From Amsterdam to Persia: A World of Wine-Stained Haggadot

Four glasses of wine is a lot, are we really that surprised?

The wine-stained Amsterdam Haggadah

We urge you to please be as understanding as possible. There’s simply no need to rush to judgement here. Those gathered around the Passover Seder table are required by tradition to down four glasses of wine during the holiday meal. As fate would have it, over the course of the Seder, the wine contained in these glasses has been known to spill over onto tablecloths, dishes of food, nearby Seder guests, and even the cherished pages of our Passover reading material: the Haggadah.

Meet the manuscript known in Hebrew as Yom Geulat Avadim (“The Day of Redemption of Slaves”), completed in Persia in the year 1782 by the scribe David Shabtai. This is in fact a Passover Haggadah, containing a distinguishing feature: a series of mysterious stains, which only appear in its second part.

On the right – an unstained page, on the left –  wine stains  on the 1782 Haggadah


“Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do our father Jacob”

Why is only one section of the manuscript adorned with these stains? The answer likely has something to do with when the different sections were written. Pages 1-13 feature a different script as well as a different type of paper, which was mercifully not exposed to the staining liquid. This section was apparently added to the manuscript at a later stage. It contains a Hebrew piyyut, a liturgical hymn, beginning with the words “Yom geulat avadim”, and also includes a translation into Judeo-Persian.

Generally, when we encounter stained manuscripts, we tend to assume that they resulted from the ravages of time leaving their mark. But in this case, we have reason to believe that the stains are the result of wine spilled during a Passover Seder, as the stained section of the manuscript contains the Passover Haggadah. The work’s colophon states that these pages were copied by David Shabtai, while also adding an ominous warning – “The reader shall rejoice and the thief shall be erased” (“הקורא ישמח והגונב ימח”).

The second stained manuscript we will present here, inscribed in Amsterdam in 1712, also has its stains on the “right” pages. In the case of this Haggadah, the wine stains show up on the very pages which instruct readers to drink from their glasses. True, we haven’t gone to the trouble of sending the Haggadah to a lab to confirm the molecular structure of the liquid we suspect to be wine, but we feel the evidence is quite convincing. The stains naturally re-appear in the section recalling the ten plagues of Egypt, whose reading is accompanied by the traditional dipping of the finger into one’s wine glass. That’s all the confirmation we need.

The Amsterdam Haggadah from 1712


The stains appear on a page mentioning the four glasses of wine, “טעמי ארבע כוסות”

It seems that four glasses were more than enough for one reader, as a huge wine stain also covers an entire page containing part of the classic Passover song Dayenu.

Ten copies of this edition of the Haggadah came to the National Library of Israel with the deposit of the Valmadonna Trust Collection in 2017. Of these ten Haggadot, the Library decided to digitize the wine-stained copy, as a souvenir of an especially festive Passover Seder held long ago.

A huge wine stain covers part of the song Dayenu

The practice of spilling wine during the Seder has endured over time, of course, with our next piece of evidence dating to 1946 – a Haggadah  published in the Land of Israel, towards the end of the British Mandate period.

Haggadah Eretz-Yisraelit LePesach, Sinai Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1946

Here we see that the Jewish pioneers of the pre-state era were just as careless and ill-disciplined as their ancestors in the Diaspora, if not worse! In fact, wine stains can be found on nearly every page of this Haggadah, with no connection whatsoever to written instructions regarding wine-consumption. It seems these people enjoyed their holidays.

While this is the most recent example we were able to find in the National Library catalog, we have reason to believe that this custom is still going strong today. Wishing you a very happy Passover from the National Library of Israel!


“Different Nights”: Alice Shalvi Recounts Passover During & After the War

One Seder during WWII - and one right after - left an indelible mark on the renowned educator and activist

Alice And Family 1940s 832

Alice (first seated from left) and family, 1940s. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, National Library of Israel

The Passover Seder is unique in the Jewish calendar, the only one of the festivals which is celebrated in the home, in the presence of family, friends and even strangers.  Indeed, at the very beginning of the Haggadah reading we invite strangers, the hungry, the needy, to join us.

