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January 17, 2017 / 19 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Marc Michael Epstein’

Kestenbaum Auction Includes Several Hebrew Books With Decidedly un-Hebraic Iconography

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Sale of Fine Judaica

Kestenbaum & Company

April 2, 2009

12 West 27th Street, N.Y.

13th Floor



The title page to a 1610 edition of 12th-century poet and legal scholar, Eliezer ben Nathan’s “Even Ha’ezer” (“Stone of Salvation,” per I Samuel 7:12) features a woodcut that looks fairly standard at first glance. Two pillars flank the central alignment of the Hebrew text, and two birds perch atop the columns. Beneath the pillars are two lions and two hands, configured in the manner of the priestly blessing, with a gap between the joined index and middle fingers and the ring and small fingers. This combination of hands and lions constitutes the printing mark of Moses ben Bezalel Katz of Prague, who was a Kohen.



Prague, Moses ben Bezalel Katz, 1610: Eliezer ben Nathan’s “Even Ha’ezer.” First edition. Courtesy of Kestenbaum & Company.


But the image on the bottom of the page is problematic. Two angels, with wings typically associated with birds of prey, carry an image of a bearded man with a hat, perhaps Katz. Some readers may recognize the motif as a knock-off of German artist Albrecht D?rer’s engraving, “Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels,” created nearly 100 years earlier. D?rer’s angels, positioned almost exactly like Katz’s, also carry an image of bearded man, but this one wears a crown of thorns. The sudarium, from the Latin for “sweat,” was believed by some Christians to be the cloth used to wipe Jesus’ face before the crucifixion. Since the cloth allegedly touched Jesus’ face directly and still held its impression in the fabric, it was considered a holy relic. There is no doubt that D?rer’s work was very well known in Prague at the time, which begs the question how and why Jewish scholars allowed Christological iconography in their books.



Albrecht D?rer, “Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels” (1513), Engraving on cream laid paper.



            Not only is the importing of Christian motifs into Jewish book art common, “Even Ha’ezer” was also one of several such examples in a recent auction at Kestenbaum & Company. The title page to Hans Jacob Hanau’s 1610 edition of Jacob ben Asher’s (also known as the Baal ha-Turim) “Arbah Turim” includes representations of Moses, Aaron, and the sacrifice of Isaac. In the illustration of Moses, the prophet’s head has sprouted horns, adopting an interpretation generally identified with anti-Semitic mistranslations of Exodus 34:30, which tells of Moses returning from Mount Sinai with a glowing face (literally “the skin of his face glowed”). But many Christian translations mistook “karan” for another form of the word, which means horn (as with the ram of Genesis 22:13, caught by its horns, “karnav,” in the brush).


This anti-Semitic reference found its way into yet another Jewish halachic book at the Kestenbaum auction, a 17th century work called “Sefer Pesach Me’ubin,” with commentary on the Haggadah by Chaim Benveniste (1603-1673), the chief rabbi of Izmir, Turkey.


            But Benveniste’s Passover work is hardly the most bizarre work in the auction. The so-called Prague Haggadah, which contains about 50 woodcuts, dates from 1526, and has its own redemption story. A Swiss businessman found a copy in an Italian antique shop in 1946 and purchased it. He died two years later and the book remained with his widow until she died recently in Switzerland. The man’s daughter inherited the work, and decided to research it, which led her to Daniel Kestenbaum.


            Prague Haggadahs are rare enough (five known complete copies exist) that Kestenbaum flew to California the next day. However, upon arriving, he was not able to get to the house, as access was blocked by military officials investigating the crash of an F-18 jet three doors away. No doubt, after surviving World War II Italy, withstanding a fighter jet crash down the street did not faze the book.


