Drawing Moses… From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

A glimpse into how artists across the ages have tried to depict the undepictable events at Mt. Sinai...

Moses and Mt. Sinai on a 17th century Dutch map. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“And they saw the sounds…”

What does that mean? How can sounds be seen? What do they look like?

Though every word in the Torah has been scrutinized and analyzed for generations, this description – provided in the context of the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – seems particularly enigmatic.

The answer is certainly not obvious nor clear, and like any good Jewish question, it has been asked and answered in some very interesting ways across the ages.

Many understood it quite literally – the letters comprising the Ten Commandments themselves appeared in the air, for all to see.

Jewish National Fund poster, ca. 1960. From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Some took a bit of a more mind-bending approach, explaining – in various ways – how at that critical moment in the Jewish story, the Israelites were on a different physical and spiritual plain… All their senses merged together.

Still, other commentators rejected both of those explanations, instead opting for a more rational approach: the description was not to be understood literally. Just as someone who understands something might say, “I see,” so, too, did the Israelites “see” the commandments they were receiving.

Given the ambiguous nature of these particular words, it seems no wonder that artists over the centuries who wanted to draw the scene largely focused on concepts and imagery that would be a bit easier to convey.

Here are a few depictions from the National Library of Israel collections, ranging from the sublime to the (all but) ridiculous…

Let’s start with the sublime…

This gorgeous 15th century Italian prayer book shows Moses atop Mt. Sinai receiving a Torah scroll from Heaven. You have to give the artist credit for making efforts to show the sounds and shofar blasts referenced in the original text… those shofars are clearly blasting right down to Moses and all of the Israelites below!

Prayer book according to the Roman rite, ca. 1450. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

Less colorful (and less Jewish) – though no less detailed – our next depiction comes from one of the first printed books to integrate images and text. Liber chronicarum, published in Nuremberg in 1493, is an historical encyclopedia printed in Latin and shortly thereafter in German.

Though depicting God is generally a “no-no” in Jewish sources, it was okay for the Christian artists who created this work, showing God Himself giving a horned Moses the Ten Commandments!

In a seeming contradiction to the Biblical text, Israelites are shown waiting for the Law rather patiently.

Page 114 of Liber chronicarum, Nuremberg, 1493. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

This one, which appeared in a work edited by an 18th century Jesuit missionary, features a crucified Jesus right next to Moses on Mt. Sinai! Also, check out the stairs going up the mountain. Eighty-year-old Moses surely would have appreciated those, even if they do kind of look like an MC Escher creation…

Engraving by Christian Dietell appearing in Joseph Stoecklein’s Der Neue Welt-Bott, Augsburg and Graz, 1732. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel collection.

A similar one, printed in Russia in 1821, shows Moses literally being handed the Ten Commandments:

“A view representing Mount Sinai, all the wonderful and ancient places lying in Jerusalem and in the vicinity of Onago…”, St. Petersburg, 1821. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

No hands of God in the next one, printed in 16th century Venice, though Moses does get horns (as opposed to rays of lights protruding from his head), and a nice cottage!

Moses receiving the Law on a Latin map printed in Venice, 1569. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Moses on Mt. Sinai features in countless Christian maps, sometimes appearing as a geographical location within the map and sometimes as more of an artistic accent somewhere outside the boundaries of the map itself.

Here are a few examples, many of them featuring identical or very similar images alongside texts that have been translated into different languages.

Click on the link in each caption to see the full map and see if you can find Moses in the original!

Map appearing in a Dutch Bible, ca. 1600. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Images of Moses and Mt. Sinai on a map printed in Amsterdam, 1677. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click images to enlarge
Moses receiving the Law on a French map printed in Amsterdam, 1704. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Moses receiving the Law on a German map printed in The Netherlands, 1716. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

And now for some Jewish renditions…

Here are the Ten Commandments appearing on Mt. Sinai. Notice that Moses doesn’t appear, perhaps due to the religious sentiments of the Jewish cartographer or his intended clientele.

