Messiah's "Appearance" at the Seder

Venice haggadah 1609

prague 1526
One of the Passover Haggadah’s main themes is the future redemption of the Jewish people. This hope crops up throughout the Haggadah text, starting with Maggid’s opening bid, “Ha Lahma Aniya” (This is the bread of affliction) which ends, “Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel.” The Haggadah keeps returning to this idea, from the beginning of the Seder with the sages’ teaching that recalling the Exodus “all the days of your life” is necessary even after the redemption, to the symbolism of the fourth cup of wine with the seder’s end. Of course there are many more examples, especially in the closing section where we sing songs like “Adir Hu” (Mighty is He) which proceeds with, “May He build His house soon. prague 1526Quickly, quickly, in our days, soon. God build, God build, build Your house soon,” and the famed “L’Shana HaBa BeYerushalyaim” (Next year in Jerusalem).

Since the introduction of visual imagery in the Prague Haggadah of 1526, the Haggadah’s compilers had the weighty task of portraying a redemption that would inspire and comfort Seder participants without offending the nations from which they would be redeemed. Both Church-appointed censors and Christian publishing partners would have had extensive access to these works, so this challenge would have been met with great intention by Jewish artisans.

mantua haggadah 1560The Messianic arrival pictured above from the Prague Haggadah depicts “wild men,” often associated midrashically with Roman oppressors, along the bottom. Figures of historical Jewish salvation, Samson and Judith appear in the columns.  Both these figures’ military strength is reflected in the props they carry – general Holofernes’s head in the hands of Judith, and Samson’s gates to Gaza. The Mantua Haggadah of 1560, which appears below, foregrounds a more neutral depiction of the Messiah’s arrival – mantua haggadah 1560 it is simply a more elaborate version of the small Messiah figure that appears in the Prague Haggadah as an inset. Additionally, a warrior figure with a bow and arrow is featured in minor form, with an ambiguous identity.

Both of these depictions accompany the passage “Shefokh Hamatkha” (Pour out thy wrath), the passage that embodies the wish to avenge the atrocities committed against the Jewish people from the original exile from the land of Israel through the present day. This passage was written shortly after the Crusades and reflects the very strong bitter feelings of the Jews toward their hostile neighbors. While the Messiah is not mentioned explicitly in the prayer’s text, it is certainly implied by the accompanying rituals. Before the prayer, a special cup of wine is poured and the door is opened for Elijah to come and partake of it. Traditionally, Elijah is associated with heralding the Messiah, and indeed he appears leading the donkey carrying the Messiah in the Mantua Haggadah.

Venice’s 1609 Haggadah, pictured here, marks two interesting developments. The first is that the Messiah imagery is moved later on in the Haggadah, beneath the song “Adir Hu” (Mighty is He), Venice haggadah 1609 which, as noted earlier, is a song beseeching God’s redemption. The second is that the depictions on the Shefokh page clearly direct the reader to imagine those who practice Pagan and other heretical religions as the recipients of God’s wrath, rather than the Christian people who surrounded the relatively peaceful Jewish ghetto of Venice. This Haggadah was censored twice: by Clemente Renatto (shortly after it was published) and soon after by Giovanni Dominico Carretto, indicating that these depictions passed whatever standards they held regarding the presentation of Christianity and the depiction of Jewish redemption.

Interestingly, the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, below, eliminates a Messiah figure altogether. This is perhaps the result of shifting perspectives after several failed Messianic movements, such as that of Sabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) who shocked the Jewish world by converting to Islam at the peak of his fame. Earlier figures of David HaReuveni and his disciple Solomon Molkho were well-known Messianic figures to the Ashkenazi communities in the 16th century. Art historian Jeremy Glatstein makes a very strong case that the depictions from the Prague and Mantua Haggadot were modeled after these specific figures who showed up to the gates of Rome to announce the redemption in the 16th century. Unfortunately, they both met gruesome ends at the hands of the Inquisition.

Amsterdam hagaddah 1695As you see here, Shefokh in the Amsterdam Haggadah is represented simply with a decorated headword; the absence of Messianic images or visual references to other nations is quite noticeable. The Haggadah’s last exquisite image portrays a rebuilt temple and Jerusalem following the song “Adir Hu.” The city is devoid of Messiah figures or any people at all, appearing fully formed and nearly divine, without the stain of humanity’s failed Messiahs. While Amsterdam’s Jews enjoyed peace and prosperity for the next nearly 500 years, the Jewish community never lost their faith in a redemption for all Jews and a utopian return to the land of Israel.


Wishing you all a joyous Passover with the hope that we celebrate together next year in Jerusalem!