The Christian Who Set the Talmud’s Layout

Whether it is in school, yeshiva or university, the Gemara (Talmud) page looks exactly the same: Gemara text in middle, and Rashi and Tosafot commentary in both sides.

The Gemara page (Daf) is recognizable to all students of the Talmud, whether the student is in school, yeshiva, or university. The Daf, structured with the Gemara in the center of the page, Rashi’s commentary in the interior section, and the Tosafot (lit. addendums, an important set of medieval commentaries) in the exterior section.

This page layout makes good sense, because it allows the student to move from the text in the center, to Rashi in order to understand the issue presented in the Daf, and to the Tosafot. This is the way the Talmud is printed and it seems as though it had always been this way, since the dawn of Jewish study.

Surprisingly, this structure was actually set by a Catholic printer in 16th century Venice.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, books were written and copied by hand, so each copy was laid out differently from every other one. Often the text and commentaries were written in separate manuscripts, which required maneuvering between several books and documents.

Italian manuscript of Rashi on Pentanteuch, 15th century

With the onset of the printing press, the Talmud also appeared in printed form. Different printed editions were laid out differently and included different commentaries. An edition from Guadalajara in 1482, for example, included Rashi but no Tosafot.

Talmud Guadalajara 1482, Mesechet Kiddushin with Rashi

In the early 16th century, Venice became the center of printing books, but Jews were not permitted to own their own printing presses. Gentile printers would publish Hebrew and Jewish works, because they hoped to make money by selling books to Jews. In addition, renaissance culture encouraged Christian readers to return to ancient sources – including Hebrew sources – thereby creating a Christian market for Hebrew texts.

Between 1519-1523, a Christian Printer from Antwerp who had settled in Venice, Daniel Bomberg, working together with his Jewish staff (some of whom converted to Christianity) published the first complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud, and he added the remarkable system of fixed page. The pages, which included Rashi and Tosafot, were carefully numbered, so that anyone anywhere could refer to a particular passage.

With the publication of the Bomberg Talmud, the fluidity and page layout ended.

Bomberg Babylonian Talmud, Venice Pesachim, 1520 (?)

With only a handful of exceptions (the 1616 Kraków edition, for example), every single printed edition of the Talmud since then has followed Bomberg’s lead, both in terms of page layout and in terms of fixed pages.

The Venice Hebrew print spread far and wide in the Jewish world and there is simply no denying that the system of study works.

This article was written with the assistance of Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Judaica Collection in the National Library of Israel.

The Rescue of One of the World’s Most Beautiful Haggadot

The journey of the "Rothschild Haggadah" began 550 years ago with the artist Yoel ben Shimon in Northern Italy and ended in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people

The Rothschild Haggadah

The patriarch of the Rothschild family, Mayer Amschel, collected and traded ancient coins. His five sons who inherited the family estates and businesses after his death had more of an affinity for ancient illustrated manuscripts than coins. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the descendants of the family who resided in various European cities amassed a large collection of manuscripts, along with other works of art.

A photograph of the “The Famous Benefactor” Edmond de Rothschild

One of the foremost collectors was Baron Edmond de Rothschild. “The Famous Benefactor”, as the Baron was known in the Land of Israel, began to collect books while he was still in his twenties. Edmond added dozens of manuscripts to the forty or so he had inherited from his father. The majority of these were Christian texts or historical novels, but as an observant Jew he also collected Jewish manuscripts. He owned 14 of these handwritten works, including two bibles, several Passover Haggadot and a festival prayer book from 1492. His most famous Jewish manuscript is “The Rothschild Miscellany” which is currently stored in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Baron died in Paris in 1934, leaving behind three children. James, the firstborn, had emigrated to England before the First World War. After his father’s death, James sent an expert antique dealer to France to appraise the manuscript collection and to divide it up between James, his brother Maurice, and his sister Miriam (Alexandrine). The dealer drew up a detailed list of over 100 items along with their monetary value. Most of James’ share was sent to his estate in England. Among his collection were several special Passover Haggadot. After the manuscripts were divided between the Rothschild children, for reasons which remain a mystery to this day, James Rothschild decided to leave 6 Hebrew manuscripts from his collection, including several Passover Haggadot, in France.

