An Obligation of Sight: Depictions of Suffering in the Haggadah

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Ranana Dine

“In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.” – Passover Haggadah and Mishnah Pesahim 10:5.

On the night of Passover we are famously commanded to tell over the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the miraculous redemption of the Israelite slaves, our ancestors, by our God. But we are not only commanded to tell the story; we are supposed to imagine ourselves as those very ancestors, to put ourselves in their shoes. Notably, the Haggadah uses the language of sight to express this command. We not only listen to the words of the Haggadah being read aloud or sung, we not only taste the bitter herbs; we are supposed to see ourselves as those ancient Israelites. And so comes the richly illustrated Haggadah to help us envision the slavery in Egypt, God’s miracles, and the playing out of Passover traditions throughout the generations.

This command to visually experience our liberation was made literal in the work of contemporary Israeli artist David Moss. In his spectacular Haggadah, Moss uses an image of a collection of miniature portraits of Jews of all different time periods, races, and cultures lying next to tiny Mylar mirrors to illustrate the verse from Mishnah Pesahim. The mirrors and the portraits allow us to see both ourselves and this varied collection of past and present Jews, all participating in the Passover Seder. Our physical image, along with those of the Jews depicted on the page before us, are here, now, in the mirror, experiencing the Exodus.

It is likely that Jews would have made illustrated Haggadot even without the Mishnah’s particular language of sight in mind, but the Mishnah’s words encouraged the creation of visually stunning Haggadot, eventually leading the text to become one of the richest spaces for visual creativity within traditional Judaism. We have had illuminated and illustrated Haggadot for about as long as we have had the text,[1] and the proliferation of versions in modernity only points to the popularity of the text and visual accompaniments for it. I cannot think of another Jewish text that many American Jewish families have multiple copies of, including copies purchased solely for their aesthetic beauty – the Haggadah is unique in this way.

The Haggadah, however, is also a distinctive space for the depiction of suffering and evil. Obviously the story ends well for the Israelites; they are freed, redeemed, watch their tormentors drown, and become God’s chosen people. But throughout that narrative they suffer significantly, and the Egyptians suffer even more. Haggadah illustrators, particularly the Medieval illuminators who made such exquisite and imaginative manuscripts as the Rylands Haggadah and the Golden Haggadah, did not shy away from depicting the Egyptians’ horrific punishments. But what does it mean for us to spend time looking at images of Egyptians covered in boils, drowning in the splitting of the sea, or mourning the deaths of their first borns? Should humanity even be allowed to make images of these and similar horrors?

Probing the ethics of imagemaking, particularly when it comes to violence and suffering, is often approached as a modern problem. Photography and video have given humanity access to direct visualizations that “witness” destruction in the moment. The theorist Susan Sontag, for example, implicated photography in particular as changing the modern condition when it came to images of war: a photograph, unlike a painting, is a “record, from very near, of a real person’s unspeakably awful mutilation; that and nothing else.”[2] But the iconography of suffering, as Sontag also points out, “has a long pedigree.”[3] And for the original viewers of Medieval Haggadot, although the images may not appear realistic, they were about as close as one could get to visually experiencing the suffering that took place during the Exodus.

And so, some of the famous Medieval Haggadot give ample visual space to the plagues and the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea. In the Golden Haggadah, one of the most famous and beautifully decorated of Medieval Haggadot, likely written and illustrated in Barcelona in the early 14th century, one can see a despondent Pharaoh scratching at his lice, Egyptians dropping dead animals off a tower during the plague of dever, and a bereaved Egyptian woman cradling her dead first-born in a pose reminiscent of the Christian pieta figure.[4] Significantly, both Egyptians and Israelites in the manuscript are dressed in contemporary fashion, and these scenes served as a space to play out the “drama of the relationship” between Jews and Christians in Medieval Spain.[5] To that end, both Jews and Egyptians appear as upper class aristocrats, and the Egyptians are not made to appear as inhuman monsters. As Professor Marc Epstein points out, it is in the gestures of the Egyptians that their pain and suffering is expressed, rather than in extreme violence or gore.[6] A sense of Jewish triumphalism is kept at bay, and the suffering of the Egyptians, particularly the loss of children, something shared by both Israelites and Egyptians in this Haggadah’s illustrations, is depicted with great sensitivity and empathy.

