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The Haggadah: A Journey Through Time


Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: the grown-ups are talking around the dining room table at your grandmother’s house. You squirm in an uncomfortable folding chair, seated amongst siblings and cousins at a folding card table that was repurposed as the kids’ table on the first night Passover Seder. A booklet is passed around the table and, as the Seder starts, you flip through the pages to see how much longer it is until the Festive Meal. The booklet in your hands? It is almost undoubtedly the Maxwell House Haggadah.

Of course, the Haggadah goes back much further in time than 1932, with its first known outline in the Talmud, Tractate Pesachim. 


The Mishna Pesachim, 10:4, ontains an early version of Ma Nishtana, dictating that a son should ask, “Why on all other nights do we eat meat roasted, stewed, or boiled, but on this night only roasted?” The meat referenced in this question is the lamb which was sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem. Since it has not been possible to perform this tradition for many centuries, the question has been replaced with asking, “Why on all other nights do we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.”

Even earlier, oral  traditions had been passed down from fathers to sons since the time of Sinai. It is believed that the Haggadah became a stand-alone codex more than 1,000 years ago. 

Beyond prayers, songs, and tradition, the evolution of the Haggadah as a publication is in itself fascinating. A product of its time and place in history, each of the more than 3,000 versions (and counting) offers a glimpse back in time. 

The Birds’ Head Haggadah 

A scribe named Menachem gives us the Bird’s Head Haggadah, a medieval illuminated manuscript that was written in Southern Germany in approximately 1300; it is believed to be the oldest surviving Ashkenazi version and contains mysterious illustrations of bird-headed figures as they perform traditional Passover rituals. Today, it is housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 

In addition to humans with the heads of birds, the illustrations include blank faces and faces obscured by helmets. The most plausible theory is that it was designed in strict keeping with a biblical tenant that prohibits graven images, interpreting that prohibition to include any human likeness. It remains a curiosity and there is no other like it. 

The Golden Haggadah 

Moving on to an early Sephardic Haggadah, we are transported to Catalonia in Northeastern Spain. Written in Hebrew in a Sephardi square script on vellum pages, the Golden Haggadah was illustrated in approximately 1320. It is aptly named: at the beginning of the manuscript are 56 lavish miniature paintings on diamond-patterned gold backgrounds, 4 to a page, telling the story of the Exodus and illuminating the preparations for Passover.

The Golden Haggadah

Though nothing is known of the manuscript’s illustrators (believed to be at least two because of distinctive artistic approaches), their style was decidedly High Gothic, demonstrating an early 14th-century Catalan School influence. The original patron who might have  commissioned it remains a mystery as well, but there is evidence of later provenance contained in two added pages, an inscription and a coat of arms. These suggest that the magnificent Golden Haggadah was a wedding gift from Rabbi Joav Gallico of Asti to his son-in-law, Eliah Ravà, in 1602. Today, the Golden Haggadah is housed at the British Library.


A beloved melodic section of the Seder is Dayenu, which means, “it would have been sufficient.” This cheerful and catchy song has been a part of the Passover tradition for more than one thousand years. The complete lyrics appear in the 9th-century prayerbook, Siddur Rab Amram, and emphasize the importance of gratitude. Some scholars theorize that the song itself was written during the time of the second temple, as the building of the temple is included but it’s subsequent
destruction is not.

The Sarajevo Haggadah 

The famous Sarajevo Haggadah, so named for its sale to the National Museum of Sarajevo in 1894, has been on quite an adventure since its illumination in Barcelona around 1350, with wine stains and doodles in the margins to show for it.

The Sarajevo Haggadah

Like the Golden Haggadah, we don’t know the name of the artist, scribe, or the individual who commissioned it. The inclusion of the coats-ofarms of two families (Shoshan and Eleazar) suggests it may have been a wedding present. 

The Sarajevo Haggadah left Spain in 1492 and traveled to Venice in the hands of Jewish refugees, resurfacing in the 17th century. The manuscript barely escaped a public burning, saved by the signature of an Inquisitor that certified that the images and text were not heretical. During World War II, it was spared destruction at the hands of Nazis when a librarian placed it in hiding within a rural mosque. Another close call occurred during a museum break-in in the time of the Yugoslavian Civil War; thankfully, it was relocated to a bank vault for safekeeping. The Sarajevo Haggadah is kept on permanent display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. May it rest there in peace!

The Prague Haggadah 

In 1526, Gershom ben Solomon Cohen, a well-known figure in early printing, worked with his brother Gronem to produce the earliest fully illustrated Haggadah that has been preserved in its entirety: the Haggadah shel Pesah, more commonly known as the Prague Haggadah. It was the first of its kind to be printed in Central Europe after Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. 

