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.


The Benghazi Haggadah: How the Jews of Libya Celebrated Victory Over the Nazis

This is how the Jewish Legion soldiers of the British army set up a Seder in Benghazi, Libya in 1943.

Before the break out of the Second World War, Mussolini’s Italy was in control of Libya. In an effort to establish stricter colonial policies as well as to ingratiate themselves to Nazi Germany, the Italian fascist authorities adopted many of the racial laws Germany had enacted upon its Jews. It is no surprise that when war broke out and the anti-Semitic persecution intensified, Libya’s Jews were very much in favor of an Ally victory over the Axis powers.

The city of Benghazi had been conquered and re-conquered by the Axis and the Allies multiple times over the course of the war. It was finally recaptured by the British army under the command of General Montgomery in December, 1942. The meeting of the Benghazi Jews who had survived the hell of the war and the concentration camps and the soldiers of the Jewish Legion, most of them volunteers from the Hebrew Yishuv in the Land of Israel, was given symbolic expression during the Passover Seder of 1943.

Two fascinating historical sources enable us to reconstruct this emotional encounter: a Haggadah put together by the soldiers of the 403rd Transport Unit and the 53rd Logistics Unit, along with the military journal of Rabbi Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, who led the Seder on behalf of the British Army. Urbach would later become the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Ela sheb’chol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu – “But that in each generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us.”: The Benghazi Haggadah
The Four Sons: The Benghazi Haggadah

Many of the 600 participants of the Seder came from far away. During the battles, the Germans banished the Jews of Benghazi to Tripoli and they only began to trickle back after the British had completely conquered Libya. Jewish Legion soldiers as well as Canadian, American, British, and Australian soldiers serving in the area also came to celebrate along with the Jewish community.

There were major logistical issues that arose during the preparations for a war time Seder with the biggest among them being printing enough Haggadot for all the participants. To resolve this issue, the writers and editors confiscated telegrams and other letterheads from the offices of the Libyan authorities. On the backs of these scraps of paper they printed the Haggadot with a typewriter and copied them with a mimeograph machine.

On the left – A springtime hymn. On the right – an official document of the fascist Libyan government. The Benghazi Haggadah

Rabbi Urbach tells the story in his journal:

“At exactly a quarter past eight we entered the hall. It was a wonderful sight to see all the soldiers, from every service, and from all the armies fighting for the Allies, sitting at the tables. At the officers table sat 45 people, 12 of them American. When I stood and gave the signal to begin, a great quiet descended in the hall. I started in English and finished in Hebrew. I blessed the guests and thanked the hosts. I spoke of celebrating liberty, the destruction of the people of Israel in the Diaspora, and the hope this holiday holds, especially the fact that we had the privilege of celebrating it in a place from which Jews had been banished only a year ago. I finished with a blessing: ‘As we have the privilege of celebrating Passover on the ruins of a grand and boastful empire, so too, next year we will celebrate Passover on the ruins of an evil and malicious kingdom as we come together in the land of our ancestors, redeemed and rebuilt.'”

Rabbi Ephraim Elimelech Urbach in a British Army uniform, the picture was taken from “War Journals: Diary of a Jewish Chaplain from Eretz Israel in the British Army, 1942-1944” by E. E. Urbach

Like the unique ritual that Rabbi Urbach performed, the Benghazi Haggadah was not written in the traditional manner. It was designed and compiled to mark a specific event – a Seder in liberated Benghazi in 1943. It opens with the verse: “Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:3) and continues with the Aramaic verse: Ha Lachma Anya, “This is the poor man’s bread.”

Ha lachma anya, the Benghazi Haggadah

Following this, a forward to the Haggadah links the biblical Exodus out of Egypt and the Holocaust that was taking place at the time in Europe, ending in a Zionist declaration. These passages are included in the forward:

“Many are the troubles and tortures of the nation of Israel and great is its heroism. In the furnace of Egyptian slavery the Children of Israel were forged and formed into a people, and they tread a treacherous path full of obstacles to this day. In each generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us and this generation’s enemy has surpassed all others with its evil.

We take a small comfort in these dark days at the sight of the rescued Jews of Libya. We hope that we will soon be among the rescuers of Europe’s oppressed Jews.

We will stubbornly and determinately move towards our goal, and we are certain that just as the People of Israel willingly sacrificed that which they hold most dear for the good of the nation – and succeeded, so we Hebrew soldiers will see the successful end of our holy mission, and witness the return of the People of Israel to their promised land. Amen.”

The Forward put together by the Hebrew soldiers for Seder night, 1943. The Benghazi Haggadah

Another unique aspect of the Haggadah, in addition to the forward written by the Jewish soldiers, were the illustrations they added to it. Under the well-known line, “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You”, the soldiers added an illustration of a fighter plane dropping bombs on an unknown target. No doubt this was symbolic of the future defeat of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

“Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You”. The Benghazi Haggadah

The Haggadah ends with two prophecies and hope for the future: “Your children will return from the land of the enemy” and “Next year in Jerusalem”.

“Your children will return from the land of the enemy” – the Benghazi Haggdah


If you liked this article, try these:

Celebrating the Exodus from Egypt Behind the Lines of World War I

What Would You Serve at a Passover Seder During the Korean War?

