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The Venice Haggadah of 1609: A Treasure for the Ages


The Venice Haggadah of 1609 is one of the most beautiful early printed Haggadot.  The compositional conception of this edition differs from its precursors in the monumental layout of the page.  The decorated frame consists of two columns crowned by a pediment, and a text illustration at the bottom of the page.  Framing each lower illustration are the figures of Moses and Aaron on one page and David and Solomon on the other.  Several pages feature two larger pictures with a picture at the top in place of the arch.  Sadly, it is not known who the designer of the Venice Haggadah was but one thing is for sure, he was a great artist as well as a great scholar of biblical and rabbinic literature.  The printer, Israel ben Daniel Zifroni, however, was a well known publisher during the last quarter of the 16th century having printed books in Basel, in Freiburg, and in Venice from 1588.  The haggadah was printed for him in the printing house of Giovanni da Gara.  It appeared simultaneously with translations in Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-German, the languages of the Jewish communities living in Venice at the time.  The renowned rabbi Leone da Modena, prepared the Judeo-Italian translation.  His tomb can be found today in the old Jewish cemetary on the Lido.

In terms of the range and depth of its wood-cut illustrations, the Venice Haggadah had no peer.  It included newly conceived images of scenes that had been traditional in the medieval haggadot such as scenes from the lives of the Patriarchs, the plagues, and the crossing of the Red Sea, but it also included images of biblical and midrashic themes that had not been part of the Haggadah iconography of the past.  In the illustrations that adhered to the accepted conventions, the artist of the Venice Haggadah added details that made the image unique.  For example, the depiction of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea shows them carrying the remains of Joseph.  No other image of that scene in previous depictions had included that detail which alludes to the biblical passage which tells us that Moses took Joseph’s bones along, thus fulfilling the vow the Israelites made to Joseph before he died (Gen. 50:25, Ex. 13:19).  This added detail adds immediacy and depth to the illustration and also serves a pedagogic purpose.  It emphasizes the theme of keeping the faith in the story of the redemption from Egypt.  As God kept his vow to Abraham that He would redeem his descendents after 400 years (Gen. 15:13), so did Moses and the Israelites keep their vow to Joseph that they would not leave him behind when they were redeemed.

Among the scenes that had not been depicted in previous haggadot are Abraham with his wife and concubines, Laban and his army catching up to Jacob and his camp, a husband and wife sleeping in separate beds so as not to conceive children whose fate would be to be drowned by Pharaoh’s men.  An illustration that accompanies the Hallel service after the meal is a tableau of three battles fought by Joshua and the Israelites during the conquest of Canaan.  This too is an illustration unique to the Venice Haggada.

Venice in the 17 th century was one of the great centers of Jewish publishing.  Though forced to live in a ghetto--in fact the term itself was coined there--the Jewish community of Venice managed to prosper and even flourish.   In addition, relations between Jews and Christians also appear to have been on the whole cordial and non-Jewish printers in the city were willing to print Hebrew books.  The Venice Haggadah of 1609 was one of the highpoints of Hebrew printing in that city and a lasting treasure for the generations.
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Title Page of the Venice Haggadah (1609)

Title page of the Venice Haggadah first printed in 1609.  The images on this beautifully designed page depict preparations for the festival.  The top and lower images show the communal activity of baking matzah.  The pictures on each side of the page depict women cleaning their homes in order to make sure that all the leavening has been removed.  In the text, the publisher expresses pride and satisfaction in his new edition of the haggadah which he says contains innovations in illustrations and text.  He claims that innovations have been made on each and every page not only with regard to the text but also with regard to the design of the page and in the interaction of image with text.

Other pages from the Venice Haggadah (1609)



The meaning of the word seder is order. The ceremony follows a specific order of activities all of which are meant to arouse in the seder participants a sense of having themselves been part of the redemption. On this page we see the illustrations for each activity. The seder leader sits at the head of the table and performs all the prescribed activities together with the other participants.




Notice the architectural design of the page. The columns contain the Judeo-Italian translation of the text. The captions under the illustrations are also in Judeo-Italian. The Venice Haggadah was published in three translations, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-German thus providing for the three Jewish communities living in Venice in the 17 th century. The image at the bottom of the page depicts a family searching for leavening (hametz) which must be cleared away before Passover begins. The woman is searching in the wine cellar and the man in the bedroom. Rarely are women shown searching for hametz and even more rarely in a wine cellar.




The illustrations on this page accompany the text that begins the seder. The leader points to the matzah (unleavened bread) and recites in Aramaic, “This is the bread of affliction that I forefathers ate in Egypt. Whoever is in need may come and join our meal.” The two initial letters on the top depict the head of the household holding a piece of matzah while the other displays the various foods that comprise the seder plate. The image on the bottom shows a family at the seder table inviting a poor man join in its seder celebration.




The image illustrates the beginning of the Passover story “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” The king looks out of his window as the Israelites are being browbeaten by the task masters but above is God’s angel with a drawn sword who takes revenge on Egypt for their cruelty.






The four sons appear in the initial letters with their father who is preparing the pascal lamb for roasting.



This image accompanies the text “in the beginning our forefathers were idol worshipers.” We thus see the people of Ur, Abraham’s birthplace, kneeling to idols. In the background we see Abraham and his family boarding the boat that will take them across the Euphrates on the way to the Land of Canaan while the idols go up in flames. Depictions of this scene in previous haggadot always show Abraham crossing the river alone. The Venice Haggadah also acknowledges his family.




The image on the top of the page shows Abraham with the three women in his life. In the center are Sarah and Isaac; on the left are Hagar and Ishmael and on the right are Keturah and her children. On the bottom of the page, we see scenes from the life of Isaac. One scene depicts him as he was about to be sacrificed by his father and the angel calls out to him to stop. The other scene shows Isaac as an older man teaching his son Jacob Torah while the older son, Esau, goes hunting.



