Dressed in magnificent finery, King David kneels in prayer in a sumptuous room in his palace. The harp leaning against the table and the book of Psalms open in front of him allude to his fame as a musician and Psalmist. The scene is imbued with divine light emanating from a bright cloud, which contains the words Ruah ha-kodesh (the Holy Spirit).
The Leipnik Haggadah, Altona, Denmark (now Germany), 1740. Psalm 116: 8–10
BL Sloane MS 3173, f. 27r
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 second 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 - a God who chose the Jews to be an example to the whole world.
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 say?
The text in square Hebrew writing above the image is from Psalm 116: 8-10. The text column on the left is the commentary of the Jewish scholar Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508).
Who made this manuscript?
The 18th century witnessed a 'renaissance' of Hebrew illuminated manuscript art. This fine Passover Haggadah (ritual book for the eve of Passover) is the work of Joseph ben David of Leipnik, an influential 18th-century Moravian scribe-artist active in Hamburg and Altona. Between 1731 and 1740 he produced 13 Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah). Like other Haggadah manuscripts of that period, the miniatures in this one were modelled on the engravings in the 1695 and 1712 printed editions of the Amsterdam Haggadah.