Haircuts on Lag BaOmer: The First Printed Documentation!

A beautiful illustration from a book printed in 1601 for the Jewish community in Venice contains the first-ever printed documentation of the Lag BaOmer holiday haircut tradition

The earliest known documentation of the custom of haircutting on Lag BaOmer. From: Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections

In 1601, a unique manual was printed in Venice for the benefit of members of the Jewish community, with the intended audience including adults and children alike. The Sefer HaMinhagim (“Book of Customs”) was printed in Yiddish—a language we would not necessarily associate with Italian Jewry. Although Yiddish was not widely used in the rabbinic literature of the time, Judeo-German was one of the most commonly spoken languages ​​among Italian Jews.

The book’s authors took into account the difficulty of some of its readers in deciphering the written commandments and therefore included woodcut illustrations to make the religious laws, commandments and customs more accessible. The use of illustrations that dramatized the various laws and traditions was apparently intended to allow readers of the book to clearly understand the practicalities of Jewish life and customs in simple, direct fashion.

The book contains the first known documentation of the Lag BaOmer custom of cutting one’s hair, an act that symbolizes the end of the historical period of mourning dedicated to the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to Jewish tradition, the Rabbi’s 24,000 disciples were stricken with disease as punishment for not treating each other with respect. Some scholars believe that the Rabbi’s followers in fact perished during the events of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

“The more detailed the illustration in the books, the easier it was to clearly explain the religious laws relating to the haircutting custom,” explains Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Men receiving haircuts on Lag BaOmer, a woodcut illustration from the Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections

Why Does Elijah Visit Us on the Eve of Passover?

The story of how the most zealous of the biblical prophets ended up becoming everyone’s most anticipated Passover dinner guest

Elijah ascends to the heavens, in a chariot of fire. From a copy of Sefer Evronot, 1716, the National Library of Israel collections

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD,

Malachi 3:23


We know him as the secret guest of the Seder feast…

Some say that he celebrates alongside the rest of the festive meal’s participants – present, yet unseen. Others swear that he arrives in the dead of night and tastes from the remaining cup of wine when everyone is already fast asleep, after having drunk their four cups. Truly, there is none better suited for the role of guest than the prophet Elijah. The biblical book of Malachi describes the prophet as the herald of redemption. He is also one of the only biblical figures whose death is not related in the Bible. Like Enoch, he ascends to heaven before death.

Elijah’s debut on the biblical stage is as dramatic as his departure: He first appears while prophesying a drought that will cease only when he himself calls for the rains to fall. His prophesy immediately follows a listing of the sins of King Ahab. The severe drought that Elijah inflicts on Israel lasts for three years. When King Ahab attempts to undo it, Elijah challenges him, defeating and even killing the prophets of Baal, causing King Ahab at last to repent and abandon idolatry. When Ahab’s son Ahaziah succeeds him to the throne, the new king is quick to restore idol worship. Ahaziah sends two groups of soldiers to kill the aged Elijah, one after another, yet both missions end in disaster – Elijah summons fire from the heavens to consume the soldiers. The third time, the soldiers kneel before the prophet, begging him to spare them. The king dies as a result and his brother Yoram succeeds him.

After the death of the sinful king comes the denouement in the story of the prophet—his ascension to heaven in the presence of his disciple Elisha:

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11)

The Prophet Elijah in the Yahuda Haggadah, the Israel Museum

Among the Hebrew prophets, Elijah stands out as a strict and stubborn figure who is not afraid to confront the kings of Israel or its God. He is also the only prophet who seeks a tangible and severe punishment for the sinful people of Israel. All of which makes it puzzling that this is the very same kindly old man who comes to visit us on the night of the Seder, and whose chair is reserved in the synagogue for use during the Brit Milah or Bris (circumcision) ceremony.

So why did Elijah, specifically, inherit these roles in Jewish tradition? It seems that his religious zeal for the strict adherence to God’s laws was what secured him the role of guardian and guest. Moreover, his Passover role is predicated on the special chair in the synagogue bearing his name.


