Signs and Wonders: 100 Haggada Masterpieces by Adam S. Cohen
No Jewish text besides the Bible has been illuminated and illustrated as much as the Haggadah. Yet, with few exceptions, there have not been popular treatments of the artistic aspects of Haggadah illumination. Professor Adam S. Cohen’s recent book Signs and Wonders: 100 Haggada Masterpieces fills a much-needed lacuna in the popular literature on Hebrew illuminated and illustrated Haggadot. An illuminated manuscript refers to a scribed text which includes decorative elements such as rubricated (hand colored, decorative) opening words (known as capitals or initials), ornamental borders, designs and miniature illustrations. Throughout this review, I use the phrase “illuminated manuscript” in reference to handwritten, decorative Haggadot which often feature a wide variety of artistic and decorative elements. While most commonly associated with the Medieval period, a hand written text with decorative features written during any period including the present would be considered an illuminated manuscript so long as the text in question was fully produced by a scribal hand and not merely a reproduction (facsimile) of a manuscript original. I use the term “illustrated Haggadah” to refer to printed Haggadot which include decorative elements such as woodcuts, decorative initial words and other artistic elements found in printed books. I am also using this term in reference to contemporary Haggadot for which hand drawn illustrations were commissioned and reproduced.
Cohen, an art historian and professor at University of Toronto, masterfully utilizes his scholarly training to highlight a hundred illuminated and illustrated Haggadot that were produced over the last thousand years across Europe, Israel and America. Over the past few decades in the wake of the Holocaust, Hebrew illuminated and illustrated manuscripts and fine printings have become a subject of popular interest, with dozens of manuscripts and hundreds of printed editions being reproduced in facsimile editions, often with accompanying scholarly essays. Some of them such as the Washington, Sarjevo, Ashkenazi, and Rylands Haggadot and more recently, the Moss Haggadah may be familiar to readers with an interest in Jewish art. Each facsimile edition enumerated above includes a high quality and full color reproduction of an illuminated manuscript, with a translation of the text and accompanying scholarly essays.
Unlike these editions, Cohen’s present work reproduces selected pages from a diverse array of illuminated and illustrated Haggadot. Taking his cue from Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s masterful work on printed Haggadot, Haggadah and History, Cohen provides short commentary on each image he reproduces and notes interesting artistic and historical dimensions of each Haggadah. Yerushalmi’s work focuses on the printed Haggadah until the 1970’s with particular attention to the evolution of the printed Haggadah, and the Haggadah as a witness to the vicissitudes of Jewish history. While Yerushalmi focuses almost exclusively only on printed Haggadot, Cohen includes both a wide selection of manuscript and printed Haggadot, with selections covering the 14th century to the present, and spanning Central and Western Europe, Spain, Italy, America, and Israel.
Cohen opens with a short introduction providing a basic overview of the history and function of the Haggadah, as well as an introduction to the development of the Haggadah and its manuscript and print tradition. Unlike Yerushalmi’s volume, which includes multiple scholarly essays, Cohen opens with a very short introduction to the Haggadah, its text, manuscript, and print tradition. While I personally find the lengthy essays in Yerushalmi’s introduction of great use and interest, I submit that such an approach is not the norm for popular books on Jewish art. That said, Yerushalmi’s scholarly introduction to the facsimiles he presents in Haggadah and History have ensured that his book remains a classic work in the field of Haggadah printing. In view of the wealth of recent scholarship on illuminated and illustrated Haggadot, I believe that Cohen missed a golden opportunity to create a work which could become a classic reference and overview of the present state of scholarship on the illuminated Haggadah, while at the same time capturing the beauty of his subject. In this vein, I find it unfortunate that Cohen did not include any selected bibliography or works for further reading as was done by Yerushalmi. Finally, I think Cohen’s book would have greatly benefited from being organized like an exhibition catalogue, with introductory scholarly essays followed by the one hundred Haggadot he chose; each Haggadah would have been represented by several images and accompanied by his commentary and a short bibliography.
It must be noted that while Yerushalmi’s work occupies the grey zone between an academic and popular work, Cohen chose to produce a work targeted at a popular audience. In view of the many scholarly works on Hebrew illuminated and printed manuscripts, Cohen’s decision to not include extensive scholarly commentary is eminently justifiable as he seeks to expose the reader to the beauty of the illuminated and illustrated Haggadah.
In discussing the Haggadot he included, Cohen focuses on them as both artistic and ritual objects, whose illuminations reflect the impact of evolving artistic trends. For example, when discussing the Ashkenazi Haggadah illuminated by the German scribe Yoel Ben Simon in the second half of the fifteenth century, Cohen focuses on the YaKNHaZ or hare hunt scene. On the surface, this scene is simply a visual flourish. However, this scene is always found in Ashkenazic haggadot as the illumination for the brakhot of Kiddush, and is in fact an acronym for the order of the Festival Kiddush. The opening letters of the relevant Hebrew works sounds like the German phrase for hare hunt, thus leading to this illustration.
Perhaps the most important element of Signs and Wonders is the inclusion of early modern and contemporary illuminated Haggadot. While medieval illuminated Haggadot produced between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries comprise some of the most opulent Haggadah manuscripts, it must be remembered that the tradition of Haggadah illumination continued well into the age of print and has experienced a renaissance in the last few decades. Of the pre-1900 illuminated Haggadot Cohen discusses, my personal favorites are the Charlotte von Rothschild Haggadah (#47) and the Bouton Haggadah (#48), both of which are unique with the Rothschild Haggadah being the only extant Haggadah illuminated by a woman, while the Bouton Haggadah is unique in that it is molded on Arabic illuminated manuscripts produced in Shiraz.
Cohen also includes over 50 Haggadot illustrated and illuminated between 1900 and the present, many of which are not included in Yerushalmi’s Haggadah and History. Of these contemporary illuminated Haggadot, mention ought to be made of the Moss Haggadah (#83) and the Rose Haggadah (plate #100) which are among the most exquisite modern illuminated haggadot.
I submit that many of my critiques are likely not shared by the lay reader who is looking for an elegant and informative work rather than something which is both a coffee table book and scholarly source. While of little interest to the lay reader, as someone with a keen interest in the history of the Hebrew book, I was pleased that Cohen included the location, call number and page numbers (in technical, bibliographic terminology, the folio number) for each Haggadah and image included. I also appreciated that Cohen included both a subject index and an index of scribes and illuminators. While as someone who is studying the history of the Hebrew book and Hebrew manuscripts I have some critiques of Signs and Wonders, on the whole it is an excellent work which will greatly enrich the owner’s appreciation of the Haggadah as a work of art.