For centuries, the Passover Haggadah has inspired the creative effort of scribes, illustrators, and commentators. The “Brother” Haggadah, a fourteenth-century Catalonian masterpiece, has now been published in a fine slipcased facsimile. Named “Brother” for its similarity to the Rylands Haggadah (Abrams, 1988, in facsimile), another medieval Sephardic masterpiece, it is a vibrant manuscript enriched by more than 60 devotional poems, known as piyutim.
In the style of many Spanish haggadot, the “Brother” Haggadah opens with a graphic novel of the Exodus, starting with God’s revelation to Moses. In 26 boldly colored and intricately designed panels, the story unfolds, highlighted by lively depictions of several plagues and the departure, climaxing in the celebration of the first seder contrasted with a contemporary seder. Delightful details — a spotted dog on Pharaoh’s lap, buzzing locusts, Pharaoh and his courtiers scratching boils — and dramatic expressions propel the story, resolved in a striking panel showing Pharaoh’s army sunk in the sea. The traditional text is not heavily illustrated, although occasional imaginative creatures appear, as well as elders holding open books inviting readers in. Elaborate initial words are the major decorative element in the text; the piyutim are embellished only by type and layout.
The art tells not only the story of the Exodus but also much about medieval dress and settings. The influence of Christian art can be seen, most notably in a panel showing Zipporah, dressed in Madonna blue, seated on a donkey with her two children and followed by Moses, their flight to Egypt. The piyutim, a feature of some Spanish haggadot, are interspersed with the morning liturgy, adding depth to the worship. The opening poems are instructional, laying out in detail the preparations for Passover and the conduct of the seder, but most are devotional, many by such poets as Judah Hallevi and Solomon Ibn Gabirol.
The similarity between the Rylands Haggadah and The “Brother” Haggadah has led to the assumption that the Brother was modeled on Rylands, thus its name. Epstein, however, stresses the differences between them and refutes this, asserting the Brother is the earlier; on the basis of the poems and liturgy Schonfield agrees that one is not based on the other. The other two essays explore the provenance. Interesting as the essays may be to scholars, the true joy of The “Brother” Haggadah lies in its spirited illustrations and handsome scribal work, still glowing some centuries after its creation.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.