The first manuscript illustration of Elijah’s chair, from a 16th century prayer book, Germanic National Museum Library, Nuremberg, Germany, Nuremberg

The tradition of Elijah’s chair being used during the circumcision ceremony began in the Middle Ages, when a tale developed of an agreement made between God and the zealous Elijah, that a Jewish baby’s circumcision could not be held without the prophet’s presence. In Pirkei Derabi Dliezer, it is written – “By thy life! They shall not observe the covenant of circumcision until thou seest it (done) with thine eyes. Hence the sages instituted the custom that people should have a seat of honor for the Messenger of the Covenant” (chap. 29, 213-214).[1]

The most zealous of God’s prophets, who asks that the sinful people of Israel be stricken (usually, it’s the other way round, with God signaling his wrath against his sinning people through one of his prophets), is naturally also considered the strictest when it comes to following rules. That is why he was also given this role, to oversee the circumcision, to ensure that it be carried out to the letter of the law.

Chair of Elijah the Prophet, Genoa, Italy, photo: Yad Ben Zvi

We’ve already mentioned that Elijah is considered the herald of redemption—who wouldn’t want a guest bearing such good tidings? Elijah, having already proved himself in his Brit Milah ceremony role, was recruited to serve as the guest of honor at the Seder feast, one of the holiest nights of the Jewish year.  Passover is also called the Festival of Redemption, and who better than the herald of redemption to be the special guest at our Seders?

Elijah is also the bringer of peace. With redemption not quite upon us yet, the peace that Elijah brings on the eve of the Seder is first and foremost for the celebrants, and is directly related to the terrible persecution experienced by the Jews of Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages. The figure of Elijah served as a shield from antisemitic persecutions which would tend to escalate before Passover due to false claims about Jews murdering Christian children and using their blood to bake matzah bread.

It’s worth noting that, despite his obvious zeal and enthusiasm, the figure of Elijah is quite separate from that of the Messiah – Elijah serves to herald redemption, he does not bring it himself. If Elijah the prophet does visit our home, this is not evidence that heaven on earth has been declared, only that we have again been granted a measure of peace and security for this year. A lower bar, certainly, but still one we are happy to accept.

Elijah ascends to the heavens, in a chariot of fire. From a copy of Sefer Evronot, 1716, the National Library of Israel collections

Over time and with the growing sense of security among the world’s Jews, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel, the peace that Elijah brings is understood in more narrow terms; that is – between parents and children. Already in the Talmudic literature and within the framework of his role as the messenger of peace, Elijah is considered Judaism’s supreme arbiter. Hence, he was recruited to settle the great Seder controversy: the fifth cup. A heated debate took place among the sages over how many cups of wine to drink at the Seder meal. The generally agreed-upon answer is four, but some argued for five. Therefore, a compromise was reached: We pour five cups of wine, but drink only four.  And when Elijah returns he will solve the problem, once and for all!

Eventually, Elijah was called upon to settle more serious disputes, and in case you didn’t know, dear readers, there is a belief that our Elijah is the deciding vote even in soccer matches. The Hebrew term teiku (the equivalent of “tie” or “draw”), appears in Talmudic literature as a term that indicates a discussion among the sages that ends in indecision. The word is interpreted as an acronym for: Tishbi yitaretz kushiyot uba’ayot (literally, “[Elijah of] Tishbi will decide questions and problems”), meaning, the question will stand until such time when the prophet Elijah of Tishbi will arrive and decide it.

Elijah’s cup belonging to the Bender Rebbe, the Bill Gross Collection, photo: Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Jewish tradition loves innovations, but only those that are rooted in the Jewish sources. The prophet Elijah is the herald of redemption, bringer of peace, the prophet who escaped death, and also – and this explains his miraculous visiting abilities – a teleporter of the highest order. The term kfitzat haderekh (lit. “contraction of the road”) appears in the Talmud as a journey that is miraculously shortened. After all, Elijah of the book of Kings is already unique in his ability to launch himself from one location to another. Before ascending to heaven, he was known for his sudden appearances. One moment he is in Tsarfat, (no, not the Hebrew name for France, but the ancient Phoenician city Sarepta, Sarafan in modern-day Lebanon) and the next he is standing in front of Obadiah, a court official in charge of King Ahab’s household in the Kingdom of Israel. Even those to whom Elijah suddenly appears are not too shaken, as Obadiah says to the prophet, “And it will come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the spirit of the LORD will carry thee whither I know not” (1 Kings 18:12)

The traditions of the prophet Elijah that began in Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages are preserved to this day among all the Jewish communities of the world. Most of us still leave an empty chair and a full cup of wine for the prophet Elijah, just in case. And, if and when the time comes to announce the redemption and peace on earth, who are we to argue?


