That Time the Pope Approved the Talmud

Today, 500 years ago, Pope Leo X approved the printing of the first complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud.

Raphael's Portrait of Leo X

A recently discovered document from the René Braginsky Collection in Zurich tells the story behind the first press-printed edition of the Talmud, the Bomberg Talmud (1519-1522).

The newly discovered document demonstrates that on April 13th 1518, exactly five hundred years ago, Daniel Bomberg, the Christian printer, received the license, the official Privilege from Pope Leo X to print this first edition of the Talmud in Venice.

There was, however, a bit of a snag in the plan since this Privilege given to Bomberg by the Pope was on condition that the edition would be accompanied by the polemic work of the convert Felix Pratensis which was aimed at refuting the perceived Talmudic opposition to Jesus and Christianity.

A Venetian document from the 16th century, summarizing Privileges for the printing of rabbinic literature. René Braginsky Collection, Zurich, BCB 283, Photo Credit: Ardon Bar-Hama

Historical evidence, or the lack thereof, makes it difficult to trace Bomberg’s actions following this demand, but it is obvious that the experienced printer understood the consequences of pairing a Christian-apologist treatise with the Talmud would alienate potential buyers. It is likely that Bomberg asked his friend and Hebrew teacher, that very same convert, Felix Pratensis, to beg the Pope to cancel the condition.

In a renewed privilege dated February 20, 1519, the Pope removed the requirement that the treatise be included, and instead Leo X allowed Bomberg to assign Christian Hebrew-readers to amend the Talmud’s text.

This saga would likely not have gotten any attention were it not for the fact that the Bomberg Talmud became a best seller and took the Jewish world by storm. After the publication of this edition, the following printings of the Talmud consistently copied the Bomberg’s pagination and layout: The talmudic text in the center, surrounded by Rashi’s commentary on the inside and that of the Tosafists on the outside.


Bomberg Babylonian Talmud, Venice Pesachim, 1520 (?)

The above is based on Angelo Piattelli’s lecture presented at the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem in early April 2018.

These Passover Haggadot Will Leave You Speechless

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.


The Illustrated Prague Haggadah from 1556

The Valmadonna Collection is a treasure trove of rare Jewish manuscripts. We are proud to present a copy of the Prague Haggadah, one of the earliest published Haggadot in the world.

The Prague Haggadah, the Valmaddona Collection

Passover is here and the National Library of Israel has the honor and pleasure of presenting a rare item from the recently acquired Valmadonna Collection.

The Prague Haggadah, 1556, the Valmadonna Collection

This Haggadah was published in 1556, and only two copies have survived the ravages of time and history. The only other copy can be found in the British Library in London.

The Valmadonna Collection holds thousands of items and books published and printed from the 15th century onwards. The Prague Haggadah is but one example of the riches found within.

The Haggadah has been scanned, digitized and uploaded in its entirety to the National Library of Israel website. Visitors and users around the globe will be able to view one of the oldest and most beautiful Haggadot in the world.

The Prague Haggadah, 1556, the Valmadonna Collection

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the Judaica Collection Curator of the National Library, says the Prague Haggadah is significant not only due to its rarity and age, but also because the Haggadot of Prague feature wood-cut illustrations and large, elaborate fonts. These elements have become standard in thousands of different versions of Haggadot all over the Jewish world.

View the full Haggadah here:

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