Haggadot in History
Rescue of the treasured Sarajevo
What a welcome sight is the
reappearance of Hayim Yosef Yerushalmi's Haggadah and History on the shelves of bookstores. Reissued by the Jewish Publication Society of America in 2005, this second edition (reprinted from 1997) includes Yerushalmi's moving preface describing the rescue of the treasured Sarajevo Haggadah during the Bosnian war.
While the story of Passover is well-known, the history of the haggadah is less so. The earliest manuscript evidence, housed at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library at the University of Pennsylvania, provides startling evidence about how the haggadah as a book has changed over time. Written nearly a thousand years ago in black ink on paper, the fragment at Penn preserves an ancient tradition of asking only three, not four questions. The text was discovered during the 1890s in the attic storehold or "genizah" of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. It turns out that in 11th century Cairo the night of Passover was different from all other nights even though the practice of "reclining" (mesubin) is omitted entirely from the familiar regimen of eating matsah, eating bitter herbs, and dipping twice. Notably, not only the content of the fragment differs from what is familiar today; the haggadah also took a different physical form. Blessings found in the manuscript which customarily are spoken in synagogue before the reading of the haftarah provide a telling clue. They seem to indicate that this haggadah was once transmitted within the siddur (prayer book) and not as a separate book, and was recited as part of the public prayer service.
Illuminated manuscript copies of the Hagadah, such as the one preserved in Sarajevo, show a transition already underway in the later Middle Ages. By 1486, when the first printed Haggadah appeared in northern Italy, it took the customary form of a separate book. But the only known copy, located at the Librarary of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, is bound together with what its printers called a "Sidorello" in Judeo-Italian. Both the Haggadah and the precious prayer book came from the early Hebrew press of the Soncino family, the most prolific of all Hebrew printers during the era known as the "cradle of printing" before 1501. By a twist of fate, binding the two books together inadvertently restored the lost relationship between the
The Soncino Haggadah was printed in vocalized, square type - itself a technological feat mastered for the first time only a year earlier - and was accompanied by lovely, woodcut initial words. Full illustrations would come a century later. Among the most popular illustrated Haggadot were those printed on the Italian peninsula. The Venetian tradition of Haggadah illustration of the early seventeenth-century, for example, recurs in a number of Haggadot published in Livorno (Leghorn, Tuscany) during the 19th century. By 1863, Livorno had become the fifth largest center of Hebrew printing in the world. The printing house of Solomon Belforte and Co., based in Livorno, emerged as the primary supplier of Hebrew books to Sephardic communities around the Mediterranean and as far east as Baghdad and Calcutta. On the eve of the Holocaust, Belforte had published 28 editions of Haggadot, several illustrated after the Venetian tradition, and many with accompanying translations in Ladino and Judeo-Arabic. Though forced underground, the Belforte press - like the Sarajevo Haggadah - survived the ravages of war. In 1948, Belforte published its 29th edition in the beautiful, large square letters that typified its remarkable tradition of Hebrew printing. The fate of both forms part of the ongoing story of haggadot in history.
In November of 2005, at a conference on Ladino held in Livorno, the 200th anniversary of Belforte and Co., the most prolific publisher of Sephardic Haggadot in the century before the Holocaust, was celebrated. It is perhaps a fitting coincidence that Yerushalmi's masterful survey and study of perhaps the most beautiful and beloved of Jewish ceremonial books came back into print in the same year as the Belforte bicentenary.
Arthur Kiron is curator
of Judaica Collections at the University of Pennsylvania Library.
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