The upper image shows Abraham at the Covenant Among the Pieces (berit ben ha-betarim). This is a detailed and accurate depiction of the event following closely the story in Genesis 15:9-17. The image below accompanies the paragraph which discusses Laban the Aramean, the father of Leah and Rachel. In Genesis we read that Laban chased after Jacob who left Laban’s home in secret. The image depicts their meeting when Laban comes upon Jacob’s encampment. In the front are Jacob and Laban. In the background are Jacob’s four wives in front of their tents. Laban is shown as armed in front of his army. By contrast, Jacob’s camp consists of his shepherds and flocks





The upper image on this page depicts Joseph and his brothers. It accompanies the biblical passage which states that the Israelites did not come to Egypt in order to remain there permanently. The lower image illustrates the biblical passage that the Israelites “were fruitful and increased abundantly” (Exodus 1:7).




The upper image relates to the Haggadic passage that the Israelites cried out to God in the suffering. We thus see the Egyptian taskmasters beating the slaves while a man in the background lifts his hands while pleading to God for help. The lower image illustrates the rabbinic passage that the Israelites refrained from conjugal relations so as not to bring children into the world only to have them be drowned by Pharaoh’s men. The background picture shows infants being drowned in the Nile as their parents cry out to God.





The upper image relates to the passage in the text concerning the death of the Egyptian first born which included both humans and animals. The smaller image depicts the Israelites dancing and rejoicing at the downfall of the Egyptians. This scene does not appear anywhere in the text and is the innovation of the artist. The image below depicts the plague of pestilence.





The Venice haggadah is the first of the printed haggadot to depict the ten plagues on one page. Notice that for the plague of darkness on the bottom of the page, there is darkness everywhere except in Goshen which appears in the background in the light.


The image on this page illustrates the text which says that God will send evil angels to punish the Egyptians. The evil angels are depicted as demons whose breath emits one of the 10 plagues. For example, one of the demons crouches by the shore of the Nile while breathing on it and causing the water to turn to blood. Another emits lice from his mouth and a third locust.


The image on this page accompanies the hymn Dayenu and shows the Israelites crossing the sea on dry land carrying the bones of Joseph who had them take a vow before his death that they would not leave his remains behind when God redeemed them from Egypt (Ex. 13:19). Leading the Israelites is God’s pillar of fire, and behind them is the cloud which separated the Israelites from the Egyptians and protected then from the Egyptian arrows (Ex. 13:21-22, 14:19-20).



This image also accompanies Dayenu and depicts the Egyptians drowning in the Reed Sea while Miriam and the women of Israel sing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). Notice a detail in the image which does not appear in images of this event in any other Haggadah. In the Venice, several Israelites reach out to rescue drowning Egyptians.





This is another image meant to accompany Dayenu. It shows Pharaoh telling Moses and Aaron to leave Egypt while the Israelites in the background are all packed and already on their way. A full moon is in the sky because the Israelites left Egypt at mid-night on the fourteenth the day of the month of Adar. Mid-month the moon is full thus providing light to the departing Israelites





To the left we see an illustration of the Israelite camp in the desert. The 12 tribes of Israel were each assigned a place around the Tabernacle. They were divided into clusters of three with one of them dominant over the other two. Each cluster was represented by the banner of the dominant tribe. The priests and Levites are in the center. In addition to the central image of the camp, the illustration includes depictions of the miracles that God performed for the Israelites in the desert: the pillar of fire, the cloud, the manna, the quail, and the provision of water.




This image depicts scenes from the conquest of the Land of Canaan and accompanies the text from Psalm 136 which is part of the Hallel service.  The right side depicts the victory of the Israelites over Og the King of Bashan, known to have been a giant, and Sihon, the king of the Emorites (Numbers 21:21-35).  The left side depicts the conquest of Jericho and in the center the sun is shown remaining in the sky so that Joshua would have the daylight he needed in order to defeat the five Emorite kings (Joshua 12). 

This last illustration of the Venice Haggadah depicts the final redemption in the Messianic era.  It illustrates the hymn Adir hu (Great is God, may He rebuild His House quickly in our days).  The Messiah is shown arriving at the gates of Jerusalem riding a white donkey while the prophet Elijah blows the shofar announcing him.   Bezalel Narkis, the noted Jewish art historian, sees in this image the assembling of the nations in order to witness the redemption of Israel (Isaiah 60).  The image can also be understood as a vision of the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth.  Notice that the sun and the moon are shining simultaneously echoing Isaiah 60:20 "Thy sun shall no more set nor shall thy moon withdraw itself, for the Lord will be thy everlasting light and the days of thy mourning shall be ended."  The Venice Haggadah thus concludes on an exhilarating high note that is voiced not only in image but also in the words of its final  blessing "May it be Your will our God and God of our ancestors that the Temple will be rebuilt quickly in our days and may Your Torah be our portion."


For further reading see the following Selected Bibliography

Haggadah and History: a Panorama in Facsimile of Five Centuries by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

The Passover Anthology by Philip Goodman.  First published in 1961, it is still an excellent resource

The Jews of Early Modern Venice / edited by Robert C. Davis and Benjamin Ravid.  Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c2001.

The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-century Venetian Rabbi : Leon Modena's Life of Judah / translated and edited by Mark R. Cohen ; with introductory essays by Mark R. Cohen ... [et al.] ; and historical notes by Howard E. Adelman and Benjamin C.I. Ravid.   Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c1988.

Studies on the Jews of Venice, 1382-1797 / Benjamin Ravid.  Aldershot, Great Britain ; Burlington, Vt. : Ashgate/Variorum, c2003.

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