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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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.

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.