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The Washington Haggadah Is Subject of New Publication

After the Bible, the haggadah is the most widely read classic text in the Jewish tradition. Read during Passover, this religious text tells each new generation the story of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. More than 4,000 editions have been published since the late-15th century, but few are as exquisite as the Washington Haggadah, produced by Joel ben Simeon in 1478 and housed in the Library of Congress. A stunning facsimile edition will be published in March by Harvard University Press in association with the Library of Congress.

The Washington Haggadah: Joel ben Simeon faithfully preserves the original text of the Passover night liturgy, with the Hebrew facsimile appearing in the original right-to-left orientation. Illustrated with meticulously reproduced illuminated panels, the volume will be read and treasured by anyone interested in Jewish history, medieval illuminated manuscripts and the history of the haggadah.

Joel ben Simeon was among the most gifted and prolific scribe-artists in the history of the Jewish book. His biography is recounted in the facsimile edition's introduction by David Stern, Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Stern traces the different forms of the text in the Jewish centers of Europe at the dawn of modernity.

In an essay included in the book, Katrin Kogman-Appel, associate professor of the Arts at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, shows how Joel ben Simeon, more than just a copyist, was an agent of cultural exchange. As he traveled among Jewish communities, he brought elements of Ashkenazi haggadah illustration to Italy and returned with stylistic devices acquired during his journeys. In addition to traditional Passover images, realistic illustrations of day-to-day life provide a rare window into the world of late-15th-century Europe.

The Hebraic Section—one of the world's leading centers for Hebrew and Yiddish studies—was established in 1914 as part of the Division of Semitica and Oriental Literature. A gift of 10,000 volumes collected by bibliographer and bookseller Ephraim Deinard and donated to the Library by philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff in 1912 and 1914 formed the nucleus of the collection. Purchased by Deinard in Mantua, Italy, Joel ben Simeon's haggadah came to the Library in 1916 along with the Third Deinard Collection comprising 2,300 items. The item was cataloged as "Hebraic Manuscript #1" and later referred to as "The Washington Haggadah" in connection with its home in the nation's capital.

Published March 2, 2011

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