For the past three years, President Obama and his family have hosted a Passover Seder in the White House for a select group of invited guests, both Jewish and non-Jewish. A Maxwell House haggadah—probably the most widely used Passover Seder text among American Jews—was placed at each table.
The haggadah (the Hebrew word means “telling”) has a venerable and remarkably varied history, which long precedes the often wine-splotched classic published by the coffee maker. Scholars have identified more than 3500 extant editions and there is hardly a Jewish community in the world that has not produced its own haggadah. Although the earliest manuscripts have been lost, the oldest complete text was found in a prayer book compiled by the philosopher and rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon during the 10th century.
The haggadah reportedly emerged as an independent volume during the 15th century. Some scholars speculated about the origins of an edition that was published in Guadalajara, Spain in 1482, but the publication location has never been confirmed nor has it been definitively established as the first separately-published haggadah. In 1486, the Soncinos, a noted Italian Jewish family of printers, published a siddur to which a haggadah was bound. Although it is not known whether such binding was common during this time, some historians consider this Soncino volume a separate and independent work.
The history of haggadahs and the Soncino edition is recounted in an erudite and elegant 1975 volume entitled Haggadah and History. Written by the late Harvard professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, this work traces the evolution of this classic Passover text, which reflects the variegated and tumultuous history of the Jewish people.
Most of this nearly 500-page work contains reprinted haggadah pages from around the world. The range of publishing locations and languages employed is remarkable: a Poona, India, text was published in the Indian language Marathi; the Istanbul, Turkey, edition is bilingual, written in Ladino and Hebrew; a Tel Aviv haggadah in Hebrew was produced in pre-state Palestine. Also depicted is an unusual item: a parody of the haggadah. Published in Odessa, Russia, in 1885, this text used the Four Questions to highlight the poor pay and treatment of east European elementary school teachers, comparing their plight to that of Israelite slaves in Egypt!
Yerushalmi notes that only 25 haggadahs were published during the sixteenth century, but the production increased to 234 in the eighteenth century and more than 1200 during the nineteenth. Although this Passover text has been published for more than 600 years, the majority of individual editions were issued in the last century. Early haggadahs featured hand-drawn illustrations and in more recent times, pictures were inserted to stimulate the “curiosity of the children…[and served] as a lively medium of visual instruction, much like today’s picture books,” Yerushalmi writes.
The Sarajevo haggadah is the most famous such work, a beautifully illustrated text originating in Barcelona in the 14th century, smuggled out of Spain during the Inquisition, transported to Italy and eventually ending up in the former Yugoslavia. Unlike many Jews, the Sarajevo haggadah somehow survived the Nazi onslaught. The remarkable story of its survival has been evocatively told in the novel People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, and in a network television documentary.
The Birds’ Head Haggadah, the oldest surviving Ashkenazi illuminated manuscript, was produced in Germany during the 14th century. This strikingly beautiful volume derives its name from the birdlike human figures depicted in the margins. Scholars claim that this animal motif is related to the Second Commandment that prohibits the creation of graven images. In lieu of drawing a human figure, the volume depicts distorted heads of birds, often wearing a headpiece and other garments.
The Sarajevo Haggadah is permanently displayed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina while the Birds’ Head Haggadahis found in the Israel Museum. Unlike the ever present and dependable Maxwell House haggadah found at many Seders, these precious volumes are securely spared from matzoh crumbs, spilled wine and drippings of horse radish.