From early childhood on, I recall my mother always setting an extra place at the table, in anticipation of my father’s bringing a stranger from out of town from the synagogue.  During the years when Soviet Jews were not permitted to leave their country, we set an empty chair to symbolize our hope for their passage to freedom.  I do not recall a single Seder night in my parents’ home or my own, when there was not even one stranger present (until coronavirus imposed isolation, leaving me with the four members of my family who share my home).

Alice and her siblings, circa 1935. From the Alice Shalvi Archive,  the National Library of Israel

Of the scores of Seder nights that I recall well, two in particular stand out. One was in a time of war, the other in the first year of post-war peace, soon after we first learned of the extermination of European Jewry under Nazi occupation.

In 1940, when I was fourteen years old, my parents, brother and I fled the fury of the German Blitz on London for the safety of a small village in Buckinghamshire, some fifty miles north-east of the capital.  My father bought a house on High Street which, though small, was blessed with a large plot of land on which we could not only keep chickens, but also grow vegetables and fruit to supplement the comparatively meagre rations that were available at the local grocery.

Apart from ourselves, there were a few Jewish families among our fellow evacuees, almost all of whom came from the comparatively poor East End of London.  Some of them were also refugees who escaped from Europe before the war.  None were wealthy.

My father took upon himself the task of organizing a minyan for the High Holidays and Shabbatot and, in 1944, also the hosting of the Seder night for some forty or so Jewish soldiers among those serving in an army camp on the outskirts of the village.

Two days before Pesach, he announced to my mother that there were still thirty soldiers for whom he had not succeeded in finding hospitality. We ourselves would have to host them.

Alice and her mother, Perl, circa 1943. From the Alice Shalvi Archive, the National Library of Israel

The slaughterer was brought from London, seasonal vegetables were picked, dozens of eggs collected.  Benches were brought from the village hall, our dining table, extended to the full, was supplemented by a smaller table from the kitchen.  My role was to whip the egg-whites for the eight sponge cakes that my mother baked.  Electric beaters not yet having been invented, this task was performed with the aid of a simple fork and required strong arms, with which I was fortunately blessed.

The guests streamed in.  I, the youngest present, recited the Four Questions.  When the time came for me to help my mother bring the food from the kitchen, I was forced to crawl under the table to reach the door.  There was not space enough for me to go around it.  The guests could not stop expressing their thanks. Like Cinderella, they had to leave before midnight, leaving us glowing with gratification at their response to our welcome.

Two years later, in 1946, when we were back in London, my father, who had been active in the Polish-Jewish Federation that was established some years earlier, was invited to attend the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Seder Night fell on a Monday.  At noon on Sunday, he phoned from Paris to announce that he was bringing three guests from the US who could not reach their homes in time for the festival.

It was still a time of food shortage and strict rationing and we no longer raised chickens nor grew vegetables. My brother, then studying in Cambridge, had invited a number of Jewish fellow students from the Land of Israel to join us.

Alice with her brother William in the field behind their wartime home, circa 1941

My mother met the challenge unfazed.  Chickens could still be bought in the morning, additional vegetables bought for soup, the giblets could be served in a sweet-sour sauce as an entrée, there was a local bakery nearby and fortunately we had a plentiful stock of wine.

When my father returned on Sunday evening, he brought with him a huge carp, a fish unknown in Britain, but beloved by Polish Jews like my parents. It more than adequately supplemented the feast.

However, the greatest surprise and delight stemmed from the identity of the three guests:  Opera singer Emma Schaver, who had developed an extensive repertoire of Yiddish songs which she performed in the Displaced Persons camps in Europe; the poet-philosopher Israel Efros; and Leib Halpern, a poet-dramatist who wrote  under the pen-name of H. Levik, and whose most famous work was the poetic drama “The Dybbuk”.

