illustration of four women holding hands and a man holding matzah.
This illustration came from the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, made in Barcelona around 1350.

Illuminated manuscripts tell the same Pesach story in a handcrafted way.

Once upon a time, owning a book amounted to a big deal. To begin with, to get parchment for the pages, you had to slaughter a flock of sheep. For the words, you would need a skilled calligrapher with a beautiful hand. Another specialist, expert in Hebrew grammar, would put in the vowels. If you wanted pictures, too — and if you could afford them, you would want pictures — you would hire an expert illuminator. Finally, a bookbinder would put all the pages together, and you would have a book. If you had enough funding for just one book, there is a good chance you would commission a Haggadah. A relatively short book, with the script for a home service, the Hagaddah made a nice first or only entry to your library.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Dr. Yoel Finkelman

Even after printing with moveable type came to Europe in the 1400s, some calligraphers produced copies of the Haggadah by hand. Yoel Finkelman, curator of Judaica at the National Library of Israel, explains why: “Manuscript Haggadot didn’t die out with the founding of print, both because they were considered fancier or because people in some places didn’t have access to printed ones that they liked. Many manuscript Haggadot from the modern period have survived in collections all over the world.”

A family searches for chametz before the holiday.
Known for its extensive use of gold leaf, this Haggadah was made near Barcelona around 1320. Here a family searches for chametz before the holiday.

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Each famous Haggadah manuscript now has its own name: the city where it was stored (Sarajevo, for example, or Guadalajara), or the family that owned it (Prado or Rothschild) or some feature of its artwork (Birds’ Head or Golden). 

Looking at the writing and pictures in these old, handcrafted examples of the Haggadah can work as an effective exercise to prepare for Passover. Let your imagination animate a painting of a medieval Jewish family searching for chametz or our ancestors walking on dry land through the sea. Some place in the middle of the Haggadah, you can usually find a page with stains from drops spilled on the page hundreds of years ago. You may even find a portrait of a family seated or reclining at a table — probably the family that commissioned the Haggadah all those years ago. 

Finding Inspiration

Prepare for your seder by remembering the feasts Grandma cooked, the way Grandpa led the seder and by imagining how our ancestors told the story when the main course was the barbecued lamb or kid goat, the Pascal sacrifice from the Temple. You can also prepare by seeing a portrait of our medieval precursors at their seder, in the actual book that they used.  

If you wanted to see a medieval Haggadah, until a few years, you had to travel to the right library.  There, deep in the rare book room, if you could get permission, an archivist or librarian would show you the book: reverently taking the book to you and nervously watching your every move as you turn its pages. It might take months of planning to see one Haggadah.

Now, thanks to digitization, you can sit at your computer and see images of nearly all the old manuscripts, along with many newer printed and handwritten versions.

Finkelman has suggestions for how to take a tour of these works.

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A picture from a Haaddah of a man putting matzah into the oven.
The Birds’ Head Haggadah is the oldest surviving illuminated Ashkenazi Haggadah. It was made around 1300 in southern Germany.

A few famous Haggadot (Sarajevo Haggadah, Birds’ Head Haggadah, Copenhagen Haggadah, Rothschild Haggadah, Golden Haggadah, Wolff Haggadah) have their own dedicated webpages. You can Google them and get there pretty easily. Some also have Wikipedia pages.

You do not have to restrict your tour to the most famous ones. Most manuscript Haggadot over history were not the beautiful illuminated ones that became famous. Most were simpler and were copied for individual use and done relatively cheaply (to the extent that manuscripts can be cheap).

The National Library of Israel, located in Jerusalem, has put much of its Judaica collection into digital form and made it accessible online. The library also encourages other libraries to digitize their Judiaca collections and make them available to the public. 

The easiest way to access those Haggadot is to go to the National Library of Israel’s KTIV website, which aggregates Hebrew-language manuscripts from around the world in one location. You can go there and simply search for the term הגדה של פסח  in the search bar (if you can type in Hebrew) or “Haggadah” in English (if you use English, you will get some false positives, but keep looking for Passover Haggadot) and then limit the search to those available online. 

Overwhelmed? Too many possibilities? Finkelman recommends limiting your search “to a period or place, using the options on the left column (left on the English interface) or to languages like Yiddish, Spanish or Judeo-Arabic.”

You can even find a non-traditional Haggadah, the work of an early secular pioneer in pre-state Israel or of a kibbutz network or of a social justice movement.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, archivist of Judaica at the National Library of Israel, is a former Detroiter who attended Yeshiva Beth Yehudah and graduated from Yeshivat Akiva (now the Farber Hebrew Day School). He is the son of Louis and Marilyn Finkelman of Southfield.

Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer

Read about the Passover joining of these two families that’s been going on for 66 years.