Passover in 14th-Century CE Catalonia (Katrin Kogman-Appel)

Passover in 14th-century CE Catalonia

‘On this day you shall tell your son: it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went forth from Egypt (Ex. 13:8).’ Professor Katrin Kogman-Appel considers what it was like to celebrate Passover as a 14th-century CE Sephardic family.

For centuries, Jewish fathers have obeyed the biblical principle to teach the story of the children of Israel’s liberation from slavery and their departure from Egypt. Families assemble on the eve of the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, which falls in the spring, to celebrate the Passover holiday and commemorate that liberation. The ceremony includes the Seder,[1] where no leaven[2] may be served, and the recitation of the story of the celebrated event.

Originally part of the general prayer book, the recited text, the haggadah, began to circulate as an independent small book in the late 13th century CE. Eventually it became one of the most popular genres in Jewish book history, both handwritten and printed, and was often richly illustrated.

The Golden Haggadah

Images from the Book of Genesis in the Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, c. 1320 CE, The Golden Haggadah, Add MS 27210, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Images from the Book of Genesis in the Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, c. 1320 CE (Add MS 27210, ff. 2v-3r)

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The Brother Haggadah

The Children of Israel liberated from bondage, leave Egypt in another illustrated haggadah from Catalonia, c. 1330 CE, The Brother Hagadah: Haggadah with commentary and liturgical poems for Passover, Or 1404, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

The Children of Israel liberated from bondage, leave Egypt in another illustrated haggadah from Catalonia, c. 1330 CE (Or 1404, f. 6v)

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The British Library holds one of the most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts in the world and among them a number of lavishly illuminated books can be found. Perhaps the most splendid of all is the Golden Haggadah (Add MS 27210), which owes its name to a rich series of biblical scenes on gleaming backgrounds of gold leaf (Add MS 27210 and Or 1404). This small book was produced by a Hebrew scribe and an unknown team of artists around 1320 CE, perhaps in Barcelona, for an anonymous patron of great wealth.

The Library keeps two other haggadot[3] from 14th-century CE Catalonia. The illuminator of one of them, shelfmarked Or 2884, must have been familiar with the art of the Golden Haggadah, as he painted a very similar series of images a few years later. His unprofessional style suggests that this manuscript must have been the property of a less wealthy patron. The illuminator, perhaps a scribe untrained in the art of miniature painting, used almost no gold at all, and his figures move about the picture space awkwardly (Or 2884). The third manuscript, Or 1404, was made perhaps somewhere south of Catalonia, in or near Valencia, and dates from about the same period.

The Golden Haggadah

The beginning of the Haggadah text in the Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, c. 1320 CE, The Golden Haggadah, Add MS 27210, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

The beginning of the Haggadah text in the Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, c. 1320 CE (Add MS 27210, ff. 26v-27r)

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These three manuscripts are scribal masterpieces: written in large, typically Sephardic[4] square script, they are still easily read today (Add MS 27210 and Or 1404). Even before the text begins, the viewer is entranced by a colourful series of biblical illustrations. For example, the Golden Haggadah and manuscript Or 2884 begin with the story of Adam and Eve; and manuscript Or 1404 opens with an image of Moses awestruck by the burning bush that is not being consumed by the fire. The images create a historical framework in which the viewer can re-create the events that ultimately led to the liberation of the Jewish people – the Exodus (Add MS 27210).

All three sequences, at their ends, move seamlessly from the biblical scenarios to what would have been the ‘here and now’ of medieval Sephardic patrons, as if to emphasise that biblical history continues into the present, ultimately leading to the future messianic[5] era. The images that conclude the series show a 14th-century CE Sephardic family preparing for the holiday: cleaning the house, slaughtering a lamb, and setting the table. Later the family appears at the table, reading the text, with various foods laid out before them.

These images offer a window onto some of the ways that medieval Sephardic Jews prepared for the festival. The Golden Haggadah depicts an elegant room, where two young women are sweeping the floor and dusting the ceiling while a youth carries a bowl to collect leaven to be taken out of the house and burned. The head of the household, lavishly dressed in a long robe and a mantle, most likely meant to portray the owner of the book, is searching the crevices with a candle and removing crumbs that were overlooked during the cleaning.
But the head of the household, the wealthy patron of our manuscript, went beyond supervising the cleaning of the house. Another image on the same page shows him distributing two of the foods needed for the holiday: matsot, unleavened bread, and haroset, a sweet mixture of mashed foods – recalling the mortar the Israelites worked with during the year of labour in Egypt. The recipients of the matsot and haroset make up a large group; women, young people, and children among them.

The Golden Haggadah

The Children of Israel liberated from bondage, leave Egypt in the Golden Haggadah, and Sephardic Jews in 14th-century CE Catalonia are getting ready for the Passover festival, Catalonia, c. 1320 CE, The Golden Haggadah, Add MS 27210, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

The Children of Israel liberated from bondage, leave Egypt in the Golden Haggadah (f. 14v) and Sephardic Jews in 14th-century CE Catalonia are getting ready for the Passover festival (f. 15r), Catalonia, c. 1320 CE (Add MS 27210)

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Were these people impoverished members of the community being taken care of by the wealthy patron? They are well dressed and do not look like needy people however. This image seems to demonstrate that Passover in Sepharad,[6] even though primarily a festival celebrated privately, also had a distinct communal feature.

