villain, Haman. Yitzchak Chazin, a professionally trained artist from Odessa, who immigrated to Israel, meticulously penned the Hebrew script. Oleg Trabish, also a Russian immigrant to Israel and a trained artist, painted the colorful illuminations that adorn the scroll.

Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther). Miniature scroll. Vellum. Jerusalem: Judaica Heirlooms Gallery, [2010?]. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00)

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