One of these Haggadot contains some 50 pages written in quadratic Ashkenazi script, accompanied by dozens of colorful illustrations. Some of the wonderful illustrations in this Haggadah are connected to the text itself, and some contain motifs connected to the Haggadah and the story of the exodus from Egypt – the ten plagues, matzah baking, and more.

Ma Nishtana (The Four Questions) from the Rothschild Haggadah

This Haggadah would later become known as the “Rothschild Haggadah.” Some of the illustrations in the Haggadah provide details regarding its source. The cities of Pithom and Ramses feature late gothic architecture, reminiscent of Northern Italian fortresses. The figures depicted in the Haggadah are also dressed in clothing typical of Northern Italy. The illustrator’s name does not appear, but the style is reminiscent of that of a famous illustrator named Yoel ben Shimon. Information taken from other manuscripts show that Yoel ben Shimon was active in the second half of the 15th century in the cities of Modena and Cremona in Northern Italy.

Pithom and Ramses, from the Rothschild Haggadah

Some of the illustrations are rather amusing. The wise son is seen picking his nose. This could be a play on the words of the response he receives “and you should say to him” [v’af ata emor loaf in Hebrew also means nose].

The wise son, from the Rothschild Haggadah

Another strange illustration appears underneath the song Dayeinu. The illustration depicts a gentile drinking himself into inebriation and warming his bare feet next to a fire, upon which he is roasting raw meat which does not seem particularly kosher.

Dayeinu, from the Rothschild Haggadah

The scribe who transcribed the Rothschild Haggadah was probably named Yehuda. He decorated and emphasized his own name in red in the words of the Hallel prayer, “Hayta Yehuda L’Kodsho”.

The liturgy of the Haggadah follows early Ashkezani tradition, differing slightly from the liturgy we are familiar with today. During the Middle Ages, the rabbis debated whether a blessing should be recited for the Hallel prayer included in the Haggadah. The accepted practice today is not to recite a blessing, but the transcriber of the Rothschild Haggadah appears to have followed the opposing opinions and began the first half of the Hallel prayer with the blessing “to complete the Hallel“. The songs sung at the end of the Haggadah, Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya do not appear, rather the transcriber of this Haggadah instructs the reader to drink the fourth cup of wine at this point. The Haggadah ends with the words slik Ma Nishtana (“Ma Nishtana has been completed”), as in this period, Ashkenazi communities referred to the entire Haggadah by the name of the well-known song which features the question – “why is this night different from all other nights?”

When the Nazis entered Paris on June 14th, 1940, they immediately set their sights on the local riches. The Nazi pillagers mainly stole property of entities marked as “hostile,” such as Jews. A short time after the occupation was completed, the chief ideologue of the Nazi party, Alfred Rosenberg, sent two representatives to locate and collect libraries of such hostile entities. They were Walter Grothe – director of the central library in the Advanced School of the NSDAP (Hohe Schule der NSDAP), and Wilhelm Grau – director of the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt.

Maurice Rothschild hid the manuscripts in his possession in a safe in a Parisian bank. On January 21st, 1941 the Nazis broke into the bank safe and removed the treasures. A German officer left a receipt in the bank which stated the date and wrote that six crates had been taken. The Germans then went to the Rothschild estate where they continued their looting. Among the manuscripts taken was James Rothschild’s illustrated Haggadah.

James Rothschild, son of “The Famous Benefactor”

In addition to the libraries of Kol Yisrael Chaevrim, the Rabbinical Seminary and other libraries, Rosenberg’s experts (members of the Nazi ERR organization) working in Paris also confiscated the private libraries of the Rothschild family, as well as 760 crates from the Rothschild Bank Archive which contained material from the past hundred years.

