The Rescue of One of the World’s Most Beautiful Haggadot

The journey of the "Rothschild Haggadah" began 550 years ago with the artist Yoel ben Shimon in Northern Italy and ended in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people

The Rothschild Haggadah

The patriarch of the Rothschild family, Mayer Amschel, collected and traded ancient coins. His five sons who inherited the family estates and businesses after his death had more of an affinity for ancient illustrated manuscripts than coins. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the descendants of the family who resided in various European cities amassed a large collection of manuscripts, along with other works of art.

A photograph of the “The Famous Benefactor” Edmond de Rothschild

One of the foremost collectors was Baron Edmond de Rothschild. “The Famous Benefactor”, as the Baron was known in the Land of Israel, began to collect books while he was still in his twenties. Edmond added dozens of manuscripts to the forty or so he had inherited from his father. The majority of these were Christian texts or historical novels, but as an observant Jew he also collected Jewish manuscripts. He owned 14 of these handwritten works, including two bibles, several Passover Haggadot and a festival prayer book from 1492. His most famous Jewish manuscript is “The Rothschild Miscellany” which is currently stored in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Baron died in Paris in 1934, leaving behind three children. James, the firstborn, had emigrated to England before the First World War. After his father’s death, James sent an expert antique dealer to France to appraise the manuscript collection and to divide it up between James, his brother Maurice, and his sister Miriam (Alexandrine). The dealer drew up a detailed list of over 100 items along with their monetary value. Most of James’ share was sent to his estate in England. Among his collection were several special Passover Haggadot. After the manuscripts were divided between the Rothschild children, for reasons which remain a mystery to this day, James Rothschild decided to leave 6 Hebrew manuscripts from his collection, including several Passover Haggadot, in France.

One of these Haggadot contains some 50 pages written in quadratic Ashkenazi script, accompanied by dozens of colorful illustrations. Some of the wonderful illustrations in this Haggadah are connected to the text itself, and some contain motifs connected to the Haggadah and the story of the exodus from Egypt – the ten plagues, matzah baking, and more.

Ma Nishtana (The Four Questions) from the Rothschild Haggadah

This Haggadah would later become known as the “Rothschild Haggadah.” Some of the illustrations in the Haggadah provide details regarding its source. The cities of Pithom and Ramses feature late gothic architecture, reminiscent of Northern Italian fortresses. The figures depicted in the Haggadah are also dressed in clothing typical of Northern Italy. The illustrator’s name does not appear, but the style is reminiscent of that of a famous illustrator named Yoel ben Shimon. Information taken from other manuscripts show that Yoel ben Shimon was active in the second half of the 15th century in the cities of Modena and Cremona in Northern Italy.

Pithom and Ramses, from the Rothschild Haggadah

Some of the illustrations are rather amusing. The wise son is seen picking his nose. This could be a play on the words of the response he receives “and you should say to him” [v’af ata emor loaf in Hebrew also means nose].

The wise son, from the Rothschild Haggadah

Another strange illustration appears underneath the song Dayeinu. The illustration depicts a gentile drinking himself into inebriation and warming his bare feet next to a fire, upon which he is roasting raw meat which does not seem particularly kosher.

Dayeinu, from the Rothschild Haggadah

The scribe who transcribed the Rothschild Haggadah was probably named Yehuda. He decorated and emphasized his own name in red in the words of the Hallel prayer, “Hayta Yehuda L’Kodsho”.

The liturgy of the Haggadah follows early Ashkezani tradition, differing slightly from the liturgy we are familiar with today. During the Middle Ages, the rabbis debated whether a blessing should be recited for the Hallel prayer included in the Haggadah. The accepted practice today is not to recite a blessing, but the transcriber of the Rothschild Haggadah appears to have followed the opposing opinions and began the first half of the Hallel prayer with the blessing “to complete the Hallel“. The songs sung at the end of the Haggadah, Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya do not appear, rather the transcriber of this Haggadah instructs the reader to drink the fourth cup of wine at this point. The Haggadah ends with the words slik Ma Nishtana (“Ma Nishtana has been completed”), as in this period, Ashkenazi communities referred to the entire Haggadah by the name of the well-known song which features the question – “why is this night different from all other nights?”

