It’s one of Judaism’s best-known slogans, with its perennial cry for social justice and redemption: the haggadah’s HaLachma Anya passage – “This is the bread of affliction our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry come and eat”. For centuries, haggadah illuminators have found this ancient declaration– which intertwines generosity with a compact retelling of Jewish history and yearning – a compelling message to illustrate.
The classic Sarajevo Haggadah is a prime example. Created in the mid-14th century in Barcelona, the illuminator of this exquisite work depicted a scene that could be considered a precursor to the modern soup kitchen. Here, the master of the household is seen scooping out haroseth from a large clay vessel, as people line up patiently for this seder delicacy. In another panel, a man sits on a chair, distributing matzah to the needy.
This haggadah’s journey over the centuries from Spain to Sarajevo is in itself a story of benevolence of spirit and redemption. It is believed that the magnificent work was taken out of the country in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and resurfaced in Italy later in
the 1500s. It eventually found its way in 1894 to the National Museum in Sarajevo, after a Jewish boy – whose father had died, leaving the family destitute – had brought it to school to be sold.
But the story of this illustrious Sephardic haggadah doesn’t end there. During World War II, it was hidden from the Nazis by the museum’s chief librarian, Dervis Korkut. At great personal peril, he smuggled the haggadah out of Sarajevo, and gave it to a Moslem cleric in Zenica, where it was safely hidden until the war ended. This artistic treasure is now in the National Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina.
OTHER MEDIEVAL haggadahs also depict scenes of bounty and kindness. The Yoel ben Shimon Haggadah, illuminated in the middle of the 15th century in Germany by the scribe for whom it is named, shows a group of people feasting at the Passover meal. Here, a regally clad husband and wife cheerfully host an assortment of colorful local characters at their table.
In contrast, the Birds' Head Haggadah (illuminated in southern Germany circa 1300, and renowned for the bird-like faces attached to human bodies) paints a more depressing scene. The husband sits at one end of a long table; his wife at the other end. There is no one else around it, and the table is conspicuously empty, save for the haggadah, with the words HaLachma Anya visible. The viewer can’t help asking themselves, “Who exactly are the needy ones here?”.
In the contemporary Moss Haggadah by artist David Moss, there are three pages where seder hosts can record the names of their guests each year. “I wanted to convey the connection between the table and the commandment to welcome guests. The table is not only a place where the
family gathers, but one where it reaches out beyond itself,” says Moss, whose acclaimed work has been hailed by the London Jewish Chronicle as the greatest haggadah ever produced.
Moss, a Kol HaOt co-founder, will be explaining the artwork from his famed haggadah to the public at the Kol HaOt center, 7 Emek Refaim, German Colony, Jerusalem, on Chol HaMoed Passover, Tues., April 10 and Wed., April 11. (Read more details of the free event.)
Moss emphasizes the talmudic comparison between a table and the ancient altar, where in the time of the Temple, Jews brought sacrifices to atone for their sins. In the center of one page, Moss places a commentary by the 11th century sage Rabbenu Gershom, who noted that inviting guests to one’s table is the equivalent of bringing a sin offering to the altar.
“Once I was giving a slide presentation of my haggadah to a group of women from kibbutzim around the country,” Moss recalls. “When I got to this page, I proudly announced that it was intended to keep a list of seder guests over the years and through the generations. A woman in the back quipped, ‘I don’t think there would be enough spaces for us for one year!’”
Clearly, HaLachma Anya’s ancient messages of hospitality and generosity of spirit have found their rightful place at the seder table… and beyond.
Dvar Omanut – Musings on Jewish Art – is a monthly feature focusing on the deeper meaning of