“Map of the Holy Land and its boundaries” by Joseph Schwarz, Wuerzburg, 1829. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Though there are some Jewish maps, such as the one by Joseph Schwarz appearing above, Haggadot are, of course, a much more common place to find Jewish art, and – in our case – depictions of Moses on Mt. Sinai.

This depiction, which includes a fence around Mt. Sinai as mentioned in the text, has an almost shtetl-like vibe to it, no?

Depiction of the scene by renowned scribe and illuminator Meshullam Zimmel ben Moshe of Polna (Bohemia) appearing in a Haggadah produced in Vienna, 1719. From the National Library of Israel Collection. Click image to enlarge

A similar scene, with Moses apparently engulfed by clouds, appears in a different illustrated Haggadah produced a few years later by another renowned Jewish artist, Joseph ben David of Leipnik. It is likely that both of these images (as well as the last one featured in this article) were inspired by the 1695 printed Amsterdam Haggadah.

Depictions of Moses and Mt. Sinai by Joseph ben David of Leipnik, appearing in a Haggadah produced in Darmstadt, 1733. From the National Library of Israel Collection

And now the illustration of Moses you may or may not have been waiting for…

From afar it looks like a similar scene and a decent enough rendition of Moses and the Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Haggadah, Amsterdam, 1769. From the National Library of Israel collection

Yet as you look closer… something seems a bit off…

With all due respect to children, this illustration appearing in a priceless centuries-old Hebrew manuscript looks like… well… a second grade arts-and-crafts project?

Maybe even a self-portrait of an enraged elementary school student tearing up his homework?

Could something have gone wrong along the way?

The artist’s own child stepped in when Dad wasn’t looking?

Paint was running low?

An attempt at “post-modern” before there was even “modern”?

A botched restoration attempt?

We will never know, though maybe – like the sounds at Mt. Sinai, any good work of art and every Jewish text – we are all meant to see and appreciate this particular “revelation” at Mt. Sinai in our own way.

Many thanks to friends and colleagues Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Dr. Stefan Litt and Ayelet Rubin for their assistance.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Wicked Son Runs the Seder: Yiddish Parodies of the Haggadah

They provided annual humorous explorations of religion, politics, current events and much more...

"The Four Sons (of the Haggadah of Unemployment)", appearing in the April 10, 1914 edition of the satirical newspaper Der Kibetzer⁩. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Why is this article different from all other articles? It’s not because you’re reading it in a reclining position or because there’s something bitter about it. This article is different because it considers an odd fact of Jewish literature: that there are more parodies of the Passover Haggadah than parodies of other traditional texts.

Parody, the imitation of a literary style or structure for comic effect, is a relatively common product of Jewish and, especially Yiddish, humorists. Everything from the Tanakh to the Talmud through the greatest hits of Jewish liturgy have been parodied by wags the world over.

The question may be asked, who would do such a thing, and why? Who would dare to take sacred texts and imitate them just for a laugh? Apparently, it turns out, quite a few people: there are thousands of liturgical parodies. And while there’s no question that Jews hold their holy texts dear, using these traditional materials hasn’t seemed to rile anyone too terribly.

Israel Davidson, a scholar better known for his four-volume encyclopedia of medieval Jewish poetry, Otsar ha-shirah veha-piyut, noted in a lesser known book of his on Jewish parody that there were, in fact, some rabbis who didn’t appreciate liturgical parody and who complained about it.

Rabbis complain about a lot of things and, like many of their grievances, this one also fell on deaf ears, as Jews have produced liturgical parodies of all kinds and in especially large numbers as the number of Yiddish periodicals grew during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tempering the rabbinical gripes, perhaps, was that it was the nature of these parodies not to attack the source material, but to instead use the structure of the liturgy to launch satiric attacks on all kinds of other issues.

The Passover humor magazine Pesekhdiger rosl (Passover Soup Broth). Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

As the Yiddish press grew, daily newspapers developed humor sections and weekly magazines dedicated to humor and satire began to appear.

Each holiday season, Yiddish humorists would publish jokes, stories, and cartoons related to a variety of aspects of each one. Included among these were numerous parodies of some portion of the respective holiday’s liturgy.  Additionally, publishers of Yiddish satire material developed a tradition of printing discrete humor magazines dedicated to Jewish holidays, typically with cover cartoons that related to some aspect of the holiday.