Thanks to Dr. Chana Shaham-Rozby for her help with this article.


[1] Pirkei de rabbi eliezer (“The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great, According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna”), translated and annotated by Gerald Friedlander (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1916)

‘Bitter’ Women at the Seder Table and the Men Who Pointed at Them

This long-forgotten Passover custom was dealt a bitter blow by a sharp wife in a 15th century Haggadah...

The wife in the 14th century "Brother Haggadah" doesn't look too pleased with her husband's custom. From the British Library collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Pesach, matza, maror. Father lifts the matza, symbolizing our speedy exit from Egypt. Then, the maror (bitter herb) reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, the bondage and subjugation, so father points at… mother!

This long-forgotten custom, which apparently was never mentioned in any Rabbinical codes or books of traditional practices (yet in recent history has been discussed on the Seforim Blog), is depicted in many medieval illustrated Haggadot going back to 14th century Provence.

It is based upon Bible and Talmud (Yev 63b):­ “A bad woman is so terrible. ‘I have found a woman to be worse (mar) than death’ (Ecclesiastes 7:26)”.

The Maror page of the “Brother Haggadah“, produced in Provence or Catalonia in the 14th century. From the British Library collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. On the type of Maror depicted, see here.
Closeup of the man pointing at his “bitter” wife in the “Brother Haggadah

Since antiquity, lettuce was used at the Passover Seder as maror, the bitter herb. The Talmud, already bothered by the fact that lettuce is not bitter, says that it is sweet at first, when young, when normally consumed, but at the end of its growth, as the leaves wither, lettuce becomes extremely bitter, just like our servitude in Egypt was sweet when Joseph and his brothers arrived and only became bitter under the new Pharaoh (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 2:5). So too, the medieval custom hints that at first a woman is sweet, during the courting period, but eventually, after years of marriage, she becomes bitter, mar, “worse than death”.

In the 15th century, the custom spread to Germany and Italy, where it was depicted in several illustrated Haggadot, for example:

The Maror page of the “Tegernsee Haggadah” produced in, Bavaria in the 15th century. From the collections of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munchen; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Closeup of the man and his “bitter wife” in the “Tegernsee Haggadah
The “Washington Haggadah“, produced in Italy in the 15th century. From the Library of Congress collection
Closeup of the man and his wife, depicted as even “more bitter than death” as she wields a sword in the “Washington Haggadah

By that time, many Ashkenazi Jewish communities had begun to replace lettuce with horseradish as maror (Yiddish: Khrain; German: Meerrettich). This transition is shrouded in mystery. In the Mishna, something called “tamkha” is listed as one of the plant species that can be used for maror. Based upon Arthur Schaeffer’s research, I propose that Rabbi Meir ha-Cohen (author of Hagahot Maimoniot and a disciple of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, c. 1215-1293) identified “tamkha” as horseradish because “meer” sounds like the Hebrew word “mar” (bitter) and the first syllable of the French/Italian marubia (horehound, which is the identification of Rashi, as well as an opinion in the Arukh, the important medieval dictionary of Talmudic and Midrashic words).  Marubia itself was possibly selected because it also sounds like the Hebrew mar (or vice-versa, the vernacular name following the Hebrew).

Maror was identified as “Meerrettich” in Hagagot Maimoniot, the earliest Ashkenazi gloss on Maimonides. From the Frankfurt a. M. Universitätsbibliothek (Fol. 15 – 227v); available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

In addition to the phonetic similarity between the Old French and the German, there are also physical characteristics shared by horehound and horseradish, especially small white flowers:

Marrubium vulgare (horehound), from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen (Public domain)
Horseradish (Photo: Pethan)

Interestingly, at first, the bitter leaves of the horseradish plant were used for maror, not the sharp roots.

