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Torah Commentary
Sh'mot (January 21, 2017)

Warren Klein, Curator, Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica

As a visual person, Sh’mot was a very exciting parashah for me to revisit. Almost immediately I was reminded of some of the incredible medieval illuminated Haggadah manuscripts that illustrate scenes from Sh’mot chapters 1-5, manuscripts such as the Golden Haggadah in the British Library and the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Sh’mot is packed with descriptive and rich narrative. Chapter 1 sets the scene of a new king who does not know the Israelites and fears their numbers. In chapters 2 through 5, we see Moses’ birth and rise to leadership to help free his people from slavery. Narrative elements such as the burning bush and Moses’ rod turning into a snake have this larger-than-life power, and it is no wonder that artists have chosen this story to illustrate for the past two millennia. Art historian Gabrielle Sed-Rajna remarked that “the main themes of iconography in the life of Moses can be traced from the middle of the third century CE.” The earliest Jewish representation of the story of Moses that Sed-Rajna mentions is the third century CE synagogue at Dura-Europos, a settlement in present day eastern Syria. The synagogue contains floor-to-ceiling wall paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. Discovered in the 1930s, these paintings were an art historical breakthrough because it was from these paintings that art historians believe that much of medieval biblical book illustration derives from ichnographically.

Dura-Europos synagogue painting, detail the finding of Moses, 3rd century CE
Golden Haggadah (British Library Add. MS. 27210, fol. 9r detail), Barcelona,
ca. 1320
If we look for examples at the scenes of Exodus 2:2-9 from Dura-Europos, there are three parts of that story: Moses’ mother placing him in the river, Pharaoh’s daughter discovering the basket, and lastly the maidservant getting Moses’ mother to nurse him. In the Dura paintings, these events are depicted in one continuous frame, where the figures are repeated to signify a different part of the story. This static depiction is classic of late Roman and early medieval art, but the scene being depicted is new thematically for that period. If we compare the same scene in the Golden Haggadah from Barcelona, circa 1320, we notice that each of the three parts to this narrative is divided into individual frames within a single page. This delineation of narrative is typical of medieval book illustration. Both sets of illustrations were meant to help illustrate the narrative to those synagogue goers and Seder participants who would have been illiterate, but also unlike today, where at most Seder tables every person has his or her own Haggadah to follow along, hundreds of years ago before the inventing of the printing press, one illustrated Haggadah was a very pricy commodity and a sign of wealth.

These are just two examples of the great history of biblical art and illustration of our people. The root of the word Haggadah is “re-tell,” as we are commanded to do during Passover, to re-tell the story of the Exodus to our children and our children’s children. But, it is also important to “re-look” the next time you see an illustrated Haggadah, maybe ask yourself where did the artist get the idea for that image or composition? Just as we build upon our knowledge and understanding of the text year after year, it is important to keep an eye on the margins and the illustrations and to examine the rich artistic history of our people.

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