The Arty Semite

Window to a Medieval Seder

By Rebecca Schischa

  • Print
  • Share Share

Each Haggadah tells not just the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, but also the story of its owners. Containing worn, loose or torn out pages, covered with wine stains and littered with matzo crumbs, the Haggadah reflects how Jews celebrate the yearly rituals of the Seder night.

This year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is getting into the Passover spirit with “The Rylands Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context,” a new exhibit showing a “priceless” medieval Haggadah.

The Rylands Haggadah, on loan from the University of Manchester, England, hails from Catalonian Spain and dates from the mid-1300s. It is being displayed alongside other medieval works of art that tell stories of the Jewish people in the Bible.

The illuminated manuscript, made of tempera, gold and ink on parchment, is open to a page showing two scenes: The first depicts the Israelites in Egypt heeding God’s command to slaughter a lamb and mark their doorposts with its blood so as to be spared from the slaughter of the first born. The second shows a medieval Passover Seder, with the figures participating in all the familiar Seder night rituals. We see them gathered around a table with the Seder plate taking the central position. In one frame, they are drinking the first of the four cups of wine; in another, they are dipping bitter vegetables in salt water.

There is a strange feeling of déjà vu that comes from standing in the Met’s galleries, staring into a glass case at this ornate manuscript depicting scenes of Jews living over 600 years ago, enacting Passover rituals identical to the ones practiced today. It brings to life the biblical commandment reiterated in the Haggadah that in every generation one is required to regard oneself as if he or she had personally come out of Egypt. In the Rylands Haggadah you can see the direct continuity between the lives of medieval Spanish Jews and Jews in 2012 still enacting the very same rituals.

Thinking about the Haggadah this way makes it easier to see the figures in these pictures as real people, rather than abstract caricatures. Did their children also get fed-up halfway through the long recitation of the Exodus story and start running around the table? Did the father also prove he was macho by wolfing down a giant-sized portion of maror? Did one of the aunts also get drunk and silly by the time they reached the second cup of wine on an empty stomach? Looking at the Rylands Haggadah is to see ritual, memory and Jewish continuity enclosed in a glass case at New York’s most august museum.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Visual Art, Rebecca Schischa, Passover Hagadah, Manuscripts

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.