Asking the fifth question

Asking the fifth question

Rutgers professor to offer online class on the history of the Haggadah

In these pages from the Birds’ Head Haggadah, Jews with birds’ heads and odd hats bake matzah.
In these pages from the Birds’ Head Haggadah, Jews with birds’ heads and odd hats bake matzah.

Here’s an obvious question that most people probably never thought to ask (at least I know I never did) — before the invention of the printing press, when people sat around their seder tables: How did they tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt?

Without Haggadahs, how could people know exactly what the four sons asked, much less in what order to sing the verses of “Dayenu”?

Without their little food-specked, wine-stained books, how could they figure out the order of the seder?

Dr. Gary Rendsburg is the distinguished professor of Jewish studies and history and holds the Blanche and Irving Laurie chair in Jewish history at Rutgers. On Sunday, he’s going to answer those questions as he talks about the Haggadah’s development from the ancient spartan remnants found in the Cairo genizah through some of the gloriously illuminated haggadot, although he will stop before the eventual triumph of Maxwell House. (See box.)

“Almost undoubtedly most families would have been lucky to have even one Haggadah,” Dr. Rendsburg said. “The oldest ones we’ve found are from the Cairo genizah,” the synagogue storehouse in that old city that held books and documents that had become too worn to be used but contained God’s name and therefore could not be trashed. “They’re from around 900 C.E., and they are very basic texts.

“We’ll look at them, and we’ll also look at some of the magnificent illuminated manuscripts owned by wealthy Jews living in Christian Europe. Those Jews learned about illuminated manuscripts from their Christian neighbors, and these Haggadot are sumptuously illustrated, with amazing artwork.

“And that artwork frequently informs us about medieval Jewish life, including the contacts Jews had with their neighbors, the Christians.”

Historians believe that Jews did not work on Christian manuscripts, but occasionally Christians did work on Jewish ones, so historians can learn a great deal not only about Jews but about relations between Christians and Jews, and what Jews understood about Christians.

It is far easier for scholars to study Jewish manuscripts, and even easier for them to teach that material to their students, than it was even a decade ago, Dr. Rendsburg said. Much of the trove of Jewish manuscripts, including the gorgeously illuminated ones, have been digitized and are available online. “When I lecture, I put them up on the screen, and we can zoom in and concentrate on fine details. The available digital record of the medieval Hebrew manuscript tradition has changed the way I teach, and hopefully the way my students — Rutgers students or adult learners — understand about the way Jews lived in the Middle Ages.

On Sunday, Dr. Rendsburg plans to talk about a Haggadah that’s at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library in Manchester, England. In that Haggadah, “the artwork shows these rabbis seated on chairs — thrones, really — in exactly the way that illuminated gospels show the Christian disciplines sitting on chairs. And those canopied chairs are based on reality — that’s the way bishops and their retinues sat in medieval cathedrals.

“Did the Jewish users of these manuscripts know that? Did they enter churches to see that? Did the illuminator know?

Dr. Gary Rendsburg

“Jewish and Christian manuscript producers worked side by side. They used the same parchment, the same ink, the same bookbinders, the same tints and hues of color. They must have been watching each other as they worked together, and there is some interplay in their work.”

Dr. Rendsburg will trace some of the textual changes through time, and he’ll explore how the historical context is visible in the art.

“The wicked son is portrayed in Europe as an enemy soldier,” he said. “He’s supposed to be Jewish, just like his brothers, but he’s wearing a government uniform.”

In one of the earliest printed Haggadot — this one’s from Mantua, Italy, in 1560 — “the wise son looks like an image from the Sistine chapel. It looks like a Michaelangelo image — same garb, same stance.”

“There is a Haggadah from Spain that shows Moses and Aaron appearing before Pharaoh,” he continued. “Pharaoh looks like a medieval king, in a crown.” That would be based on something other than firsthand knowledge of medieval kings, because “a Jew never could get to see a king.

“Of course, the average Christian never could see a king either.”

Mah Nishtanah — the Four Questions — has changed over time, Dr. Rendsburg said. “The oldest version we know has only three questions. They’re about dipping, matzah, and roasting. There is no question about reclining, and no question about maror. Eventually, the roasting question drops out and the reclining is added in.”

He plans on talking about the Birds’ Head Haggadah, which was produced in Germany around 1300. Although it’s not entirely clear why all the Jews in the Haggadah are shown with human bodies topped with birds’ head, the consensus is that it’s likely to be in observance of the commandment not to create images of people. The effect is eerie.

“There’s a famous scene that shows a man wearing a Jewish hat, a woman wearing a snood, and a child, with no headcovering, making matzah. It shows how they pricked the matzah.”

Although these images are held in musuems — many of them are in the Jewish Theological Seminary — they’re available online at Ktiv, a project of the National Library of Israel that now has digitized almost 95,000 manuscripts and 1,200,000 images from 588 collections. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, which both democratizes learning and enables serious research and scholarship.

Dr. Rendsburg will show some of these images as he traces the development of the Haggadah.

Who: Dr. Gary Rendsburg

What: Will talk about “The Passover Haggadah Through the Ages: Jewish Texts, Christian Surprises.

When: On Sunday, April 14, at 10:30 a.m.

Where: On Zoom

For whom: Kol Rina Independent Minyan of South Orange

For the link: Email

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