By contrast, the Medieval Haggadah known as the Rylands Haggadah, created in Catalonia between 1330-1340, took the opportunity to revel in the punishments of the Egyptians and depict the full triumph of the Israelites over their oppressors. In the various images of the plagues descending on the Egyptians, including Makat Bekhorot, Israelites can be seen pointing to and mocking the sufferers.[7] Looking at the images of the plagues in the Rylands Haggadah, a Jewish viewer would immediately associate herself with the triumphant Israelites, watching and mocking the Egyptians’ torture, and thus becoming a voyeur twice over.

The Haggadah also gave Jewish patrons an opportunity to artistically depict, through the medium of Jewish text and midrash, their own contemporary suffering. Medieval Haggadot are famous for incorporating midrashic interpretations of the Exodus story into their illustrations. One more gruesome midrash that made its way into the illuminations of Haggadot in Ashkenaz is that of Pharaoh being afflicted with leprosy and bathing in the blood of Jewish babies in order to cure the disease. Exodus 2:23 states that after “A long time after that, Pharaoh died,” prompting Rashi to note: “He was stricken with leprosy and would slaughter Israelite babies and bathe in their blood.”[8] David Malkiel explains that the depiction of Pharaoh’s illness and gory cure was popular in fifteenth-century Germany, where Jews were being accused of the traditional blood libel. In at least one record, one of the accused Jews under torture answered that he had murdered a Christian child in order to treat leprosy.[9] The earliest depiction of the leprous Pharaoh appeared in the Hileq and Bileq Haggadah, usually dated to around 1450, and appeared in several later Germanic Haggadot and prayer books. The scene eventually made it into early printed Haggadot including the 1526 Prague Haggadah and the 1609 Venice Haggadah.[10] The renderings of the midrashic interpretation thus provided a popular outlet for Jews to reflect on their own contemporary, deeply felt persecution, and cast it back into Biblical history.

And so, what of our Haggadot today? Although it would be impossible to survey the illustrations in all contemporary Haggadot – there are simply too many of them – I think there is a general trend to move away from exploring the more gruesome suffering of the Israelites and Egyptians. When I think of my own family Seders and the telling over of the plagues, I hear the wonderful children’s song about how frogs were truly everywhere, and see the proliferation of plague masks and finger puppets. Some modern Haggadot still beautifully and tragically depict the plagues and the drowning of the Egyptians; the Szyk Haggadah, made by Arthur Szyk in Poland between 1934 and 1936, comes to mind, although it too was made in an era of oppression, during the rise of Hitler. Arthur Szyk includes a full plate devoted to the drowning of the Egyptians in which the viewer sees the Egyptians arms and spears flailing as they are covered by turbulent waves. But overall the trend I believe is to treat the suffering of the Egyptians stylistically, comically, or as entertainment for children.[11]

Interestingly, this tendency to overlook the experience of suffering in the Exodus story is not the case ritually. In the seder itself we pause and take stock of the suffering of our own people and of the Egyptians through ritual and sensory actions like eating maror and haroset, which represent the bitterness of slavery and the slaves’ building materials respectively. We take ten drops of wine out of our cups for the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues, and we do not recite full Hallel during the last six days of Passover because of the death of the Egyptians at the splitting of the sea. I remember being taught in high school the exquisite midrash from Megillah 10b about how the angels were admonished for wanting to celebrate the drowning of the Egyptians at Yam Suf since, as God said, “The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs?” Through these acts and texts we continue to ritually remember the Egyptians’ suffering and even suffer a little ourselves, while perhaps ignoring the tortures of the Egyptians (and our own ancestors) in our visual encounter with the Exodus story.

Although we continue to enact these representations of the Israelites’ and Egyptians’ physical suffering, visually today we appear to be more interested in a different type of evil: the domestic disquiet represented by the four sons. No contemporary Haggadah is complete without a richly illustrated depiction of these four famous Seder participants. The different personalities and choices represented by each son gives artists a chance to visually explore our values. What do we think of as good? Those qualities will be depicted accompanying the wise son. Conversely, what are we afraid of for our children? What is the worst they can turn into? The wicked son is a chance to visually imagine these fears. And unsurprisingly these fears are culturally contingent.