The Passover humor magazine Fir kashes (Four Questions), 1911. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Special Passover humor magazines, for example, often had titles that related to the festival. Some examples: Moror (Bitter Herbs) – Warsaw, 1921; Di elefte make (The Eleventh Plague) – Riga, 1922;  Di malke (The Queen) – Warsaw, 1928;  Di freylekhe hagode (The Happy Haggadah) – Lublin, 1924; Der roshe (The Wicked One) – Warsaw, 1927; Der afikoymen (The Afikoman) – Warsaw, 1929;  Zalts vaser (Salt Water) – Warsaw, 1930;  Der peysakhdiger kantshik (The Passover Whip) – Bialystok, 1931; Bialistoker khareyses (Bialystok kharoset) – Bialystok, 1932.

The Passover humor magazine Zalts-vaser (Salt Water), 1930. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Satirical khad gadye, 1914
The Passover humor magazine Khad gadye, 1914. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Passover garnered more of these humor publications than any other holiday and almost all of them contained parodies of at least portions of the Haggadah. Why would Passover have more parodies on its liturgy than, let’s say, Purim, which is renowned for fun, inebriation, and mockery?

The reasons are fairly simple.

The central text of the Passover Seder, the Haggadah, is familiar to so many because it is read together with the family as part of a festive meal in the home. Moreover, everyone in the family old enough to read participates. Haggadot were also sometimes illustrated, making them both a rarity and more visually enjoyable than the average Jewish text. Most important, at least from the perspective of the humorist, the Haggadah contains distinct structures that are easy to imitate: the four questions, the four sons, and the ten plagues, for example. For parodists and cartoonists, these were the most common aspects to imitate.

Parodies of the Haggadah use the text’s literary structures to create humorous commentary on a wide variety of issues.

Most Haggadah parodies are fragmentary and do not attempt to use the entire text – although some do. Given the limited space available, in newspaper humor pages or in small magazines the focus was on aspects like the Kadesh, urkhats, karpas mnemonic, the four questions, and the four sons, among others.

Each year, Yiddish humorists would refill these structures with whatever issues were then important to readers. The subject matter was broad and one can find parodies dealing with virtually every political and social topic: from socialism to Zionism, Reform to Orthodox Judaism, to taxes, to high rent, to dating, to interest rates, to summer vacation, to beauty pageants, to moral issues, to the politics of the day, and more.

One of the earlier modern parodies can be found in an April 1887 edition of the Arbeter fraynd, a socialist newspaper published in London.

Its four questions read as one would expect a poor laborer to say them:

Ma nishtane, why are we different from Shmuel the manufacturer, from Meyer the banker, from Zorach the money lender, from Reb Todros the rabbi? They don’t do anything and they have food and drink during the day and also at night at least a hundred times over, we toil with all our strength the whole day and at night we have nothing to eat at all.

This parody was subsequently expanded into the Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach and republished multiple times in booklet form.

Passover Haggadah with a Socialist Approach, 1919. From the National Library of Israel collection

Der groyser kundes, a popular humor magazine based in New York, published this parody of the four sons in 1916:

The Wise Son: A shtetl horse thief who escaped from prison, stowed-away on a ship to America where he became a horse poisoner and a gangster until he managed to become a saloon keeper and a politician. Today he’s the president of his synagogue, a fighter for Judaism, in short, a mentsch …

The Wicked Son: A man who fills his wallet with relief receipts for victims of the war that he picked up off the ground and shows them to volunteers asking for money to prove what a big philanthropist he is. ‘See how much I already gave?’

The Simple Son: A kid who sits with a girl until 2 a.m. waiting for permission to kiss her.

The Son Who Doesn’t Even Know How to Ask a Question: A traveling salesman who only comes home on Passover to find his wife about to give birth and doesn’t think to ask how a woman can be pregnant for 12 months.

The popularity of Haggadah parody was such that nearly every Jewish community put something out that either supported their views or mocked their enemies. One example is the Peyskeh-blat, which appeared in Lublin in 1925.