Historians argue that upper-class Jews in the Crown of Aragon were not particularly empathetic to the suffering of the poor. However, supervision of religious practice was a major concern in these communities and it was enforced by so-called berure averot, officials empowered to punish offenders of the ritual law. Among other tasks, these officials were responsible for ensuring the proper observance of Shabat and holidays.
The supply of kosher food was similarly supervised by community administrators, as was its consumption. For example, according to Solomon ibn Adret, the dominant Catalan authority of ritual law in his generation (d. 1310 CE), individuals who ate non-kosher food were considered unfit to be witnesses in the rabbinic court.
Passover is a festival with special dietary restrictions and supervision during the celebrations seems to have been particularly strict. It was often wealthy court Jews, overly concerned with mundane issues of the day, who were reported to have been negligent when it came to the ritual law. Given that the recipients of the foods in the Golden Haggadah do not appear particularly needy, it is possible that the donations were in fact meant for those families who may have been inattentive in their religious observance and were therefore provided with the required foods by a wealthy patron who was concerned about the spiritual well-being of his community.
In manuscript Or 2884, an interesting image seems to portray another custom of communal relevance. It shows the community gathered in a synagogue. We see a Gothic-style vaulted interior of a building; between the two columns is an elevated canopy reached by a flight of stairs. This depiction seems to be a pictorial translation of the migdal, a typically Iberian piece of synagogal furniture (known from written records).

In terms of shape it is similar to both the Christian ambo[7] and the Islamic minbar.[8] We see a man sitting on the migdal reading from a book; male members of the community are assembled in the lower part of the picture, two of them holding open books. The congregation as a whole is not using books and seems to be listening to the recitation. The accompanying caption above the upper frame of the image indicates that it is the haggadah that is being recited publicly.

Our image illustrates a common Sephardic practice. Around 1340 CE David Abudarham, a rabbi from Seville, reported: ‘it was customary to recite the haggadah… in the synagogue in order to enable those who do not know it to fulfil their obligation to recite it.’ Abudarham was referring to those individuals who were either not able to read or who did not have the means to buy a haggadah but were eager to fulfil the obligation.
The image depicts some sort of service that enabled common people to listen to the haggadah and study its content. The motivation for the public recitation of the haggadah was thus educational, and the reading was designed to ensure that the uneducated and the needy would be able to celebrate the holiday properly.

The Sister Haggadah

The Haggadah is being recited at the eve of Passover in a 14th-century CE Catalan synagogue, and a Sephardic family is celebrating the Passover ceremony, Catalonia, c. 1325 CE, The Sister Hagadah: Haggadah for Passover, Or 2884, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

The Haggadah is being recited at the eve of Passover in a 14th-century CE Catalan synagogue, and a Sephardic family is celebrating the Passover ceremony, Catalonia, c. 1325 CE (Or 2884, ff. 17v-18r)

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The Brother Haggadah

A Sephardic family is assembled for the Passover meal in 14th-century CE Catalonia, The Brother Hagadah: Haggadah with commentary and liturgical poems for Passover, Or 1404, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

A (Sephardic) family is assembled for the Passover meal in 14th-century CE Catalonia (Or 1404, ff. 7v-8r)

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Finally, Or 1404 and Or 2884, show the Seder meal itself. The former two images depict the elegant interiors in the house of the wealthy patron. To the right, a middle-aged man, dressed in a red tunic with a blue mantle and elaborate headgear, is holding a goblet, perhaps getting ready for the blessing on the wine (Kidush). A servant, a youth in the short tunic of the common worker, is pouring more wine into another goblet. In the left panel, a young, fashionably dressed couple, also attended by a servant, are shown eating.
Both these pictures, in contrast to the others with their communal focus, reflect a particularly intimate and private quality and seem to draw the viewer into the 14th-century CE households of wealthy Sephardim in Catalonia.

Footnotes

[1] A festive meal
[2] A substance, typically yeast, that is added to dough to make it ferment and rise
[3] Plural of haggadah
[4] A Spanish or Portuguese Jew
[5] Relating to the Messiah
[6] A unknown location. The modern Jews think that Spain is meant, others identify it with Sardis, the capital of Lydia
[7] A raised speaking stand in a church, especially such a stand in early Christian churches serving as a lectern or pulpit
[8] A short flight of steps used as a platform by a preacher in a mosque
Katrin Kogman-Appel
  • Katrin Kogman-Appel
  • Katrin Kogman-Appel has published work on the relationship between Jewish and Christian visual cultures and Hebrew manuscript painting and has taught at the Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva for almost twenty years. In April 2015 she was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Professorship, which she assumed in November 2015 at the University of Münster.

    Photograph by Semadar Bergman, Institute for Advanced Studies, Jerusalem.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.