One can only imagine that Jewish women did not take kindly to the “bitter wife” custom, and we find that they ultimately struck back at the men with literary flair as sharp as the horseradish itself. This is attested to in the late 15th century Hileq and Bileq Haggadah.

The wife responds to her husband’s pointing in kind, pointing back at him dominantly from the left. The knives on the table, easily available to the wife only add to her power in the scene.

The “Hileq and Bileq Haggadah“, produced in Germany, 1450-1500. From the National Library of France collection

The man states the following, which rhymes in the original Hebrew:

“מרור זה קולי בְּהָרֵם, בזה וזה גורם”

“I raise my voice about this bitter maror, it is caused by both this and that.”

Both the herb and the wife are causes of bitterness, referencing the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 27a) on dual causes.

The wife retorts:

“הלא חשבתיך כאחד מהם, ויבוא השלישי ויס’ריח ביניהם”

“Well, I consider you one of them; let the third one in to stink between them!”

The wife’s response cleverly paraphrases the last rule of the famous 13 homiletical methods of Rabbi Ishmael, which is found in Jewish prayer books and was presumably familiar to the Haggadah’s readership:

“When two Biblical verses contradict each other, we require a third to decide (yakhria’) between them”.

The wife poetically states that the maror will stink (yasriakh) between us, meaning that both husband and wife are equally bitter. Alternatively, she signals that it’s stink will also decide:

“That’s what you think, but I say that you are the bitter one! [How can we decide who is right?] Let’s consult a third opinion to decide between us, [the maror itself. Smell it. It stinks like you, so you must be the bitter one!]”

The men apparently began dropping the custom in the late 15th century. Perhaps they were devastated by this witty reply.

The last known description of the custom to point at the wife is found in one of the first printed illustrated Haggadot, the Prague Haggadah from 1526. Nonetheless, according to scholar Israel Peles, in that example it is simply a textual relic of an already dead custom copied from an earlier source, and the wife is not even depicted in the illustration.

Explanation of the custom appearing in the early 16th century Prague Haggadah


In the spirit of the popular book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, perhaps the Passover version could be: “Men are Meerrettich, Ladies are like Lettuce”.


This article was written in memory of the author’s mother, Bruria Jacobi, of blessed memory. An earlier version of the article was originally published in Új Kelet, in a Hungarian translation. It appears here in English for the first time, 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.



“Art of the Washington Haggadah” by Bezalel Narkiss, appearing in The Washington Haggadah: A Facsimile Edition of an Illuminated Fifteenth-century Hebrew Manuscript at the Library of Congress 

Controversies Regarding Customs That Can Be Gleaned from Haggadot” (in Hebrew) by Yisrael Mordechi Peles

The History of Horseradish as the Bitter Herb of Passover” by Arthur Schaffer

A Haggadic Sister: New Acquisition Illuminates Artist’s Journey

In 2012, artist Maty Grünberg decided to revisit his 1984 work, The Bezalel Haggadah – ranked among the finest modern illustrated Haggadot. The resulting volume, The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah, reveals the artist's creative process, from concept to final print.

From "The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah": Grünberg's visual language derived from various sources, including Egyptian art

The National Library of Israel’s collection of Haggadot is considered the most comprehensive in the world, containing more than 15,000 examples from different periods and from across the globe. The collection was recently enriched by a singular new addition: an artist’s proof of The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah by Israeli artist and sculptor Maty Grünberg, renowned for his limited edition artist books, produced using techniques such as etching, silk screen, and woodcut.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel views The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah with artist Maty Grünberg.

The volume is a companion piece, a “sister”, due to its close relationship to Grünberg’s 1984 Bezalel Haggadah. Considered one of the finest modern illustrated Haggadot, the Bezalel Haggadah has been in displayed exhibitions together with Haggadot by Marc Chagall and Ben Shahn. Copies have been collected by museums, libraries and private collectors.

