Haggadah, from the Hebrew root-word h-g-d,
means to tell. Haggadah, then, actually refers to the telling of the
Passover story, but by extension to the home liturgy for the first two nights
of Pesah (in Israel and among Reform Jews, the first night only) that accompanies
the ritual meal called the seder (order). The recitation of this liturgy
is based on the biblical injunction to retell the tale of the Exodus (Ex. 13:8).
The seder began as a rabbinic version of first-century Greco-Roman ritualized
meals called symposia; the meal was originally followed by spontaneous questions
to prompt discussion, a Midrashic recounting of the Exodus, and a recitation
of the ten plagues. By the year 200 CE, the meal had been postponed until the
end of the liturgy, and set questions (mah nishtanah) replaced the spontaneous
ones. Over time, the narrative accompaniment (haggadah) to the meal grew
larger and more varied.
Detail from 18th-century German haggadah
(printed in Offenbach, 1795)
The earliest extant written haggadah text
is a relatively complete fragment datable to 8th or 9th-century Palestine (found
in the Cairo genizah, a repository for discarded or worn sacred writings).
The version that became canonical for Jews worldwide is part of a 9th-century
prayer book, Seder Rav Amram, by Amram Ga'on of Babylonia. Amram's relatively
sparse after-dinner liturgy text was significantly expanded in Europe following
the Crusades. The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) contains the
text of the Haggadah which is essentially the same as in present use,
although a number of hymns (some of which are sung at the conclusion of the
seder) were added later by German and Polish Jews.
Throughout the medieval period, beautiful illuminated manuscript haggadot were
created by masterful scribes and artists, bringing the narrative to life and
engaging the children at seder tables. Haggadah illustrations include
many representations of human figures; despite the second commandment against
making graven images, rabbis, patrons and artists apparently saw no danger of
idolatry in using figural representations in haggadot as they were used in home
ritual, and not in synagogue services.
Until the 13th century haggadot were generally incorporated as part of a larger
corpus of liturgical texts (miscellanies). However, with the growing interest
in European book production and the new form of Christian prayer book for private
devotion (Book of Hours) that became popular in the 13th century, commissions
for luxuriously illuminated manuscripts grew in Jewish circles as in Christian.
The invention of printing in the 15th century inspired new creativity in haggadah
illustration; Sephardi artists began to paint entire biblical epics, while Ashkenazi
(German and Italian) painters drew a running visual commentary to the liturgy.
With printing, the artistic tradition continued with woodcuts, woodblocks and
copper plate engravings.
In the 18th century, the art of the Hebrew illustrated haggadah experienced
a revival.. Wealthy Jews (most surviving examples came from Germany, Austria
and Moravia) commissioned manuscript editions of printed haggadot; scribes and
artists copied printed models, adding innovations and adaptations of their own.
With the revival of graphic arts in the twentieth century, attempts were made
by some Jewish artists to recast the illustration of earlier haggadot. The haggadah
continues to inspire creative expression among contemporary artists.
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