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)
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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.

Detail from Venice Haggadah, 1629 edition
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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.

excerpted From: The Passover Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman. Jewish Publication Society, 1993.
sources Illustrations from haggadot reprinted in: Haggadah and History: A Panorama in Facsimile of Five Centuries of the Printed Haggadah, ed. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi. Jewish Publication Society, 1975, 1976, 1977.

See also The Five Sages from Bnei Brak meet the Four Sons, a discussion by Rachel Wischnitzer, of a few details in the 15th-century Darmstadt Haggadah

See also The Four Sons in haggadot illustrations from the 16th century to present times

Passover in the JHOM Judaica Art Gallery

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