The books stolen from the Rothschild family were sent together with hundreds of thousands of other books taken from libraries throughout Western Europe, to Germany, where they were divided between the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question and the Central Library and sorting center of the Advanced School of the NSDAP, in Berlin.

All the books and manuscripts were evacuated from the German city centers due to the allied air raids, and many of them were discovered by American forces after the war in Hangen (Germany), by British forces in Tanzenberg (Austria) and by the Russians in Raciborz (Silesia). The Americans and British returned the books to their original owners, when possible. The Russians took the books they found with them to Minsk and Moscow. It was not until the 1990s that the Russians finally returned some of the Rothschild collections to the family.

After the war, manuscripts belonging to the Rothschild family began to be discovered in Berlin, in Neuschwanstien castle and in Berchtesgaden near the Austrian border. Hermann Goering, the number two man in Nazi Germany, was an art lover. In Berchtesgaden, Goering amassed a tremendous collection of works of art he stole throughout Europe. Some of the Rothschild family assets may have come into his possession.

When the battles ended, the French army published a series of thick volumes with lists of items of art stolen by the Nazis during the war. The three Rothschild siblings sent lists of manuscripts stolen from their collections, which can be seen in the seventh volume.

The Rothschild Haggadah is cited in the seventh volume

Years passed, and only some of the manuscripts were found and returned to James, Maurice and Miriam.

In 1948 Dr. Fred Murphy bequeathed a Haggadah which had come into his possession to the rare books collection of Yale University. The university came to refer to the manuscript as the “Murphy Haggadah”, after its donor.

On the back page of the binding of the manuscript is a small simple stamp of the name William V. Black. The genealogy database website My Heritage shows that several soldiers with this name served in the Second World War. This Haggadah may have been found by an American soldier with this name (or another) who brought it back from Europe at the war’s end. Perhaps Professor Murphy received it from him.

It was not until 1980 that Professor James Marrow, a researcher of art history at Princeton University identified this book as one of James Rothschild’s lost Haggadot. James had died in 1957, so Yale University gave the Haggadah to his widow Dorothy in England. Baroness Dorothy decided to bequeath the valuable manuscript to the National Library in Jerusalem.

Three leaves were missing from the Haggadah. Two of them contained the end of the “Kadesh”,Urchatz“, and “Karpas” sections and the beginning of the “Maggid” section of the Seder service.

In 2007, two illustrated leaves of a Passover Haggadah were auctioned in France. The antique dealer who bought them sent them to Jerusalem to be examined. In 2008, Dr. Evelyn Cohen, an expert in illustrated Jewish manuscripts, identified the two leaves as the missing leaves of the “Rothschild Haggadah”. The leaves were purchased for the National Library and returned to their rightful place in the Passover Haggadah.

The journey, which began 550 years ago with the illustrator Yoel ben Shimon in Northern Italy, ended with the Haggadah being scanned by the National Library in Jerusalem, making it accessible to anyone who wishes to see it.

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The Haggadot collection at the National Library is the largest in the world and we've collected them here in a special online exhibition.

The Wolff Haggadah

The Wolff Haggadah

The styles and wording of the modern Haggadah expand on the traditional versions, with various levels of interpretation and innovation. On the one hand, many Haggadot include additions, especially at the end, while others are seen as a platform for the expression of certain ideas and as a place to include informative and humorous anecdotes. The additions are varied, ranging from recognized Hebrew songs and melodies to original independent pieces. Many Haggadot produced in Israel include illustrations by some of Israel’s greatest artists.

The Haggadot collection at the National Library is the largest in the world. This collection includes hand-written Haggadot, Haggadot in rare and new print, Haggadot in a wide variety of languages, photocopies of hand-written Haggadot, traditional Haggadot, and non-traditional Haggadot of various types.


Wolff Haggadah, illustrated and hand-written, 14th century.

