Discover our collection of rare haggadot

March 28, 2019
Last year the Museum acquired some 35 rare and unique haggadot to add to our collection, including hand-illustrated manuscripts dating back to the year 1781 (from Amsterdam). In celebration of Pesach we will be displaying a selection of these from Thursday 4 April. The haggadah — the liturgical text used on the festival of Pesach (Passover) — is one of the most important religious and artistic artefacts of Jewish life. We chat with Senior Curator and Collection Manager Eleni Papavasileiou, about what makes these haggadot so special.

Why are haggadot such an asset to our collection, and what makes these haggadot in particular so special?

The Haggadah is the written guide to the Passover ceremonial meal, the Seder, which commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. Haggadot vary in length and presentation and are significant in the sharing of rituals and customs through storytelling and in reflecting the diversity of Jewish religious and cultural traditions within communities around the world.

The collection recently acquired by the Museum allows us to explore this diversity through rare and unique manuscripts from some of the lesser-known (and now almost vanished) Jewish communities, such as those from Yemen, Iraq and India. The collection also includes printed editions which offer an insight into the religious life, cultural context and social status of the communities by which they were produced, to include an 1781 Haggadah from Amsterdam, an 1864 Trieste edition and a 1970 volume from the Greek Jewish community of Thessaloniki.

What countries are the haggadot from, and how do they vary depending on their place of origin?

The haggadot come from Italy, Spain, Greece, Austria, Hungary, the United States and Morocco to name a few. They vary visually in text, imagery, binding and presentation whilst they represent each community’s effort and dedication in recreating the haggadah in its own image, connected to history, place and tradition in varied geographical locations and different historical periods. For example, the Poona haggadah depicts both European and Indian Jews preparing for the Seder meal, reflecting the sweeping nature of the Haggadah tradition and its local relevance to the Pune Bene Israel community.

Can you tell us about the oldest haggadah we have acquired, and what it tells us about the people, time and place when it was written.

The oldest original volume is from Amsterdam, printed in 1781. The Amsterdam haggadot are typically considered to be modelled off the Venetian prototype, although they are distinguished by the use of printed copper engravings. This illustrated volume in Hebrew covers Ashkenazi and Sephardi rites and contains a fold-out Land of Israel map, as per its first 1695 edition. By the mid-eighteenth century, Amsterdam was the home of a significant Jewish population in Western Europe and a hub of Hebrew printing. This volume was published in a time of social, political and financial turmoil in the Netherlands affecting the established community of more than 20,000 Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews living in Amsterdam. By examining this historical context the 1781 haggadah allows us to further appreciate the movement and development of Jewish communities in Europe along with their impact towards written and artistic expressions of the religion and rituals as depicted in this volume.

Is there one in the collection which is a particular favourite of yours, and why?

The significance of this latest acquisition and the reason why we feel so privileged and excited about adding the haggadot to our collection is because of the story they tell collectively, from their wide range of provenances and in demonstrating the diversity of Jewish religious and cultural traditions across time and place. This makes each one significant and of great research, educational and interpretive value for the Museum and our visitors. However, I am intrigued by and look forward to research further and share with our visitors those from Poona, India (1874), Yemen (1800) and Iraq (c.1849) as these communities have now almost vanished and these volumes allow us to represent the history and diversity of Jewish religious and artistic tradition.

The haggadot were purchased with the assistance of the Copland Foundation and with support from private donors.