Three Fascinating Haggadahs: The Oldest, The Most Beautiful, and The One Written by Heart

March 14, 2021

6 min read


Each one has an incredible story to tell.

Oldest Haggadah in the World

While the Exodus story has been told from generation to generation for over 3,500 years, the oldest copy of the Haggadah we read today dates back over 850 years and was found among a store of torn and discarded Jewish books, scrolls and papers found in Cairo.

In 1859, Jacob Saphir set out from Jerusalem on a world tour to raise money to rebuild the Old City’s landmark 15th century Hurva synagogue. The building had been destroyed by the Ottomans over 100 years previously due to a failure to pay rent. It was on his journey through Egypt that Saphir chanced upon the 1200-year-old Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, near Cairo.

The entrance to the ancient ‘geniza’ with Jacob Saphir (right) who documented its existence on his travels through Egypt.

Venturing to its lower levels and peering down into an opening into an underground room, he saw piles and piles of papers, scrolls and books. He was looking into one of the most important collections of Jewish texts ever found – The Cairo Genizah – a repository of abandoned documents containing the name of God. Inside were over 400,000 pages and fragments testifying to the rich Jewish life in Egypt under Islamic rule.

Among the pages was a Haggadah written on parchment, dating it back around a thousand years, when parchment was still used for books by Sephardi Jews.

With instructions accompanying the Seder service written in Judeo-Arabic, the name of its owner is written on one of the pages. “This is the siddur, (prayer book) of Yosef ben Amrom, may he live long, by His Name, Amen v’Amen.” Today the Hagaddah is stored in a library at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“In every generation, a person has to imagine himself having left Egypt” a page from the Cairo Haggadah, dated to the 10th century CE, and found in the Cairo Geniza.

A Haggadah Written by Heart

During the Nazi occupation of France on June 22 1940, the new Nazi-aligned government led by General Vichy began interning Jews who had entered France from southwestern Germany and other territories recently conquered by the Nazis. The Vichy regime imprisoned 6,500 of these Jews in the Gurs detention camp in the Pyrenees mountains in southwestern France. Over the course of the war, more than 1,100 prisoners died in the camp from starvation, disease, and exposure; by the end of the war nearly 4,000 were deported to death camps in occupied Poland.

While interned in these camps, the Jewish inmates began to establish a spiritual council. As Passover approached, in the spring of 1941 a small group of Jews began working to produce a Haggadah. Aryeh Ludwig Zuckerman, originally from Hamburg Germany, along with Rabbi Leo Ansbacher from Frankfurt, sat together and wrote down the Haggadah completely by heart. Later that year, Zuckerman would also write down some of the most stirring Yom Kippur prayers on scraps of paper for the Jews to pray from.

The Gurs Haggadah, written before Passover in 1941

Known as the Gurs Haggadah and consisting of five handwritten pages, it opened, with a drawing of a seder plate by Karl Schwesig, a non-Jewish inmate of the camp later murdered at Auschwitz. Another image shows the prison camp with the Jews surrounding a mountain on which the Torah is being given.

Rabbi Ansbacher, understanding that many assimilated Jews could not read Hebrew, arranged for a page of Passover songs to be typed in Latin script at the end. While only a few copies of the Haggadah were successfully copied and used that year, one was given to Rabbi Shmuel René Kappel, the appointed welfare rabbi of the detention camps in southwest France, who brought it to Toulouse for duplication.

Rabbi Leo Ansbacher (left) and Aryeh Zuckerman (right) who wrote the Gurs Haggadah by heart to uplift the spirits of Jews ahead of Passover, 1941

Dr. Pinhas Sigmund Rothschild, a survivor of Gurs, recalled the unique preparations for Passover in 1941. “Before Gurs, we had led a carefree existence in the Diaspora, and had not attempted to truly understand or remember the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom, yet now, it was as if that which befell our nation in those distant days touched us and became part of our everyday existence. We vacillated between the hope for freedom and the hardships still waiting for us, as we began to prepare for the holiday week in the camp."

The presence of a Hagaddah the prisoners had made themselves made quite an impact. "We felt as if a refreshing breeze from the Promised Land had descended upon us via the desert: By the strength of His hand, God took us out from the house of slavery."