In 1938 this Haggadah was confiscated by the Nazis from the Jewish community in Berlin. The Haggadah was transferred to Warsaw and disappeared in 1948. It reappeared in 1989, in Geneva. It was only after a long and difficult court battle that lasted four years that the Haggadah was returned to Poland and eventually donated by the Prime Minister of Poland, Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, to Prof. Israel Shatzman, director of the National Library, in a formal ceremony with the Speaker of the Knesset, Dan Tichon. The Wolff Haggadah is one of the oldest in existence. It was inscribed on parchment, and was most likely written in Avignon, but in the tradition accepted in Northern France. The owner and copier of the Haggadah was Yaakov ben Shlomo Tzarfati, whose writings we have preserved to this day.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


Rothschild Haggadah, Northern Italy, from around 1450

Called the “Rothschild Haggada” because it was owned by the famous family of Jewish benefactors until 1939. During the Second World War, the Haggadah was stolen by the Nazis and disappeared. After the war it was purchased by Dr. Fred Murphy, a graduate of Yale University, who bequeathed it to the university in 1948. In 1980 the Haggadah was identified as the property of the Rothschild family and returned to its owners, who donated it to the National Library of Israel. The Haggadah was missing three pages that were probably already torn prior to its purchase by the Rothschild family. Recently two of the pages were found at a public auction and purchased by the National Library with the generous help of two anonymous donors.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A Haggadah from Guadalajara, Spain, 1480

This is the earliest printed Haggadah, the only copy in the world. The text is printed in quadratic, unpunctuated letters. The Haggadah, printed 12 years prior to the exile of the Jews from Spain, is unique evidence of the high technological level of printing among Spanish Jews. With the exile, the Jews took this knowledge with them to their Diaspora communities in Europe and areas of the Ottoman Empire, among them northern Africa.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A Haggadah from Prague, 1526

This is the earliest complete illustrated Haggadah. It includes short interpretations in the pages’ margins. Although the Haggadah does not include Echad Mi Yodeah or Chad Gadya, it made a lasting impression on generations to come, as its illustrations served as a model for many Haggadot printed later on.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


 A Haggadah from Amsterdam, 1695

The first Haggadah to include copper engravings and a map. The copper engravings in the illustrations are the work of the artist Avraham ben Yaakov Hagar. A map of the Land of Israel appears at the end, also in copper engravings. The map is likely based upon the map of the Land of Canaan by Christian van Adrichom, from the 16th century, who was also known for his map attempting to reconstruct Jerusalem and its surroundings in the olden days.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A Haggadah from New York, 1837

This is most likely the first Haggadah to have been printed in America. It includes an English translation by David Levy from London. The Haggadah is written “According to the Custom of the German & Spanish Jews”. The English translation appears alongside the Hebrew, with slight clarifications. Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea are not translated to English.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A humorous Haggadah from Jerusalem, 1923

Written by the teacher, translator, and linguist, Kadish Yehuda-Leib Silman (1880-1937), who was one of the founders of Tel-Aviv and the Beit-Hakerem neighborhood in Jerusalem. The Haggadah deals with life in the Hebrew communities of the Land of Israel in a humorous tone: The wise one is the High Commissioner; the evil one is the Arab Higher Committee; the veteran settlers are represented by the shy one, and the one who knows not how to ask is the young generation, “that will not talk a lot, but will do a lot, will grow and glorify Israel”.


A satirical Haggadah from Tel Aviv, 1934

The “Tel-Aviv Haggadah”, a satirical version of the Passover Haggadah, illustrated by Aryeh Nevon. Published in honor of the 25th anniversary of Tel-Aviv’s establishment, during Passover 1909. The Haggadah depicts the atmosphere of life in the first Hebrew city and mentions several central town figures in the text itself.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A Haggadah prepared by the “Hebrew Transport Unit” (Yael) of the Jewish Brigade, 1942.

