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    Best-sellers in the Middle Ages

    How different this Pesach is from those of the Middle Ages.

    Mah Nishtanah, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, 1350

    Mah Nishtanah, from the Sarajevo Haggadah, 1350

    In those days printing had not been invented (nor of course computers), so Haggadot were not as profusely published and widely sold as today. If you had a Haggadah it would be in manuscript form, a valuable heirloom, one per family if you were lucky!

    Most people would have had to rely on memory, which was a problem for those who found memorising difficult.

    Some communities had walking Haggadot, experts who knew the Haggadah by heart and conducted a Seder for one or more family groups apart from their own, moving on from house to house before coming home… the original walkie-talkies!

    Complications were caused by the constant persecutions and expulsions of Jewish communities, who often had little chance of packing their goods to take on their way to a hoped-for new haven.

    Many of the end-of-Seder songs were not yet known, so the Haggadah was shorter than today.

    If a family enjoyed stability they could hold a Haggadah for centuries. Talented artists worked long and hard on Haggadah manuscripts, producing illuminated versions that have sometimes come down to us (and raise vast sums if they find their way to auction sales). 30-40 such Haggadot are extant, remarkable pieces of art, some now reproduced in facsimile.

    These include the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah written in Catalonia and the Golden (i.e. gold-leaf) Haggadah, a treasure of the British Library. An attempt at creating an artistic 20th century Haggadah was made by Arthur Szyk, using one of Cecil Roth’s texts. The illustrated Haggadot depict Biblical scenes using clothing styles of their times. Some even mimic church art styles and are part of cultural history.

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