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.

A Receipt for Funds to Redeem Captives Signed by Maimonides

Did you know that Maimonides' first public activity in Egypt was a large-scale mission to get Jews out of Crusader captivity?

The Cairo Geniza is a famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments, which for many centuries rested in the dusty storeroom of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. The collection was only discovered by European scholars in the 1750s, and it has since been dispersed among different intitutions around the world, including the National Library of Israel.

In a letter found in the Geniza (which has since disappeared) the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher Maimonides, who spent much of his life in Egypt, makes an appeal to various Jewish communities “regarding the captives, may our God release their bonds”, and asks them to donate as much as they are able.

Maimonides describes how he and his colleagues “all the Dayanim [Rabbinical court judges] and the elders and the Torah scholars have all been going day and night and encouraging the people in Alexandria, in the synagogues and the marketplaces and at the gates of the houses” in order to raise the hefty sums of money required to redeem the captives. The letter mentions that the funds are being stockpiled by the emissary of Maimonides, Rabbi Aharon Halevi.


A receipt for sale of the maidservant

Several other documents dealing with this redemption of captives were also preserved in the Geniza. It is important to remember that at the time, Maimonides was not yet the renowned Rabbi he would become, but simply Moshe son of Maimon, a young 30-something year old scholar, a newly-arrived luminary who had fled from the terror of the Almohad Caliphate in Morocco. The actions he took to redeem captives were dynamic and effective and they may have been one of the reasons for his rapid ascent in becoming a leader of the Egyptian Jewish community.

One of the documents preserved in the Geniza is an order of payment, with a receipt on the back of it for an amount donated for the redemption of captives in the city of El Mahalla on the Nile Delta, signed by Maimonides himself. The sum was donated by Hiba (Arabic for gift, the equivalent of the Hebrew name Natan or Netanel), who raised the money by selling a maidservant named Nassrin.

The receipt documents the sale of “the maidservant…whose name is Nasrin”. In the payment order the seller of the maidservant testifies that “I authorized our Rabbi Moshe” to receive the sum, “and these nine dinars and when our Rabbi will receive them, he will spend them in order to redeem captives.” The payment order was signed by the same ‘Aharon Halevi’ mentioned above as Maimonides’s emissary and the date of confirmation of the order is “the middle ten days of the month of Elul” in the year 1170.


“I authorized our Rabbi Moshe…”

On the back side of the page is the ‘receipt’, in the handwriting of Maimonides himself (which we are familiar with from other documents): “I, Moshe son of Maimon, received it from Hiba son of Elazar may he rest in peace who is mentioned on the front of this document… and I wrote to him about this in the last ten days” most likely during the month of Elul. In other words, several days after the payment order.

(The payment order and the receipt can be found in the Cambridge University Library, TSNS309.12, and were published, together with other documents on the topic, by S.D. Goitein in an article in his book ‘The Settlement in the Land of Israel at the Beginning of Islam and During the Crusader Period’ (Hebrew) page 312 onward)

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Moshe Yagur’s Facebook page, Cairo Geniza Micro-history.

The Esther Scroll of Amsterdam That Damned the Enemies of the Jews

This was what happened when the Purim merriment of the Jews of Amsterdam mixed with a desire for revenge against the Spanish.

One of the things the Jewish people are good at is storytelling. Every year on every holiday we tell the stories of persecution, courage, and consequence that happened to every generation of Jews wherever they were.

And that includes tying events described in the Scroll of Esther and the holiday of Purim itself to more contemporary events. For our purposes, the turn of the 18th century will count as “contemporary”.

How do you make a story that is thousands of years old relevant to the Dutch Golden Age?

Why, with art of course.

It is through the illustrations found in a Scroll of Esther manuscript drawn and copied around 1700 that we see this direct tie between the ancient telling of the persecution of Jews in Persia and the more recent persecution of Jews by Catholic Portugal and Spain.

The drawings are graphic and contemporary for their time, and as the saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words.

“It happened in the days of Ahasuerus” – Ahasuerus in modern clothes

The Jewish quarter of Amsterdam was established in the 17th century by Ashkenazi and Portuguese communities. This particular matter focuses on the Portuguese community.

