Life & Culture

Illuminating a Spanish Seder

Eli Abt unravels the mysteries of a glorious 14th-century Haggadah from Barcelona


In a setting of colourful Spanish azulejo (glazed ceramic) tiling, a young couple, dressed in the height of medieval fashion, look intently at one another across a Seder table, a servant in attendance.

The man wears a festive surcot (outer garment), the sleeves of elbow length flaring over his cote or tunic, buttoned tightly down the arms to the wrist. Large, decorated gold clasps, the most luxurious ornaments of their time, run down the front of her dress, its neckline finished in gold braid.

However, the pièce de résistance is her headgear. Over her hairnet she wears a couvre-chef, a head-dress made of the finest linen twisted into two fillets of piping, held in place with a mentonnière or chin-piece.

It’s an engaging Seder scene in what is clearly a well-to-do 14th century Catalan Jewish home as depicted in the celebrated “Rylands Haggadah”, now owned by the Manchester University library of that name. (Thames & Hudson’s outstanding 1988 facsimile edition of this manuscript with English commentary is still available if you look for it.) The couple are about to taste the maror, taken from the bowl in front of them.

We know that it’s the bitter herb because she’s about to offset its effects by dipping her left hand into the charoset, whose sweet ingredients have been ground with the mortar and pestle which are shown.

However, a careful look suggests this is a strange Seder. If our couple are about to eat maror, would they not already have drunk their second cup of wine and eaten their first piece of matzah in the sequence familiar to us? So why is the man holding a wine goblet in his other hand, and moreover being offered yet a further cup by his servant?

The matzot are an even greater mystery. We know from the instructions in this Haggadah that, unlike our now universal Ashkenazi practice of three matzot on Seder night, its patron followed the then Sephardi custom of only two, established in 11th-century Algeria by Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi.

If the afikoman has already been broken off early on (she would have hidden it, surely?) and the first piece of matzah eaten, why do we see two unbroken matzot on the table at this halfway stage of the seder? And why no Haggadah? Do they both know it all by heart?

Perhaps there’s a clue in the depiction of the older man at his separate seder table next door. He stands looking towards the young people, a Haggadah in one hand and a goblet of wine in the other, his servant likewise hovering with a further cup.

However, his Haggadah remains unopened and the matzot are untouched, so it’s apparent he hasn’t even started the Seder. What’s he celebrating?

All this suggests we’re looking at the happy participants in a springtime wedding.

The two enraptured newlyweds have eyes only for each other, blissfully oblivious to their surroundings and ignoring the Seder proceedings one’s meant to follow – this a touch of the kind of humour found elsewhere in these medieval Haggadot – while the father of the bride or groom, who has commissioned this unique manuscript as a wedding gift for them, is raising a cup to their happiness.

Who are these people? There’s no indication of their identity, though a similar image in the so-called Brother Haggadah in the British Library, probably decorated in the same Barcelona workshop, has the suggested patron of the work accompanied by his wife. So possibly his Rylands counterpart here is a widower.

These are the only likely portraits of early Jewish art patrons we know of. However, there’s ample evidence to show that, like the Psalters and Books of Hours of medieval Christian Europe, illuminated Haggadot for Pesach, commissioned by affluent Jewish families from skilled scribes and artists, were a highly regarded wedding gift, often used to forge strategic alliances.

A 14th-century example of such a union is suggested in the famous Sarajevo Haggadah, whose Ha Lachma Anya page features what are thought to be the crests of the eminent Ibn Shoshan and Eleazar families, many of whom had been Nesi’im, the Spanish Jewish elite, since at least the 12th century.

The Ibn Shoshans of Toledo included scholars, physicians and ministers to the kings of Castile, while the Eleazars of Saragossa served as physicians to the Crown of Aragon whose coat of arms appears at the top of the Ha Lachma page.

Was that because the wedding took place in Saragossa? We can only guess.

Illuminated Haggadot were prized even where the donor wasn’t the original patron but had acquired the manuscript from someone else. The British Library’s sumptuous Golden Haggadah of around 1320, for example, one of the oldest of its kind, ended up in Italy after the Spanish expulsion of 1492.

According to its frontispiece, it was given in 1602 by R. Yoav Gallico, rabbi of the community in Mantua and father of “the noble Rosa”, to “his learned son-in-law Eliah, son of Menahem Rava”, to celebrate their wedding in Carpi near Modena.

All three men were rabbinic scholars and well-known members of the northern Italian Jewish intelligentsia of the time.

It’s furthermore clear from such evidence that those 700-year-old Rylands, Brother, Sarajevo, Golden and other Haggadot were not merely priceless artefacts and gifts, but also served the primary purpose of “hiddur mitzvah”, as enhancements of the obligation to tell the story of our people’s deliverance from servitude to the Egyptians.

That idea is established in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 133b), encouraging us to invest in objects of beauty for our Jewish practices.

The attractive cup with which we make kiddush, and the fine matzah plate we use for Seder, are meant not only to enrich those rituals, but to imbue the next generation with the same strong sense of attachment and continuity which we inherited from those who came before us.

Eli Abt writes on the Jewish arts

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