A Plea for Assistance in Buying Poor Man’s Bread from 1908

Rabbit Season! Matzoh Season! When Passover Meets Hare Hunting

The 16th century editor of the Prague Haggadah had a wicked sense of humor!

The Prague Haggadah dates back to the year 1526 and is one of the very first printed haggadot in existence.

This haggadah is unique, filled with intricate and magnificent illustrations, some of which are rather unconventional. If you were to open the ancient book to page nine and glance towards the bottom, you may notice a rather odd and seemingly misplaced drawing.

No, you are not mistaken. It is not a drawing depicting the ten plagues or a scenic view of the Jews crossing through the splitting of the sea. The illustration clearly depicts a hunter on horseback trumpeting on his horn as several desperate hares flee from him.

Hare hunting you ask? Since when is Passover season connected to hunting season? Even if we were to overlook the fact that the hare does not comply with Kosher dietary laws and that animals killed without the proper slaughter rituals are deemed not Kosher, why, in a traditional Haggadah, is there a scenic drawing of a hare hunt?

We asked ourselves the same question and after a bit of research we discovered a rather clever answer that led us to believe the illustrator of this haggadah had a rather unique sense of humor.

In Germany, hare hunting season is called “jag den has,” a phrase which sounds very similar to the Hebrew mnemonic, “YaKeNHaz.”

YaKeNHaz was a prompt developed to assist people in remembering the order of the Passover ceremony as it needs to take place when the first night of Passover, the night of the Seder tradition, falls on a Saturday night. On a Saturday night there are additional ceremonial requirements to first let out Shabbat ahead of welcoming in the Passover holiday.

“Ya” refers to Yayin- Wine to be used for the “Ke”- Kiddush, a prayer that sanctifies the festival. “N” stands for Ner, the candle lit at the conclusion of the Sabbath to be used for Ha- Havdalah, a prayer said at the end of Shabbat to welcome in the new week. Once the ceremony to end Shabbat has concluded, we move to “Z”- Zman, a blessing for having reached this time of year and the Passover festival.

What was a seemingly strange and misplaced illustration cleverly tipped us off to the correct order of the Saturday night Seder ceremony, giving the leader of the Seder a gentle reminder in how to proceed.

And you thought there was no sense of humor in the 16th century.

Well, if we are already discussing this particularly unique sense of humor, if you were to continue turning the pages of the haggadah, you may happen upon page 40 where we made another interesting discovery in a small, unobtrusive box at the top of the page.

During the Seder ceremony, there is a tradition to specifically mention the three main events of the Passover tradition: Pesach, a ritual sacrifice brought in the times of the temple, Matzah, the unleavened bread, and Maror, the bitter herbs eaten to remember the suffering of the Jews in Egypt.

In accordance with tradition, as each of these items are mentioned, the participants of the Seder point to the items as they are represented on the Seder plate- the sacrifice as represented by the shank bone, the Matzah, and the piece of bitter herb.

Well, according to page 40 of the nearly 500 year old Haggada, if you are to perform the tradition properly, when mentioning the bitter herb you must also point to the women at the table and proclaim, “A bad woman is more bitter than death!”

Don’t look at us… that’s what the haggadah says! We don’t recommend trying this at home.

Rare: A Remnant of One of the Oldest Yom Kippur Prayer Books in the World

A glimpse at a remnant from an 11th century prayer book discovered in the Cairo Genizah

Yom Kippur prayer book fragment, the National Library of Israel collections

The Cairo Genizah is one of the most important sources for understanding Jewish culture, religion, economy and literature in the Middle Ages and in the modern era. It contains hundreds of thousands of Jewish documents and parts of documents discovered in a synagogue in Fustat (the ancient city of Cairo). Some of these are holy books; others are letters, and a few business and legal documents can also be found in the collection.

Among the documents found in the Genizah is part of a page preserved from an early Yom Kippur prayer book.

Among the treasures in the Genizah, is a fragment of a page from an ancient Yom Kippur mahzor.

The prayer book was written in the late 11th or early 12th century by a scribe named Hillel ben Eli, a cantor from Baghdad who immigrated to Egypt and worked as the official scribe of the Cairo rabbinical court. Many examples of certificates in his handwriting can be found in the Cairo Genizah, due to the communal position he held between 1066 and 1108. He is one of the most important scribes whose writings are found in the Genizah. The prayer book which this fragment comes from is the oldest in the Library’s collections and one of the oldest in the entire world. The Library is also in possession of more complete manuscripts of festival prayer books, but they were only written hundreds of years later.

“Please answer my whisper”

On one side of the page is a paragraph from the piyut (liturgical hymn or poem) of Rabbi Eliezer Kalir (one of the greatest poets in Jewish history) named Et Lachashi Aneh Na (“Please Answer My Whisper”). In the third line, one can make out the Hebrew words [Honi] hamulat kodesh, umehallelim behadarat [kodesh] (“[My riches] are holy noise, and they praise in [holy] splendor”). On the other side are prayers connected to the Yom Kippur service in the Temple.

It is fascinating to discover that nearly a thousand years ago, Jews gathered in synagogues and recited prayers so similar to the ones we recite today, with piyutim from poets we are familiar with from our own prayers.


This item is featured in “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel in collaboration with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.

The project also includes source sheets with questions and links to additional materials that can be used to help lead group discussions and activities or enriched personal reflection.