The wide-ranging, sparkling, fascinating conversation was mainly in Yiddish, the commentary original, illuminating; and the food, delicious, evoked justified compliments.  And finally, a cherry on the icing, Emma Schaver introduced us to a melody for the “Who is One” song that comes at the close of the Haggadah.  Though it proved to be well known in the Land of Israel, we had never before heard it.  It is the one we’ve sung ever since and each year, when we sing it, I recall Emma’s strong contralto ringing out at our first post-World War Pesach Seder.

We had survived.

The Alice Shalvi Archive is safeguarded among the collections of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

How Does Dara Horn Get Ready for Seder?

The celebrated author and her family prepare a vast interactive performance...

Dara Horn's son aka Moses parts an asphalt-and-chalk Red Sea

We start preparing for the Seder the day after Purim.

When I say “preparing,” I don’t just mean cleaning the house, planning the food and moving furniture to accommodate all the guests, which of course we do. I mean that every year, my husband and children and I prepare a vast interactive performance that allows our many guests — most of whom are children — to feel as though they personally left Egypt.

We have a nine-foot pyramid that we erect in our living room. We covered a room in our house with black paper, used more paper to subdivide it into a series of rooms, painted it with neon paints to look like an Egyptian palace, lit it up with blacklights, and then had our costumed children lead our guests through the various makkot [plagues], ending with 300 meters of blue yarn suspended from the ceiling which one of our children, dressed as Moshe, “parted” to lead everyone through Yam Suf [the Red Sea].

This performance changes every year, and it also applies to every page of the traditional Haggadah, since we re-enact every page in one way or another, whether it means children who enter the house at Ha Lahma Anya as “escaped slaves” and tell the group about their adventures, or “idol salesmen” who come in to sell “idols” to the guests (made of clay or other toy material) before another child, acting as Avraham, smashes them all.

Every year our children and their many cousins also make a movie that tells the story of Sefer Shemot [Book of Exodus] with their own updates; last year, for instance, the B’nei Yisrael [Israelites] were advised to mark their doors, stay inside, and keep at least six feet away from the Angel of Death.

I now have a dozen years’ worth of these movies, and have watched my children grow up inside this story.

Our approach is intentionally lighthearted, but it works: The children own this story, and every person in my household feels, viscerally, as if they too have left Egypt.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Celebrating Passover… as the Ambassador to Egypt

"...we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt"

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer in Cairo with Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, 2000 (Courtesy)

We lived in Egypt twice, for a total of seven years, but never spent the Passover holiday there – for reasons we thought were obvious. Somewhat counterintuitively, as we departed the country each year during our first tour of duty, 1979-82, tens of thousands of Israelis made the reverse exodus to celebrate Passover among the Egyptian antiquities.

Israeli tourists arriving in Sinai, 1970s (Photo: IPPA Staff). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Our experiences with other Jewish holidays and Shabbatot in Egypt were quite positive. Perhaps because we were the only kosher household between Eilat and Nairobi, we hosted a stream of visitors, many of whom we had not known previously. Our devout Muslim chef loved Shabbat, and he would often join us toward the end of the Friday night meal to listen to the songs we sang. He and the staff also constructed one of the most beautiful sukkot we had ever seen, made entirely of palm fronds.

However, we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt, with its repeated references to the travails of the Israelites in slavery. Indeed, a senior Egyptian diplomat who had served in Washington told us often that he would gladly participate in any Jewish holiday observance except the Passover Seder.

The best part about our own annual exodus was the opportunity to spend Passover with family. Our “traditions” included rubber frogs that appeared during the recitation of the ten plagues, a play on a range of words and phrases in the Haggadah, and more recently, a variety of charoset ranging from the traditional to Mizrachi to Hawaiian.

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and as the United States Ambassador to Egypt. He was a long-time member of the board of NLI USA, which builds support for the National Library of Israel by increasing public awareness of its many cultural, intellectual, and educational resources.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.