In some of the early printed Haggadot the wicked son is a soldier, and earlier in Medieval Haggadot he was similarly depicted as a warrior or knight. An 1847 Haggadah from Amsterdam depicts the wicked son as a caveman. In early twentieth century American Haggadot he is a sportsman or boxer.[12] The Szyk Haggadah has him as an assimilated leisure hunter. The Let My People Go” Haggadah, created during the height of the Soviet Jewry movement, has the wicked son depicted as a fat Soviet Commissar, smoking a cigar lighted from a hanukiah. My favorite childhood Haggadah, the claymation Animated Haggadah, has him as a rebellious teenager, with a safety pin in his ear and a recalcitrant expression. In a recent depiction of the “four daughters,” the wise daughter wears a kippah, pantsuit, and studies Talmud, while the rebellious daughter is a hippie protesting for abortion rights and against animal testing.

When we look at the four sons, we envision our hopes and fears for our families, and ask what does wisdom look like? What does rebelliousness look like? Although the wicked son’s questioning does not operate on the same scale as the suffering that appears in regards to the plagues, Yam Suf, or the Israelites’ slavery, depictions of the rebellious child reflect a small scale domestic tragedy. It is the suffering that is close to us, the child turned away, who does not appreciate our rituals, culture, and tradition and has instead chosen a path that is perhaps close by, but foreign to us and our values.

Illustrated Haggadot are a tool that allow us to “see” ourselves, reflected in the faces and the bodies on the page in front of us who left Egypt, thousands of years ago. Famously, Rambam, in the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hamtez u-Matzah 7:6, wrote that we are required liharot – to show ourselves leaving Egypt – rather than simply lirot – to see ourselves as having left – inspiring many Seder night theatrical performances. Although people usually take the language of liharot as a call to dramatically act out the Exodus, the making of Haggadah illustrations, particularly ones of Jews in contemporary dress like in the Medieval manuscripts, can be understood as fulfilling the need to “show ourselves” as participants in this legendary drama. But like all good art and artmaking, Haggadah illustrations are also a commentary on our sensibilities, culture, and values. Depictions of Egyptian suffering can be triumphant and voyeuristic, or sensitive and empathetic. Illustrations of Israelite suffering can be a place to express the real and always present pain of persecution and antisemitism. The Haggadah text offers space for imagining tragedy on a grand cosmic scale, and on the intimate level of the family, whose sons and daughters are all headed in very different directions. So when we read our Haggadot this Seder night, do not think the pictures are just for fun or for kids. They are a rich reflection of our values and fears, raise questions about what we should depict and what we should see, and are a powerful tool for fulfilling the central mitzvah of the Seder night. The illustrations allow us to visualize the Exodus like we were there, to truly see ourselves as those slaves, experiencing the miracle of freedom.

[1] Marc Epstein, “Illustrating History and Illuminating Identity in the Art of the Passover Haggadah” in Judaism in Practice, ed. Lawrence Fine (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 298.

[2] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Picador, 2003), 42. The video live-streaming of the recent horrific attacks on the mosques in New Zealand tragically brings these questions of witnessing and image-making again to the fore.

[3] Ibid., 40.

[4] Marc Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah, (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2011), 197.

[5] Ibid., 171.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 229.

[8] Rashi’s commentary is based on Shemot Rabbah 1:34.

[9] David J. Malkiel, “Infanticide in Passover Iconography,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 56 (1993): 85.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Again, there are contemporary Haggadot that do include this imagery of suffering, including The Katz Passover Haggadah and the recently released Passover Haggadah Graphic Novel.

[12] J.D. Eisenstein, Hagaddah for Passover, 1928, quoted in David Geffen, The American Heritage Haggadah (Jerusalem, New York: Gefen Books, 1997), 19

Ranana Dine is a PhD student at the University of Chicago, focusing in religious ethics. She is also a research assistant in medical ethics at the University of Chicago hospital and the managing editor of IMAGES: A Journal of Jewish Art and Culture. She studied theology and medical humanities as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, and majored in art and religion at Williams College. She has studied at the Drisha Institute and Mechon Hadar.