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Fifteenth Century Haggadah Displayed at the Met for Passover

Monday, April 18, 2011

Those celebrating Passover on Monday night are likely to be using a Haggadah, the prayer book that guides diners through the Passover Seder meal. But few can turn to a book that's over 500 years old.

That's where the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes in. The museum's medieval wing is showing the Washington Haggadah for the holiday. It's a hand-written Jewish manuscript that dates back to 1478, which is on loan to the museum from the Library of Congress. The holy book is filled with illustrations by Joel ben Simeon, a Jewish scribe who made books in Germany and Italy in the 15th century.

“What they illustrate are scenes of medieval Jews...preparing for and celebrating the Passover,” said curator Melanie Holcomb. “So, it’s full of these wonderful details about daily life.”

On Monday, the museum had the book open to the Haggadah's most famous page: The Daeynu song.

In addition to the Haggadah, the museum has on view medieval ceramics and textiles from the Met's collections that match ordinary objects depicted in the book's illustrations.

According to Holcomb, the Haggadah was originally commissioned by a wealthy German family, and the objects and fashions depicted in the manuscript aren’t any different from those found in similar Christian texts from the period.

“These might just as easily have been in a Christian home,” said Holcomb. “This is a shared aesthetic, it’s not specific to one faith or another. These are the great Italian velvets.”

The Washington Haggadah passed through many hands over the centuries, and eventually ended up with an American book dealer who donated it to the Library of Congress in 1916. Still, the text isn't out of place at a modern day Seder table.

“The Haggadah emerged in its book form in the middle ages, and it's very similar,” she said. “Anyone familiar with the Seder in Hebrew would have no trouble reading this and following along. Not at all.”

The Washington Haggadah will be on display at the Met through June. Each month, the museum will be displaying a new illustrated page.

 

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