Discovering the Bird’s Head Haggadah

Jews around the world recently concluded the yearly celebration of Pesach (Passover), the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. I’ve previously posted about stories of birds in the Torah, and even how birds accompanied the Jewish people as they crossed the Red Sea in the Exodus from bondage in Egypt.

But it was such a busy time just prior to Pesach that I never got around to blogging about an interesting discovery I made this year – An intriguing link between the Passover holiday and Birds!

There are many, many variations (traditional and modern) on the Haggadah, the story which is told during the Seder, the festive meal celebrated on the eve of Passover – two are pictured above. This year, I was fascinated to discover several resources about a Haggadah I’d never heard of – an incredible late 13th Century illustrated manuscript known as the Bird’s Head Haggadah!

The Israel Museum - Jerusalem

The Israel Museum – Jerusalem

This remarkable treasure is housed in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

coll IMJ  Photo (c) IMJ, By Moshe CaineThroughout this very unique, illuminated Haggadah, the Jewish characters are all depicted with bird-like heads. The Bird’s Head Haggadah is “the oldest surviving Ashkenazi illuminated manuscript (S. German, c. 1300), [and] derives its name from the birdlike human figures illustrated in the manuscript’s margins.” (Source: Historically, this birds-head imagery was attributed to the illustrators’ strict adherence to a rabbinic prohibition against depicting the human face or figure in Jewish religious texts.

Koren Bird's Head

Koren Publisher’s (2008) interactive Bird’s Head Haggadah, complete with pop-up figures and moveable scenes

Brilliant and insightful study by Marc Michael Epstein, Professor of Religion at Vassar College, has brought much greater depth to our understanding of the Bird’s Head Haggadah in recent years.  Epstein published a highly informative text called The Medieval Haggadah, Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (2011), in which he offers in-depth analysis of four medieval Haggadot, one of which is the Bird’s Head Haggadah.  In a recorded lecture on the topic, Epstein referred to this manuscript as a “perpetual enigma”, and proposed that the heads on these figures are not merely “Birds” as such, but rather “Griffins”, a composite eagle-lion creature. His interpretation provides an entirely new perspective to this remarkable work.

A stunning, brand new publication edited by Epstein, Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts (Princeton University Press, 2015), includes further invaluable scholarship on the Bird’s Head Haggadah. This magnificent book is truly a work of art in itself. Marc Michael Epstein is now the Mattie M. Paschall and Norman Davis Chair of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College.

To learn more about the Bird’s Head Haggadah, see this article in the Jewish Press, and also this article in the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.

4 thoughts on “Discovering the Bird’s Head Haggadah

  1. I learn so much from your posts. I was married to a Jewish guy for three years (not now though) and attended Synagogue, seder, and other religious holidays, but I never even heard the name Pesach for Passover. BTW, I did not like Jewish food. Boy was that a change, even more than losing Christmas. I like all the bird references and never saw that before either.

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