When the Nazis entered Paris on June 14th, 1940, they immediately set their sights on the local riches. The Nazi pillagers mainly stole property of entities marked as “hostile,” such as Jews. A short time after the occupation was completed, the chief ideologue of the Nazi party, Alfred Rosenberg, sent two representatives to locate and collect libraries of such hostile entities. They were Walter Grothe – director of the central library in the Advanced School of the NSDAP (Hohe Schule der NSDAP), and Wilhelm Grau – director of the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt.

Maurice Rothschild hid the manuscripts in his possession in a safe in a Parisian bank. On January 21st, 1941 the Nazis broke into the bank safe and removed the treasures. A German officer left a receipt in the bank which stated the date and wrote that six crates had been taken. The Germans then went to the Rothschild estate where they continued their looting. Among the manuscripts taken was James Rothschild’s illustrated Haggadah.

James Rothschild, son of “The Famous Benefactor”

In addition to the libraries of Kol Yisrael Chaevrim, the Rabbinical Seminary and other libraries, Rosenberg’s experts (members of the Nazi ERR organization) working in Paris also confiscated the private libraries of the Rothschild family, as well as 760 crates from the Rothschild Bank Archive which contained material from the past hundred years.

The books stolen from the Rothschild family were sent together with hundreds of thousands of other books taken from libraries throughout Western Europe, to Germany, where they were divided between the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question and the Central Library and sorting center of the Advanced School of the NSDAP, in Berlin.

All the books and manuscripts were evacuated from the German city centers due to the allied air raids, and many of them were discovered by American forces after the war in Hangen (Germany), by British forces in Tanzenberg (Austria) and by the Russians in Raciborz (Silesia). The Americans and British returned the books to their original owners, when possible. The Russians took the books they found with them to Minsk and Moscow. It was not until the 1990s that the Russians finally returned some of the Rothschild collections to the family.

After the war, manuscripts belonging to the Rothschild family began to be discovered in Berlin, in Neuschwanstien castle and in Berchtesgaden near the Austrian border. Hermann Goering, the number two man in Nazi Germany, was an art lover. In Berchtesgaden, Goering amassed a tremendous collection of works of art he stole throughout Europe. Some of the Rothschild family assets may have come into his possession.

When the battles ended, the French army published a series of thick volumes with lists of items of art stolen by the Nazis during the war. The three Rothschild siblings sent lists of manuscripts stolen from their collections, which can be seen in the seventh volume.

The Rothschild Haggadah is cited in the seventh volume

Years passed, and only some of the manuscripts were found and returned to James, Maurice and Miriam.

In 1948 Dr. Fred Murphy bequeathed a Haggadah which had come into his possession to the rare books collection of Yale University. The university came to refer to the manuscript as the “Murphy Haggadah”, after its donor.

On the back page of the binding of the manuscript is a small simple stamp of the name William V. Black. The genealogy database website My Heritage shows that several soldiers with this name served in the Second World War. This Haggadah may have been found by an American soldier with this name (or another) who brought it back from Europe at the war’s end. Perhaps Professor Murphy received it from him.

It was not until 1980 that Professor James Marrow, a researcher of art history at Princeton University identified this book as one of James Rothschild’s lost Haggadot. James had died in 1957, so Yale University gave the Haggadah to his widow Dorothy in England. Baroness Dorothy decided to bequeath the valuable manuscript to the National Library in Jerusalem.

Three leaves were missing from the Haggadah. Two of them contained the end of the “Kadesh”,Urchatz“, and “Karpas” sections and the beginning of the “Maggid” section of the Seder service.

In 2007, two illustrated leaves of a Passover Haggadah were auctioned in France. The antique dealer who bought them sent them to Jerusalem to be examined. In 2008, Dr. Evelyn Cohen, an expert in illustrated Jewish manuscripts, identified the two leaves as the missing leaves of the “Rothschild Haggadah”. The leaves were purchased for the National Library and returned to their rightful place in the Passover Haggadah.

The journey, which began 550 years ago with the illustrator Yoel ben Shimon in Northern Italy, ended with the Haggadah being scanned by the National Library in Jerusalem, making it accessible to anyone who wishes to see it.

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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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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


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