An extended parody of the four questions and the sons created in order to promote Orthodox social mores, the scene is inverted and the sons become daughters.

Entitled, “The Four Questions Asked Here by a Young Lady from the Beys Yankev School,” the text begins, “Mameshe, ikh vil dir fregn fir kashes.” (Mama, I want to ask you four questions).

Why, the daughter wonders, does her aunt show her cleavage, put on makeup, wear stockings, and have long fingernails? The piece deals with a number of moral issues and has each daughter, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and she who doesn’t know how to ask a question, each give their reasons for going, or not going to the mikvah.

Unlike most interwar parodies, the purpose of this one is to promote traditional Jewish values, but it does so in a humorous way, which is something not typical.

It ends with a short parody of Dayenu:

If women would wear wigs and men would wear a beard and peyes, dayenu.
If women and men would dance together but not at Jewish weddings, dayenu.
If Jewish daughters went naked but cut their nails, dayenu.
If our aristocrats would put up a mezuza and not lay tfilin,* dayenu.
* We gave out special pamphlets explaining the requirements regarding tfilin and mezuzes.

Peysekh-blat, Lublin, 1925. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

Haggadah parodies provide an unusual amalgam of traditional text and contemporary criticism, in addition to a plethora of referential material, much of which has gone under the historical radar. The parodies address an array of issues from a number of differing perspectives and allow for a unique and often humorous exploration of cultural, social, and political issues.

The satirists who created these parodies understood the power of combining the traditional Passover text with contemporary events to create satiric commentary. It was the enduring quality of the Haggadah that challenged them to do so.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

“Different Nights”: Alice Shalvi Recounts Passover During & After the War

One Seder during WWII - and one right after - left an indelible mark on the renowned educator and activist

Alice And Family 1940s 832

Alice (first seated from left) and family, 1940s. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, National Library of Israel

The Passover Seder is unique in the Jewish calendar, the only one of the festivals which is celebrated in the home, in the presence of family, friends and even strangers.  Indeed, at the very beginning of the Haggadah reading we invite strangers, the hungry, the needy, to join us.

From early childhood on, I recall my mother always setting an extra place at the table, in anticipation of my father’s bringing a stranger from out of town from the synagogue.  During the years when Soviet Jews were not permitted to leave their country, we set an empty chair to symbolize our hope for their passage to freedom.  I do not recall a single Seder night in my parents’ home or my own, when there was not even one stranger present (until coronavirus imposed isolation, leaving me with the four members of my family who share my home).

Alice and her siblings, circa 1935. From the Alice Shalvi Archive,  the National Library of Israel

Of the scores of Seder nights that I recall well, two in particular stand out. One was in a time of war, the other in the first year of post-war peace, soon after we first learned of the extermination of European Jewry under Nazi occupation.

In 1940, when I was fourteen years old, my parents, brother and I fled the fury of the German Blitz on London for the safety of a small village in Buckinghamshire, some fifty miles north-east of the capital.  My father bought a house on High Street which, though small, was blessed with a large plot of land on which we could not only keep chickens, but also grow vegetables and fruit to supplement the comparatively meagre rations that were available at the local grocery.

Apart from ourselves, there were a few Jewish families among our fellow evacuees, almost all of whom came from the comparatively poor East End of London.  Some of them were also refugees who escaped from Europe before the war.  None were wealthy.

My father took upon himself the task of organizing a minyan for the High Holidays and Shabbatot and, in 1944, also the hosting of the Seder night for some forty or so Jewish soldiers among those serving in an army camp on the outskirts of the village.

Two days before Pesach, he announced to my mother that there were still thirty soldiers for whom he had not succeeded in finding hospitality. We ourselves would have to host them.

Alice and her mother, Perl, circa 1943. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, the National Library of Israel

The slaughterer was brought from London, seasonal vegetables were picked, dozens of eggs collected.  Benches were brought from the village hall, our dining table, extended to the full, was supplemented by a smaller table from the kitchen.  My role was to whip the egg-whites for the eight sponge cakes that my mother baked.  Electric beaters not yet having been invented, this task was performed with the aid of a simple fork and required strong arms, with which I was fortunately blessed.