            The Haggadah’s fascinating illustrations include Pharaoh’s army skewering firstborn children like shish kabob as Pharaoh bathes in their blood, and some very Dutch-looking Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Red Sea. A page devoted to the prayer recited upon opening the door for Elijah “Shefoch chamatcha,” (“Pour out Your anger upon the Gentiles who do not know You,”) contains another reference to the sudarium, this time two men holding a lion’s image (perhaps for the tribe of Judah, but the catalog calls it the “Bohemian coat of arms”). The page also includes the Messiah riding what the catalog calls a donkey, but more closely resembles a horse; Adam and Eve bearing apples; Judith carrying Holophernes’ severed head; and a scene the catalog identifies not entirely convincingly as “the mighty Samson grasping the Gates of Gaza.”



Rabbit hunt from Prague Haggadah, Gershom Cohen, 1526.



            Another page of the Haggadah features a contested element of the Passover repertoire: a rabbit hunt. An armor-clad man on horseback blows a horn, as three dogs chase two rabbits. One wonders why the rabbits cannot turn on their assailants, as they are quite muscular and about the same size as the dogs, and it remains ambiguous whether the rabbits have managed to penetrate a net and are running to freedom or whether the net is about to ensnare them. Either way, rabbits have nothing to do with Passover and are not even kosher (per Leviticus 11:6).


            The rabbits are a phenomenon that extends beyond the Prague Haggadah, most notably to the c. 1490 German Haggadah by Meir Jaffe. Rabbinic interpretations have tended to adopt one of two trajectories. Either the rabbits symbolize the Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, or they are a pun (“jag den Has” is German for rabbit hunt) on the mnemonic “Yaknehaz,” which explains the proper order of the Passover Seder for Saturday night, when it must incorporate the Havdalah service.


            Both interpretations are problematic. The former may be refuted insofar as any animal would do to symbolize the Jews as hunted prey, so why the rabbit? The second theory might be questioned insofar as the motif does not first surface in German-speaking areas, and also since the mid-14th century Barcelona Haggadah includes very different images: dogs pouring wine into glasses held by the hares, as the hares disrobe. A very good argument can be made that the hare hunt is borrowed from medieval Christian manuscripts, in which the hare symbolizes fertility and promiscuity (thus “multiplying like rabbits”).


            But such interpretations are dangerous and should be carefully analyzed, according to Marc Michael Epstein, director of the Jewish studies program at Vassar College. In his fantastic book, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature, Epstein notes that the hare also mysteriously surfaces in Jewish images of Esau returning from the hunt. In fact, Epstein observes, non-Jewish illustrations of the episode always cast Esau’s prey as kosher, while Jewish artistic depictions opt for the non-kosher hare. To further complicate matters, Epstein notes that halachah tends to frown upon hunting to begin with.


Epstein argues instead that Jews embraced the symbol of the hare for its speed and ability to flee danger. “Christians, who were the hunters, had defined the Jews, their quarry, as hares: the majority culture imposed the symbol upon the minority,” he writes in Dreams. “Once branded with this sign of calumny, Jews set about, very matter-of-factly to redeem it and transform it from an emblem of infamy to a superlative metaphor for Jewish self-definition.”


            Epstein concludes that Jewish books adopted the hare hunt as an attempt to rescue it from its anti-Semitic context and to embrace it as a symbol of Jewish courage. Once it was already incorporated into the Jewish canon, it was re-employed in the Haggadah (including the Prague Haggadah) due to its relevance to the Yaknehaz pun.


Epstein’s scholarship is particularly important in its insistence that we not take Christian motifs which surface in Jewish art for granted. There is surely borrowing, and Christian artists often drew from Jewish texts and artistic motifs. But in the cases of the sudarium, Moses’ horns, and the hare hunt, the borrowing might have also involved sly efforts by Jewish artists or patrons to re-package and to “own” the images.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.


I encourage everyone who is further interested in this topic to read Marc Michael Epstein’s entire book, which is accessible online for free, http://vassar.academia.edu/documents/0008/6587/Dreams_of_SubversionAE.pdf.

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2009/04/14/

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