Both Zuckerman and Rabbi Ansbacher survived the Holocaust. Rabbi Ansbacher moved to Israel, while Zuckerman worked as a Jewish studies teacher in Brussels until his death in 1958. His youngest son, Yehoshua, who had become a rabbi, immigrated to Israel, raised a family and donated his copy of the Gurs Haggadah to Yad Vashem.

The Adventures of the Rothschild Haggadah

The journey of one the world’s most exquisitely illustrated Haggadahs began 550 years ago in Northern Italy, when Moses ben Yekutiel HaKohen commissioned a scribe to write it with illustrations added by an artist thought to be renowned Jewish painter Yoel ben Shimon. Elaborately decorated with bold and colorful illustrations, the Haggadah includes over 150 bold and colorful scenes from the Bible and is widely acknowledged as one of the most masterful ever created.

Leaves from the ‘Rothschild Haggadah’

Around a hundred years ago, the Haggadah was bought by famed philanthropist Edmund Rothschild, an avid collector of Jewish books and manuscripts. Among his most prized acquisitions were 14 handwritten works, including two Bibles, and several Passover Haggadahs.

When he died in Paris in 1934, his wealth and collections were divided between his three children. His eldest son, James, brought most of his share of the collection to his estate in England, but for reasons unknown, he left six manuscripts, including the famous Haggadah by Yoel ben Shimon in the family home in France.

When the Nazis entered Paris on June 14th, 1940, they immediately set their sights on the local riches, including valuable private art collections. Sensing the impending threat, Edmund’s second son, Maurice, hid the manuscripts in a safe in a Paris bank. But on January 21st, 1941 the Nazis broke into the bank safe and removed the treasures. Next, they went to the Rothschild estate where they continued their looting. Among the manuscripts taken was James Rothschild’s illustrated Haggadah.

Along with hundreds of thousands of books and artwork, Rothschild’s treasures were sent to Berlin yet later the Germans evacuated vast quantities of these manuscripts and masterpieces out of the city to avoid being damaged in Allied air raids. Many items were discovered by American, British or Russian troops at the end of the war and some of these antiques were returned to their owners.

Allied military policemen, look through a heist of looted Jewish artwork found at the home of a local Nazi leader in Remagen, Germany, July 7, 1945.

It was not until the 1990s after the fall of the iron curtain, when the Russians finally returned some of the Rothschild collections; the famous Haggadah was not among the items given back.

Meanwhile, in 1948, the rare books collection at Yale University was bequeathed a Haggadah by Dr Fred Towsley Murphy, a former Yale graduate and American footballer who had been selected as an All-American in 1895. Now known as the ‘Murphy Haggadah’, the back page of its binding cover carried another clue to its journey to America. A small stamp bore the name William V. Black, an American soldier who had served during the Second World War.

Fred Towsley Murphy (L) who bequeathed the Haggadah to Yale and Baron James and Baroness Dorothy de Rothschild who finally bequeathed it to the National Library in Jerusalem

It was not until 1980 that a researcher at Princeton identified the Haggadah as one of Rothschild’s looted collections, but by then James Rothschild had died. Yale University returned the Haggadah to James’ widow, Baroness Dorothy in London, who bequeathed it to the National Library in Israel, sending it on the last leg of its epic journey to Jerusalem in 1988. The Haggadah arrived to great fanfare, a treasure, yet mysteriously, missing three illustrated leaves.

In 2007, almost 30 years later, two illustrated leaves of an unknown Haggadah were auctioned in France. The following year, the antiques dealer who had bought them sent them to be examined in Jerusalem, where they were identified by Dr Evelyn Cohen, an expert in illustrated Jewish manuscripts, as two of the missing leaves of the “Rothschild Haggadah”.

The leaves were subsequently purchased for the National Library and reunited with the rest of the Haggadah. While one leaf remains lost, this extraordinary manuscript can now join us all in a choir of prayer emanating from whatever Haggadah we read from, as we end our Seder night, "Next year in Jerusalem."

Click here to see a scan of the Rothschild Haggadah.

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