Picturing God's presence
Because of the stern injunction against representing God, images depicting the Almighty are rarely found in Jewish book art. However, artists did find other ways of depicting divine presence, as in this illustration of one of the most momentous episodes in the Hebrew Bible, in a Haggadah from about seven centuries ago.
Hispano-Moresque Haggadah, Castile, Spain, c.1300. The binding of Isaac
BL Or. MS 2737, f. 93v
Copyright © The British Library Board
What is a haggadah?
A haggadah is a collection of Jewish prayers and readings written to accompany the Passover 'seder', a ritual meal eaten on the eve of the Passover festival. The ritual meal was formalised during the 2nd century, after the example of the Greek 'symposium', in which philosophical debate was fortified by food and wine.
The literal meaning of the Hebrew word 'haggadah' is a 'narration' or 'telling'. It refers to a command in the biblical book of 'Exodus', requiring Jews to "tell your son on that day: it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt".
Perhaps because it was mainly intended for use at home, and its purpose was educational, Jewish scribes and artists felt completely free to illustrate the haggadah. Indeed it was traditionally the most lavishly decorated of all Jewish sacred writings, giving well-to-do Jews of the middle ages a chance to demonstrate their wealth and good taste as well as their piety.
What is Passover?
Passover commemorates one of the most important events in the story of the Jewish people. Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism traces its origins back to Abraham. He was leader of the Israelites, a group of nomadic tribes in the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. Abraham established a religion that distinguished itself from other local beliefs by having only one, all-powerful God. According to a Covenant made between them, the Jews would keep God's laws, and in return they would be protected as chosen people.
The Israelites were captured and taken as slaves to Egypt, where they suffered much hardship. Eventually, a prophet called Moses delivered the Jews from their captivity with the help of several miraculous events intended to intimidate the Egyptian authorities. The last of these was the sudden death of the eldest son in every family. Jewish households were spared by smearing lambs' blood above their doors - a sign telling the 'angel of death' to pass over.
What does this page depict?
According to the Biblical text (Genesis 22: 1-13), God put Abraham to the test by ordering him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. He was stopped from slaying the boy by an angel of God calling from heaven. (Islam has the same story, but in that version, it is Abraham's other son Ishmael who is almost sacrificed.)
In this illustration there is no trace of God's angel, nor of the ass or the two servants who, in the story, accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey to the Land of Moriah. Isaac is shown lying down on a brick altar. Holding the knife in his right hand, Abraham tries to keep Isaac steady, while pressing his left hand firmly over his son's mouth.
Miraculously, from behind a dark blue drape, God's hand appears, pointing a warning finger at Abraham and stopping him in his tracks.