The guests streamed in.  I, the youngest present, recited the Four Questions.  When the time came for me to help my mother bring the food from the kitchen, I was forced to crawl under the table to reach the door.  There was not space enough for me to go around it.  The guests could not stop expressing their thanks. Like Cinderella, they had to leave before midnight, leaving us glowing with gratification at their response to our welcome.

Two years later, in 1946, when we were back in London, my father, who had been active in the Polish-Jewish Federation that was established some years earlier, was invited to attend the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Seder Night fell on a Monday.  At noon on Sunday, he phoned from Paris to announce that he was bringing three guests from the US who could not reach their homes in time for the festival.

It was still a time of food shortage and strict rationing and we no longer raised chickens nor grew vegetables. My brother, then studying in Cambridge, had invited a number of Jewish fellow students from the Land of Israel to join us.

Alice with her brother William in the field behind their wartime home, circa 1941

My mother met the challenge unfazed.  Chickens could still be bought in the morning, additional vegetables bought for soup, the giblets could be served in a sweet-sour sauce as an entrée, there was a local bakery nearby and fortunately we had a plentiful stock of wine.

When my father returned on Sunday evening, he brought with him a huge carp, a fish unknown in Britain, but beloved by Polish Jews like my parents. It more than adequately supplemented the feast.

However, the greatest surprise and delight stemmed from the identity of the three guests:  Opera singer Emma Schaver, who had developed an extensive repertoire of Yiddish songs which she performed in the Displaced Persons camps in Europe; the poet-philosopher Israel Efros; and Leib Halpern, a poet-dramatist who wrote  under the pen-name of H. Levik, and whose most famous work was the poetic drama “The Dybbuk”.

The wide-ranging, sparkling, fascinating conversation was mainly in Yiddish, the commentary original, illuminating; and the food, delicious, evoked justified compliments.  And finally, a cherry on the icing, Emma Schaver introduced us to a melody for the “Who is One” song that comes at the close of the Haggadah.  Though it proved to be well known in the Land of Israel, we had never before heard it.  It is the one we’ve sung ever since and each year, when we sing it, I recall Emma’s strong contralto ringing out at our first post-World War Pesach Seder.

We had survived.

The Alice Shalvi Archive is safeguarded among the collections of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

How Does Dara Horn Get Ready for Seder?

The celebrated author and her family prepare a vast interactive performance...

Dara Horn's son aka Moses parts an asphalt-and-chalk Red Sea

We start preparing for the Seder the day after Purim.

When I say “preparing,” I don’t just mean cleaning the house, planning the food and moving furniture to accommodate all the guests, which of course we do. I mean that every year, my husband and children and I prepare a vast interactive performance that allows our many guests — most of whom are children — to feel as though they personally left Egypt.

We have a nine-foot pyramid that we erect in our living room. We covered a room in our house with black paper, used more paper to subdivide it into a series of rooms, painted it with neon paints to look like an Egyptian palace, lit it up with blacklights, and then had our costumed children lead our guests through the various makkot [plagues], ending with 300 meters of blue yarn suspended from the ceiling which one of our children, dressed as Moshe, “parted” to lead everyone through Yam Suf [the Red Sea].

This performance changes every year, and it also applies to every page of the traditional Haggadah, since we re-enact every page in one way or another, whether it means children who enter the house at Ha Lahma Anya as “escaped slaves” and tell the group about their adventures, or “idol salesmen” who come in to sell “idols” to the guests (made of clay or other toy material) before another child, acting as Avraham, smashes them all.

Every year our children and their many cousins also make a movie that tells the story of Sefer Shemot [Book of Exodus] with their own updates; last year, for instance, the B’nei Yisrael [Israelites] were advised to mark their doors, stay inside, and keep at least six feet away from the Angel of Death.

I now have a dozen years’ worth of these movies, and have watched my children grow up inside this story.

Our approach is intentionally lighthearted, but it works: The children own this story, and every person in my household feels, viscerally, as if they too have left Egypt.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.