During Passover of 1942, the unit was stationed in Egypt, on the shores of the Red Sea. The Haggadah makes reference to the symbolism of the location and praises the role of the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade as Hebrew representatives in the war against the Germans in North Africa. The Haggadah also refers to the bravery of the Brigade soldiers during the German siege on Tobruk in Passover 1941. Various literary texts mostly dealing with war were added to the traditional texts of the Haggadah.


Hashomer HaTzair Haggadah, 1943

The first Haggadah produced by the Hashomer HaTzair (“The Young Guard” – a socialist-Zionist youth movement) and intended for use in the movement’s kibbutzim. The Haggadah refers to the Holocaust, the war, and the Hebrew community’s struggle against the British. The Haggadah reflects the destruction and the loss of the homes of the previous generation, and the need to hold on to the only home left. Current events of the world and of the region, as well as the story of the Exodus from Egypt, are all displayed in the Haggadah in service of the movement’s ideology regarding the battle of the classes, liberation from slavery, and the values of the Hebrew pioneer. “There is hope still that Israel will return from the house of slavery and attain resurrection in the Spring of Nations.” Written and edited by Mordechai Amitai, decorated by the painter Ruth Shlos.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A Haggadah prepared by the Palmach‘s 3rd Battalion,1948

The 3rd Battalion of the Palmach (the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces) was active in the Galilee from the outset of Israel’s War of Independence. Passover of that year was spent fighting a difficult battle over the stronghold at Al-Nabi Yusha’. Following Passover the battalion’s soldiers conquered the fortress. The Haggadah is written under the infuence of these difficult battles and deals with the fragile state of the Jewish population in the Land of Israel on the eve of the establishment of the State, at one of the breaking points of the War of Independence.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A Haggadah from Kefar Shemaryhau, 1948

A local addition to the Passover Haggadah, written by residents of Kefar Shemaryahu, Yekes (German-Jewish immigrants to Israel) and their offspring, expressing remorse over their assimilation and telling the story of Kefar Shemaryahu and the period, including the early days of the War of Independence. “We were free – we the present-day residents of Kefar Shemaryahu – in the land of Ashkenaz. Traders, lawyers, doctors, writers, and artists… but we did not guard our vineyards, and we neglected the ideas of our nation and its traditions. We attended the schools of foreigners. We did not know the language of our nation, and we forgot the Holy Books of the People of Israel…”

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


A Haggadah from Ma’ale Hahamisha, 1948

This Haggadah was written only a few days after the conclusion of harsh battles over the “Castel” fortress near the entrance to Jerusalem during the War of Independence. Soldiers in the Portzim Battalion of the Palmach from Ma’ale Hahamisha took part in the battles. Many of the fallen soldiers were buried during those very days. The deep feelings of loss are evident in the text, which also stresses the importance of devotion to the battle over the establishment of the State.

Click here or on the image for the complete scanned book.


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An NLI exhibition of handwritten Passover Haggadot in 360°

A Timeless Script in 360°

​Nearly every Jew, near and far, in this and previous generations, sits down to the Seder table and reads the Passover Haggadah. The Passover Haggadah is perhaps the most read text in the history of the Jewish people and the Jewish text of which more editions than any other have been printed. ​We have prepared a special 360° video of our unique illustrated handwritten Haggadah collection, and it is only a click away.

Just as the digital age did not do away with printing, the print revolution did not bring an end to the tradition of writing by hand. Even in the last century, long after print had become the most widespread means of disseminating texts, the Haggadah continued to be copied and written by hand. Before that, in the eighteenth century, printed works inspired illuminators and scribes to create magnificent manuscripts based on Hebrew typography and on illuminations from the European Christian world that entered through the gates of print.



The exhibition is a collection of Passover Haggadot written, illuminated and illustrated by hand from the twelfth through the twentieth century. The National Library of Israel holds Haggadot from Persia and Babylon, Europe and Africa, each telling the stories of Jewish communities distinct in their languages and writing styles, in their philosophies and the wide range of reasons that led their scribes to take up the pen – as they remained faithful to the ancient, familiar and beloved text.