Israeli library buys collection of books with 1500s Haggadah



Pages from the Passover Haggadah from the 1500s which was recently sold to the National Library of Israel

On the right, a man seated and praying holding a liturgical book. On the left, a rabbi explains the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt to a child. These images were printed on the pages of a Passover Haggadah in the city of Prague in 1556.

Pages from the Passover Haggadah from the 1500s which was recently sold to the National Library of Israel

This nearly 500-year-old Haggadah, one of only two remaining copies, is part of the collection of the Valmadonna Trust Library which was recently sold to the National Library of Israel, with the help of Fund Philanthropy Haim and Hana Salomon.

“The Haggadah is the most published book in Jewish history,” said Sharon Mintz, senior consultant for Judaica at Sotheby’s auction house, which organized the sale at the Israeli library.

Mintz said more than 3,000 editions of the Haggadah have been printed over the past few centuries – more than the Bible.

In particular, the 1556 Haggadah from the Valmadonna collection is a rare luxury edition with Yiddish interpolations that “constitute the earliest examples of such texts,” said Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and visual culture and the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) and Norman Davis Chair at Vassar College in New York.


Just decades after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440, the printing press spread throughout the Jewish world, starting in Rome and then moving throughout Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. Scholars tend to refer to the era of first impressions, before 1501, as the period of the incunabula.

The Jews were “extremely excited” to be able to print several books, Mintz said. “They saw it as a gift from God. “

The first printed Haggadah was printed in Spain in 1482. Another ancient Haggadah dates back to around 1486 and was published by the Soncino family, named after the Italian town where the family ran their printing press. These early Haggadahs were not illustrated. The oldest known illustrated Haggadah was printed in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) around 1515, but only a few pages of this Haggadah remain.

Jewish printing spread to other parts of Europe in the 1500s, which also led to increased competition among printers.

“The cradle of Hebrew printing is of course Venice. But the printing of Jewish books north of the Alps began in Prague in 1512 in the circle of Gershom ben Solomon Kohen and his brother Gronem, ”said Epstein, author of Parchment skies, seas of ink: illuminated Jewish manuscripts and The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Story and Religious Imagination.

“Due to the humanistic patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor and a general climate of relative tolerance and free trade, Prague in the 16th century was a place of vibrant Jewish community and cultural life, and therefore – together with Venice – a center crucial to the newly developed arts and crafts of Hebrew printing, ”he said. “The Jewish printing press spread from Prague throughout western and eastern Europe, with the next major centers being in Polish communities such as Lublin.”

In 1526, the family of Gershom ben Solomon Kohen, also known as Katz and who built a large and influential Jewish printing press, produced a printed and illustrated Haggadah, known as Prague Haggadah and is the oldest complete illustrated Haggadah in existence.

The Haggadah of 1526 is notable for the 60 woodcut illustrations that accompany its text, a number Epstein called “extraordinary.”

“This number means that illustrations as a medium of commentary were considered essential to the business of printing and distributing the Haggadah,” he said.

In 1556, the Katz family printed the Haggadah, a copy of which is in the Valmadonna collection. This Haggadah uses some of the same illustrations from the 1526 Haggadah, as well as several original illustrations. For example, an illustration shows a representation of Moses.

“[Moses] appears in the 1526 edition, but in the 1556 edition it has horns. that of Michelangelo Moses in Rome was completed in 1516. The famous horns of this statue appear to be Michelangelo’s response to the challenge of attempting to represent in sculptural form the light that flowed from Moses’ face from the moment he descended from Mount Sinai [in Exodus 34:30].

“The word ‘streamed’ and the word ‘horn’ both have the Hebrew root KRN, and so the sculptural challenge converged with a demonstration of grammatical pun,” said Epstein.

“That of Michelangelo Moses had conquered the aesthetic world of the time. Everyone who was someone knew that. So… the inclusion of horns in the 1556 image of Moses seems to indicate that fashionable Jews wanted to be in the “new” way of representing him, however “non-Jewish” it sounds. The message here is that “Jews are modern and fashionable, and aware of trends in the art world,” the researcher added.


Dr Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica collection at the National Library of Israel and son of Rabbi Eliezer and Marilyn Finkelman of Southfield, said the Haggadah of 1556 is “an astonishing example of a number of phenomena ”.

First, the Haggadah provides examples of two unique fonts. One is a Hebrew font identifiable in Prague from this period. The other is known as the most common font for printing in Yiddish at the time.

The other unique attribute of the Haggadah of 1556 is the fact that it is printed on parchment as opposed to paper. At that time, books printed on parchment were considered a luxury because parchment was more durable than paper and was more expensive and more difficult to print than paper.

Queue to view the Valmadonna collection outside Sotheby’s in New York City, before the collection is sold to the Israel National Library

The Sotheby’s Mintz consultant also pointed out that this Haggadah does not open with the standard text of the Haggadah, but rather with the text that is recited on the eve of Passover when Jews are traditionally required to seek chametz (leavened products) by candlelight at night, followed by the combustion of this chametz.

“This printed Haggadah begins with what one does on the eve of Passover,” Mintz said, adding that several songs Jews associate with Passover today, such as “Ehad Mi Yodea” or “Chad Gadyah Are not present in this Haggadah because they became part of the Passover tradition later.

The Valmadonna collection as a whole was a “crush” when it was on display at Sotheby’s ahead of the sale to Israel, drawing more than 3,000 visitors a day, Mintz said.

“People stood in line for hours at the door” and “you could see all the specters of the Jewish people,” she said.


The collection was founded by Jack Lunzer, who Mintz described as an “avid lover of Hebrew books and Jewish culture” who collected books for over six decades and amassed the “largest private collection of Hebrew books. in the world … one of the most important. collections. “

Lunzer also assembled the largest collection of books printed on parchment, such as the Haggadah of 1556. Notably, the collector owned a copy of the Babylonian Talmud produced by Christian printer Daniel Bomberg, which was sold in 2015 – before the sale of his entire collection at the Israel Library – for the advertised price of $ 9.3 million.

Finkelman said that in addition to its acquisition of the Valmadonna Collection, the National Library of Israel houses the world’s largest collection of Haggadahs, including the Haggadah of 1482, which was printed just 10 years before the expulsion of the Jews of Spain. Additionally, the library houses a Haggadah made by the Communist movement in Ukraine in the 1930s – an alternative Haggadah that was used to undermine Jewish religious practice, for example, by equating ‘Hamets with capitalism.

The Valmadonna collection on display at Sotheby’s in New York, before being sold to the National Library of Israel

The National Library of Israel is currently awaiting the arrival of the Valmadonna collection, which it plans to catalog and unveil to the public at a special event. The collection will also be on display in the new library building, scheduled to open in 2020.

The purchase of the Valmadonna collection, said Finkelman, is indicative of the library’s attempt to amass “the most comprehensive collection of Jewish printing in the world.”

Alina Dain Sharon



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