Pages from the 1500s Passover Haggadah that was recently sold to the National Library of Israel. (photo from Sotheby’s)
On the right, a man sits and prays holding a liturgical book. On the left, a rabbi is seen explaining the story of the Exodus to a child. These images were printed on the pages of a Passover Haggadah in the city of Prague in 1556.
This nearly 500-year-old Haggadah, one of only two remaining copies, is part of the Valmadonna Trust Library collection that was recently sold to the National Library of Israel, with the help of philanthropy from the Haim and Hana Salomon Fund.
“The Haggadah is the most widely published book in Jewish history,” said Sharon Mintz, senior consultant for Judaica at Sotheby’s auction house, which arranged the sale to the Israeli library. She told JNS.org that more than 3,000 editions of the Haggadah have been printed during the last several centuries – more than the Bible.
The Valmadonna collection’s 1556 Haggadah 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 a few decades after Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440, printing spread to the Jewish world, beginning in Rome and then moving throughout Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. Scholars tend to refer to the era of early printing, before 1501, as the Incunabula period.
Jews were “tremendously excited” to be able to print multiple books, Mintz explained. “They viewed it as a gift of God,” she said.
The earliest printed Haggadah was printed in Spain in 1482. Another early Haggadah dates back to roughly 1486, and was published by the Soncino family, named for the Italian town where the family ran its printing operation. These early Haggadot were not illustrated. The earliest 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 a growth in 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, who is the author of Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts and The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative 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 communal and cultural life, and thus – along with Venice – a crucial centre of the newly developed art and craft of Hebrew printing,” he said. “Jewish printing spread from Prague throughout Western as well as Eastern Europe, the next great centres being in the Polish communities such as Lublin.”
Read more at jns.org.