The “sister” story, however, is about the artistic process. In 2012, Grünberg reviewed his preparatory sketches, and placed them alongside their final versions. The resulting Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah, documents the transformation from early sketch to final print. In this sense, it is also the work of the artist as an older man looking across the bridge of time, revisiting the work of his younger self.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: preliminary sketch for “Tam”, the innocent of the Four Brothers contrasted with the final woodcut print

Grünberg is still a working artist whose latest creations – monumental bronze and stone sundials situated in locations like Ascot, UK, the New York Hall of Science, and Teddy Kollek Park in Jerusalem – express a fascination with the passage of time. His most recent was inaugurated on April 7th, 2022, at the Madatech – Israel National Museum of Science, Technology and Space in Haifa. Speaking from his car on the drive up to the ceremony, Grünberg says his motivation for revisiting the Bezalel Haggadah stemmed from an interest in how the process developed.

The story begins following the 1978 exhibition of Grünberg’s Megillat Esther, a boldly colorful volume of silkscreens that drew controversy at the time due to its modern approach. The Jewish Theological Seminary then expressed interest in having Grünberg create a Haggadah, “but they didn’t want a contemporary one,” he says. In the end, the Haggadah was commissioned in 1979 by the Friends of Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design, Grünberg’s alma mater.

The Bezalel Haggadah itself took five years to create. According to Grünberg, the bulk of that time was spent searching for the visual language that would express his view about the creation of the Jewish nation through the story of Exodus from Egypt. His initial sketches for the project were colorful drawings in mixed media. Then something happened.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: initial color sketches for the Four Questions, as compared with the pared-down final woodcut

It was the high point of his search – though perhaps, for the artist, the lowest – a day locked in a heavily guarded room in the British Library in London with the Golden Haggadah (c. 1320-1330). This small but richly illustrated and gilded volume from Catalonia, Spain, is considered among the world’s most famous illuminated manuscripts. Even today, Grünberg says of that encounter, “My hands were trembling. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I was taken to a private room and given white cotton gloves, the librarian came in, rolled a cart in front of her with the ancient book on it, and handed it to me with extreme caution. I was shivering at the beauty of this ancient book. I realized I could not compete with this glorious Haggadah.”

That day, Grünberg decided to change direction, abandon vibrant color, and find another language for creating his Bezalel Haggadah. “I discovered the Prague Haggadah and I switched to woodcuts.”

The Prague Haggadah, 1556, the Valmadonna Trust Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Prague Haggadah (c. 1526), the earliest printed Haggadah, featured woodcut illustrations and large, elaborate fonts – now standard elements for Haggadot. The National Library of Israel holds one of the two earliest existing copies of the Prague Haggadah, as part of its Valmadonna Trust Collection; the other copy resides at the British Library.

Now inspired, Grünberg began exploring 19th century woodcut techniques in creating a unique visual language for his Haggadah. “What I like about woodcuts is that it’s very concise,” he says. “Unlike other media, you have to eliminate what is irrelevant.” The inspiration for the images in the Bezalel Haggadah derives from motifs found in synagogues and other sites in Jerusalem, as well as additional ancient Jewish scripts and early Egyptian art.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: Grünberg’s visual language derived from various sources, including Egyptian art

The resulting volume consisted of 75 pages of original woodcuts printed on handmade acid-free paper, and pulled by the artist on an 1860 Albion printing press. Published in 1984 in a signed, limited edition of 150 copies, the Bezalel Haggadah immediately sold out, acquired by leading institutions such as the libraries at Harvard and Yale, the Jewish Museum, as well as private collectors.

In 2012, twenty eight years after the Bezalel Haggadah was published, Grünberg reopened his files, selected several drawings, placed them alongside the final versions of the woodcuts prints, and began the work on what would become The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah. The resulting volume contrasts the freehanded concept sketches with their final woodcut print versions – sometimes similar, other times wildly different – to surprising and moving effect.

A decade later, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, was invited to visit Grünberg’s studio to view the work. For Finkelman, the companion volume represented an exciting opportunity for researchers to understand and track the artist’s creative process: exploration, absorption, interpretation, and expression.

Maty Grünberg presents The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah to Library staff

On February 22, 2022, Grünberg presented his work at a modest ceremony held at the National Library of Israel. Finkelman stated “The selection of this volume will enable research on Grünberg’s work, which takes its place in the long tradition of Haggadot, along with the great inspiration and respect for the ancient Haggadot that he examined.”


The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah was acquired on behalf of the Library through the generosity of Lord Simon Marks of Broughton.