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August 30, 2015 / 15 Elul, 5775
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Rylands Haggadah: Medieval Jewish Art in Context


Plague of Locusts & Plague of Darkness (ca.1330) Tempera, gold, ink on parchment: Rylands Haggadah
Courtesy The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester, England

Plague of Locusts & Plague of Darkness (ca.1330) Tempera, gold, ink on parchment: Rylands Haggadah Courtesy The John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester, England

In our Rylands image (unfortunately damaged) we can see Tziporah on the donkey holding one child in front while her second child clings to her back. Moses is guiding them along from behind as they travel from Midyan, depicted on the right, to Mitzraim depicted on the left. In the lower left we again see Tziporah, now on kneeling on the ground quickly circumcising their son Eliezer, understood by Rashi as her heroic act to save Moses’ life from Divine displeasure (see Nedarim 31b – 32a).

Here the Rylands’ artist brilliantly contrasts the Jewish Return to Egypt, depicting the pivotal narratives of saving Moses’ life through of the mitzvah of circumcision and the very beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people, with an Christian anecdotal episode of the hasty fleeing of the “holy family” to Egypt that will only necessitate a return to take up the narrative again. He has appropriated and subverted a piece of Christian visual culture; one based on a Christian adoption of a Jewish text, and has asserted Jewish mastery and primacy over sacred text. One hopes that the new owner over 600 years ago of what is now known as the Rylands Haggadah appreciated what his humble craftsman delivered into his hands. I know we do.

[I am deeply indebted to Marc Michael Epstein’s “The Medieval Haggadah, Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination” (2011) for many insights into radical nature of these manuscripts.]

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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