The descendants’ of the Jewish conversos who emigrated en masse from Portugal to Amsterdam throughout the 17th century had not been permitted to keep and practice their ancient religion. In their new Dutch home they wished to return to their Jewish faith.

One way back was through the holidays. Purim was a good start considering joy and merriment are the main aspects of the festival, along with the commandments of drinking and eating, and the celebration of surviving near extermination; it is a story of Jewish continuity while in the diaspora.

“So he set a royal diadem on [Esther’s] head and made her queen”

And so the Jewish community of Amsterdam commissioned an artist to illustrate a contemporary Scroll of Esther – telling the story of surviving the evil Persian Haman, as well as exacting revenge upon the more recent Portuguese ‘Hamans’.

The unknown artist illustrated unforgettable scenes. The opening page features two semi-nude women, hinting to the readers that they are going to be reading a theatrical play.

The title page of the scroll

The artist also illustrated the more violent and gory scenes of the story.

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had put up for Mordecai”

“So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying”

There are also additional scenes, which the artist took from the Talmud: We see Haman leading a horse as his own daughter throws wastewater onto his head.

“So Haman took the garb and the horse and arrayed Mordecai and paraded him through the city square; and he proclaimed before him”

There is also an illustration of the Midrashic scene of Vashti’s beheading.

Vashti’s beheading

And of course, the more explicit scenes of violence that are described in the scroll: “In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men.”

So the Jews struck at their enemies
Slaying their enemies

But one scene truly surpasses the rest. In order to emphasize the fate of those who persecute the Jews, as well as to kiss up to the Dutch who defeated Spain in their War of Independence (and not forgetting that the Spanish had expelled the Jews 150 years earlier) – the artist decided to draw what can only be described as a circumcision assembly line.

On this assembly line are three Gentile men suffering the pain of circumcision while the mohels seem quite at ease.

The scene accompanies the verse: “And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”

“And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them”

The Scroll of Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible in which God’s name is not mentioned even once. This fact did not stop the artist from again linking elements of the story to his own time period. In one of the illustrations, we see Jews kneeling and thanking God in a synagogue, the style of which was typical of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam.

“Mordecai gathered all the Jews to fast”

And the victorious 18th-century Jews of Amsterdam could finally make time for merriment, joy, and a good meal.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor”

The Scroll of Esther
Holland, 17th century
Handwritten in ink on parchment
H 30.8 cm; L 309 cm
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Gift of Michael G. Jesselson, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum

Click here to see the entire scroll

Purim Special: The ‘Azores Megillah’

The Azores Megillah at the National Library of Israel provides beautiful and early textual evidence of Jewish life in the Azores, and it has has recently been digitized for the first time.

Measuring just 12.7 cm (5 in) in height, this exquisite scroll was written in the 19th century and dedicated to David Sabach [i.e. Sabath], a well-known member of the Azorean Jewish community and a man eulogized as having great Torah knowledge. He was born prior to 1847, probably in Sao Miguel, Azores and died in 1915 in Portugal.

The Azores Islands belong to Portugal and are located some 1500 km (950 miles) from Lisbon. Jews fleeing persecution fled there in the 16th and 17th centuries, though they left no known written record of their Jewish lives or practices. The first written record we have of Jewish life on the islands comes with the arrival of Moroccan Jews in 1818. By the mid-19th century, the Azorean Jewish population was about 250, most of them living in Ponta Delgada, on Sao Miguel Island. The historic Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Ponta Delgada has recently been renovated and converted into a museum about the history of Azorean Jewish life.

The Azores Megillah came to the National Library of Israel as part of the famed Valmadonna Trust Library, the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world, which was purchased jointly by the National Library of Israel and archaeology, book and Judaica collectors Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn through a private sale arranged by Sotheby’s. The Valmadonna collection is currently being digitized and it will be showcased in the National Library of Israel’s landmark new building, designed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, and currently under construction in Jerusalem.

The Esther Megillah (or Esther Scroll in English) contains the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is read in Jewish communities throughout the world every year on the holiday. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of handwritten Esther Scrolls from across the world, some of which are hundreds of years old. Each was written in a different community. Many of them are decorated in a style which may reflect their origins, and they are often dedicated to prominent members of the community, sometimes the individuals or families who commissioned them.

The digitized Azores Megillah may be viewed here in its entirety.