Like the Torah and the writings of Chazal, the Haggadah shel Pesach can be understood on multiple levels. In a way, it’s one of the first “interactive” books ever put together, because what you get out of it is largely dependent on what you put into it. Read it superficially, and you will undoubtedly come away confused. But “ve-chol ha-marbeh le-saper . . .” spend some time studying it prior to opening it at the Seder, and you will begin to uncover layer upon layer of meaning and significance.
Perhaps the reason so many thousands of different haggadot have been published is because everyone needs to find one that appeals directly to his or her personality. In The Medieval Haggadah Anthology,* Rabbi David Holzer has combined two of his own personal passions—the teachings of his mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l (“the Rav”), and his lifelong fascination with Hebrew manuscripts.
Rabbi Holzer puts it this way: “On one level, my haggadah is meant for the thinking person, the chacham (the ‘wise’ child), as it presents intellectually challenging questions and ideas. But it should also appeal to the she-eino yode’a lishol (the ‘one who does not know how to ask’), whom the Rav identified as those for whom the religious message might not be immediately appealing. The sheer artistry, the beauty, and the history of the illustrations will pique their curiosity and once they begin to look, they may find a question or an idea that will get them to search further.”
These are indeed beautiful books (there is a full-size edition and a smaller, Seder table-friendly, “family edition”). Printed in full-color with the bonus of glowing metallic gold ink throughout, there is a generous amount of white space on every page, allowing the eye to fully appreciate the gorgeous illustrations. Spilt wine stains would only enhance the elegance of these pages.
Much thought has clearly been given, too, to the design and size of the type—both Hebrew and English—so that one can easily read from this haggadah without having to lift it from the tabletop.
“I didn’t want to overload the haggadah with pictures, so you don’t have to turn many pages to get to the next paragraph,” Rabbi Holzer says. “On the one hand, I wanted it to be very usable, but on the other hand, really exciting to look through.”
The illuminated manuscripts, which Rabbi Holzer chose to highlight on each page, date mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries, during the period of the rishonim, those rabbinic authorities who preceded the Shulchan Arukh (1563). “My fascination with manuscripts of the rishonim started when I was very young,” he recalls. “My father was always interested to see what chiddushim (original insights) the rishonim found, and I used to write to libraries around the world to get copies.” As Rabbi Holzer grew older, he started publishing some of these texts, with extensive notes and commentaries. “Now I have a crew; my own sons really do a lot of the heavy work.”
When he decided to publish a haggadah based on insights of the Rav, it was obvious to him that he should also call on his expertise in manuscripts. “More than any other text, it’s in haggadot that you find such magnificent illustrations,” Rabbi Holzer points out.
The prevailing inclination of the halachah against creating representational images, particularly human images — does not seem to have been a barrier to the popularity of Hebrew manuscript illumination in the Middle Ages. Multiple craftsmen would collaborate to produce a complete book: sofrim (scribes/calligraphers), vocalizers, and illuminators. Experts believe that most were Jewish, some of them starting out as highly skilled sofrim who later also acquired the techniques of drawing and painting. Some manuscripts include the scribe’s name, but if it is missing, it is impossible to know for sure if he was Jewish or not. However, where detailed minhagim (customs) are depicted, it is more than likely.
But the haggadah is, above all, a teaching vehicle, and Rabbi Holzer began to investigate what could be learned from these illustrations about the minhagim of the Middle Ages. “I wanted to see if they were just pictures, or did they reflect specific practices? For example, which vegetable did they actually use for maror (the bitter herbs)? When they said, ‘ha lachma anya,’ was the custom to pick up just the matzot or the whole Seder plate?”
By focusing on many of these significant pictorial details and enlarging them, Rabbi Holzer shows us the way the various preparations for Passover, and the mitzvot of the Seder night itself, were actually carried out. In captions below the illustrations, he points out what to look for, comparing what is depicted there with our custom(s) today.
One detail in the drawings of matzot in several of the manuscripts particularly caught Rabbi Holzer’s eye and led him to publish an explanation of a previously little understood minhag mentioned by Rosh and Rema (Shulchan Arukh, OH 475:7). This involves making marks indicating numbers on the matzot, so that they could be placed on the Seder table in their correct order: upper, middle, and lower. Rabbi Holzer noticed that the drawings showed two ways in which this was done, either by impressing one, two, or three circles of dots in the dough prior to baking, or by adding the requisite number of small “handles” on the edge of the matzot as they were formed. It’s not known when this practice fell out of use.
At the back of the family edition, Rabbi Holzer uses some of the manuscripts to depict the lifestyle and dress of Jewish women in medieval times. He also gives some examples of the methods he used to enhance the illustrations through digital retouching, or “remastering” as he calls it. Some scholars might bristle at the free hand used in altering or recoloring the images, but they should bear in mind that the purpose here is purely educational.
Which brings us to the other aspect of this unique haggadah — the teachings of the Rav. This is not, of course, the first haggadah to feature the insights of the Rav. Several of his prominent students have published excellent summaries of his penetrating, original thoughts. But Rabbi Holzer had an especially close relationship with Rabbi Soloveitchik over many years as his shamash at Yeshiva University. “I bring the actual words of the Rav himself, transcribed from tapes,” he emphasizes. “You are reading the words of the Rav as he spoke them. The Rav used to say, ‘I’m just thinking aloud and sharing,’ and Baruch Hashem I am able to give everyone the opportunity of sharing the Rav’s words.” (Four previous volumes by Rabbi Holzer, entitled The Rav Thinking Aloud, bring alive the Rav’s divrei Torah on Chumash and other topics.)
Rabbi Holzer adds: “The Rav said that the most important thing is to understand the problem, meaning that if you get people excited about the question, they’ll stick around for the answer. There’s no better place to do this, of course, than in the haggadah, which was built on the whole idea of questions and answers.
Indeed, most of the quotes from the Rav open with a question: “Why? What? How?” Questions that may also have occurred to us, or perhaps, on reflection, should have. And in his answers, the Rav puts everything in brilliant perspective, and provides enough thought-provoking ideas to enable us all to spend the entire night, like Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues, fulfilling the mitzvah of sippur yetzi’at mitzrayim (discussing the story of the Exodus).
It’s fascinating to see how fond the Rav was of reminiscing about how his father and his grandfather used to conduct the Seder. “I can tell you what my kabbalah (tradition) is . . . ,” he would say, “what was done in our house, in the house of zeide.” Regarding the oft-debated question about the size of a kezayit (olive-sized measurement) required for some of the mitzvot at the Seder, he gave his famous answer, “How big is a kezayis? I don’t know . . . but I know a kezayis according to most rishonim is half an egg, or according to Rambam one third of an egg, and I know elephants don’t lay eggs.”
As a supplement to the Rav’s words, Rabbi Holzer sometimes offers his own commentary, under the modest heading “A Talmid’s Addition.” In the family edition, with less space on the page available to him, he provides summaries of the Rav’s thoughts, rather than the extensive verbatim quotes found in the full-size edition.
The Rav used to refer to the Seder night as an “exalted evening.” The exalted nature of his own words, as quoted in this Haggadah, and of the magnificent illustrations that adorn it, should help us all feel the grandeur that he felt as he sat down each year to relive the exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Holzer is to be commended for his vision and for the splendid manner in which he has fulfilled it.