Visu­al Arts

The Broth­er Hag­gadah: A Medieval Sephar­di Mas­ter­piece in Facsimile

Marc Michael Epstein, ed.
  • Review
By – April 1, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.

Discussion Questions