As our presentation of the Washington Haggadah enters its final month, we turn not to the end of the book but to the first page of the manuscript. In both word and image, this page proclaims the privilege of preparing for Passover.
As is typical of Ashkenazic haggadot (made for Jews in Germanic lands), the first line of the Washington Haggadah instructs: "On the eve of the fourteenth [of Nisan] one searches for leaven by the light of a candle." At the bottom of the page, two men carry out the instructions: a bearded man in a red hat holds a lighted taper in one hand as he sweeps crumbs of leavened bread from a tall household cupboard. Behind him, in the open air, another, younger man, in a green hat, vigorously pumps bellows, fanning the flames that consume the bread.
Just as two months ago we saw an image of women of the household cooking in their best clothes on another page of the manuscript, here we see men of the household, likewise distinguished by bright, fine attire, assuming the work of clearing the house of leaven. They work eagerly—the young man pushing with his feet against the ground for leverage as he leans into the bellows, the older man sweeping so energetically that the pleated skirt of his open-sided, fashionable, and distinctively Italian giornea swings out from his body. Perhaps the man sweeping out the cupboard is mindful of the admonition spelled out in tiny Hebrew letters in the margin above him: "It is necessary to guard the pieces from the mice, for if they take one of the pieces and [someone] finds it during Passover he will transgress the prohibition against not seeing and not finding it."
In any case, this is clearly a welcome task, not one relegated to servants. The men's obvious enthusiasm for the work they have been given fittingly echoes the opening words of prayer, in Aramaic, on this page: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us about removing the leaven." In other words, the men are not just fulfilling a recurring obligation that stretches on year after year, they thank God for giving it to them.
At the very top of the page, above the gold lettering, a small inscription framed by a scrolling band of red attests to another labor of love, the making of the manuscript. Joel ben Simeon, the artist who painted the men clearing the cupboard and the scribe who recorded their prayers and instructions, penned a kind of prayer for his own work: "With good luck [betuv gadda] I shall write the order of the Passover [seder]. For your honor, God." A renowned artist who produced at least ten manuscripts during a long and successful career, Joel nonetheless here bows to tradition, repeating this formulaic expression of modesty (similar to ones used by Christian scribes) as he began this project, invoking the need for luck. We can infer from certain additions to the text of the Haggadah that Joel ben Simeon had not even calculated the date of the next Passover when he began this book and that, exceptionally, he did not have a patron waiting to pay him for it. Rather, from the outset, as he proclaims here on page one, Joel ben Simeon undertook his work, what might be called his own Passover journey, simply to honor God.
Barbara Drake Boehm is a curator and Melanie Holcomb is an associate curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.
Exhibition: The Washington Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context
Previous Posts: "The Washington Haggadah: Let anyone who is hungry come and eat" (April 18, 2011); "The Washington Haggadah: The Delights of Ornament" (May 6, 2011)
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe"
Curatorial Department: Department of Medieval Art