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Rare Medieval Hebrew Manuscript to be Displayed at Metropolitan Museum

The Washington Haggadah—one of the most important illustrated Hebrew manuscripts preserved in an American public collection and an unprecedented loan from the Library of Congress—will be shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning April 5, to coincide with the observance of Passover later that month. A Haggadah is the book used at the Passover seder, the ritual meal that commemorates the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt. Although the essential components of the text were established in the second century, the Haggadah was first made into an independent, illustrated book in the Middle Ages. The manuscript will remain on view through June 26.

With captivating images in tempera and gold on parchment, the Washington Haggadah bears the date January 29, 1478, and the signature of the renowned scribe and illuminator Joel ben Simeon. Born in Cologne around 1420, Joel ben Simeon worked in both Germany and northern Italy. Ten Hebrew manuscripts bearing his signature survive, and haggadot were something of a specialty. Certain details of the text of the Washington Haggadah—including an early, specific reference to horseradish as the bitter herb to be used at the meal—distinguish this book as one created while Joel ben Simeon was working in Germany.

The Haggadah offers particularly strong testimony to the vitality of visual arts in Jewish life. Its margins display numerous depictions of medieval Jews preparing for and participating in the seder: removing leavened bread from the house and burning it, roasting the lamb, and drinking wine.

The Haggadah will be displayed alongside contemporary works of medieval art in other media, including German glass vessels and Italian ceramics similar to those shown in the manuscript.

Among nearly 20,000 Hebrew books in the Library of Congress (the earliest of which come from Thomas Jefferson's library), the Washington Haggadah, purchased before 1920, is of unique importance as a work of art. Its presentation at the Metropolitan Museum inaugurates a series of loans, each of which will focus on a single, illuminated medieval Hebrew manuscript. Over the next three years, one by one, a Hebrew manuscript from an American or European library will be showcased in the medieval art galleries of the Metropolitan Museum's main building, set in the context of related treasures from the Museum's collection.

This series is made possible in part by The David Berg Foundation.

This notable series of loans builds upon an ongoing program of important loans of Hebrew manuscripts from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

A facsimile edition of the Washington Haggadah will be available in the Metropolitan Museum's book shops ($39.95). Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press and by the Library of Congress, the book features a translation and annotation of the text and an introduction by David Stern, the Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of Classical Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and an introduction by Katrin Kogman-Appel, Associate Professor of the Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

In a pair of lectures on Thursday, April 7, at 2:00 p.m. in the Museum's Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Katrin Kogman-Appel and David Stern will explore aspects of the Haggadah  The program is free with Museum admission.

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March 18, 2011

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