The Prague Haggadah 

The Prague Haggadah is revered for the painstaking craftsmanship that went into the detailed lettering and the 60 woodcuts that illustrate the text. The extensive use of illustration throughout set a trend for almost all of the Haggadot that followed, maintaining an influence on Haggadah artwork for years to follow.

The Early Italian Haggadot 

In 16th century Italy, Jews were forced to live in ghettos and, among other restrictions, were barred from the ownership of printing presses. This meant that Jewish texts had to be contracted out to Christian publishers. 

The Sefer Zevach Pesach was the first Haggadah to be printed in Venice. It was produced by Marco Antonio Giustiniani, who later engaged in a bitter rivalry with another press house, Bragadini. Their dispute went all the way to the Papal Court and resulted in the burning of Hebrew books in 1553, making copies of this text exceedingly rare. In 1560, the Mantua Haggadah was printed by Giacomo Rufinelli.

It was heavily derived from the Prague Haggadah, with added borders, putti (winged children), and new illustrations. It was so popular that a second edition appeared in Mantua in 1568. 

The first Haggadah to feature illustrations of the Ten Plagues was printed in Venice in 1609 by Israel ben David Zifroni. The Seder Haggadah Shel Pesach was made available in Yiddish, Judeo Italian, and Latino, and proved to be in such high demand that it was reprinted several times. 

The Ten Plagues have appeared in almost every version of the Haggadah since.


Reform Judaism took hold in America in the mid-nineteenth century by way of German immigrants. In 1890, the vast majority of American synagogues were Reform and this is reflected in the Haggadah timeline. The New Haggadah Shel Pesach, printed in 1886, was the first Haggadah specifically made for Reform families. In 1923, the newly minted Union Haggadah was selected as the first official Haggadah for Reform Judaism. It was translated into English from German and includes essays on Passover’s rich history.

Zevach Pesach Haggadah

The 19th Century 

Like many publications, new versions of the Haggadah proliferated around the world in the 19th century. Prior to 1800, there were fewer than 300 known editions. During the 1800s, more than 1200 variations were published, each unique to its regional culture. 

It wasn’t until 1837 that the first Haggadah was printed in the United States. It was titled “Service for the Two First Nights of the Passover in English and Hebrew, First American Edition”. A first edition resides at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia and was used by the Rosenbach family themselves. An updated printing in 1922 includes the Star-Spangled Banner. 


More than 1,000 new editions of the Haggadah have appeared since 1900. Though plenty of new and contemporary options abound, your family may well use the famously nostalgic Maxwell House Haggadah that was first published in 1932. Kedem grape juice-stained copies with matzah crumbs tucked in the pages may have been handed down from your grandparents, to your parents, to you. What began as a marketing ploy to sell coffee became a phenomenon, with more than 55 million copies in print. 

Even modern classics can get a surprising facelift! In 2019, Maxwell House partnered with Amazon to put out a limited-edition Haggadah based on the hit show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”. Leading lady Midge Maisel is Jewish and the show is set in 1958. The pink-covered Passover publication includes the character’s brisket recipe. 

Still more contemporary options abound, and one could spend hours admiring different versions of Haggadot and what they each say about the worldview of their author and illustrator. It is clear that following the history of the Haggadah gives us a window into the practice of Judaism throughout the ages. Though we have been exiled time and time again, the words and imagery of our ancestors have thankfully been preserved in these rare, beautiful, and tradition-centric works of art. 


A. Alexander and Assistants printed the first Haggadah with an English translation in London in 1770. It included images from the 1695 Amsterdam Haggadah by printer Abraham B. Jacob (which is believed to be the earliest Haggadah that includes a printed map of the ancient Land of Israel). Major cities across the globe followed suit, and the Haggadah was eventually translated into English in places as far away as Germany in 1857, Israel in 1891, and South Africa in 1923.

The printing press was invented in 1450. While we might imagine that it would have soon led to a mass production of Haggadot, this was surprisingly not the case. At the Jewish National University Library in Jerusalem, one can find the only surviving copy of the earliest printing press version, with an estimated production date of 1482. In 1486, the Italian Soncino family printed a Haggadah of which two known copies remain today.

When you are able to safely join your family again for a Passover Seder, take a moment to appreciate the intricacies of the Haggadah in your hands. Consider the manuscripts that may have influenced the imagery in this booklet you dust off each spring. It may be tempting to skip ahead to the Festive Meal, but there’s such rich history in the pages that come before it!


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