Israel’s National Library Highlights World’s Oldest, Rarest Passover Haggadot

(The Media Line) When Jewish families the world over gather around the Passover table this weekend, they will read from a text that has evolved over the centuries and has helped tell and retell the story of Passover to countless generations: the Haggadah.

The Haggadah is a text that recounts the story of the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus.

For those wishing to explore its rich history and cultural significance, there is no better place to do so than the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, which houses the largest collection of Haggadot [plural of Haggadah] in the world.

This is actually the oldest Haggadah in the collection

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Among its most treasured Passover texts are the remnants of one of the oldest surviving Haggadot.

“This is actually the oldest Haggadah in the collection,” Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library, told The Media Line as he gingerly opened the binding of the delicate bi-fold folio.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library. (Raymond Crystal)

“It’s not a complete Haggadah; it came from the famed Cairo Genizah and is dated roughly to the 12th century,” Finkelman said. “It’s perfectly legible.”

One of the oldest surviving handwritten Passover texts, dating to the 12th century and found in the Cairo Genizah. (Raymond Crystal/The Media Line)

Handwritten on parchment, the precious fragments were discovered among the 400,000 pages and fragments that make up the Cairo Genizah, an astounding collection of Jewish texts that were kept in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt.

According to Finkelman, there are roughly 8,000 traditional Haggadot in the National Library’s collection, in addition to several thousand more non-traditional editions. They come in all languages, sizes and artistic styles.

In his day-to-day, Finkelman handles some of Judaism’s greatest cultural treasures, including a wide array of fascinating Haggadot.

“The liturgy for Passover is the single most commonly printed and published work in Jewish tradition, more than a prayer book, more than a Bible,” he stressed.

Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar and this year will be celebrated beginning March 27 at sundown and ending at nightfall on April 3. During the festival, observant Jews rid their pantries of all leavened breads and hold a ceremonial meal known as a Seder. It is during the Seder that the Haggadah is read.

Some of the most compelling historical Haggadot appear to be quite simple at first glance.

This is the beginning of the transition from the Haggadah as a luxury item that a family might barely be able to afford, if at all … to something that could be mass-produced more cheaply. As you can see just by glancing at it, it’s a very simple layout. It’s the beginning of [printing] technology

The 1480 Haggadah is not only the oldest printed Passover text in the world but also a one-of-a-kind copy that was created only a few decades after the invention of the printing press.

The oldest printed Haggadah in existence, dating back to 1480 from Guadalajara, Spain. (Raymond Crystal/The Media Line)

“This is the beginning of the transition from the Haggadah as a luxury item that a family might barely be able to afford, if at all … to something that could be mass-produced more cheaply,” Finkelman explained. “As you can see just by glancing at it, it’s a very simple layout. It’s the beginning of [printing] technology.”

On the other end of the aesthetic spectrum lies the Leipnik Darmstadt Haggadah, a lavishly illuminated manuscript from Germany that was written in 1733. Unlike its printed counterparts, such intricately crafted books were the purview of the wealthy.

The ornate manuscript is the handiwork of Joseph ben David of Leipnik, an influential 18th-century scribe-artist who produced an array of Haggadot for Jewish households.

The Leipnik Darmstadt Haggadah, a lavishly illuminated manuscript from Germany that was written in 1733. (National Library of Israel)

Alongside the beautifully decorated handwritten Hebrew lettering are colorful illustrations depicting biblical scenes that Leipnik in fact copied from printed editions that were fashionable in Amsterdam at the time.

“A Haggadah of this kind is a luxury item that of course only the wealthiest members of the community could possibly afford,” said Finkelman. “This is much fancier, in color, on parchment and really meant for absolutely the highest echelons of society.”

The National Library is currently in the process of digitizing rare and out-of-print items such as these, in a bid to make them more accessible to the public. In fact, all of its most valuable Haggadot are available for online viewing in high resolution.

A view of the National Library building in Jerusalem, Israel. (Assaf Pinchuk/National Library of Israel)

“The National Library of Israel has a policy and an aspiration to open access as much as possible because we believe that these belong to everyone,” Dr. Raquel Ukeles, head of collections at the library, told The Media Line. “These are great human treasures.”

Nevertheless, she added, “no matter how much digitization we do there is still no substitute to coming face-to-face with a rare treasure.”

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