Archive for Holidays

Purim: Something for everyone

The holiday of Purim, which occurs on the 14th day of the month of Adar on the Hebrew calendar, is one that is filled with highs and lows, darkness and joy – dichotomies that are particularly striking.  Heralding back to the biblical story documented in the Book of Esther, which is read on the holiday, the celebration of the victorious Jewish community in Persia is filled with drama, confusion and a deep plot – enough so that it might even make a great blockbuster film.

Although the story is complex and highlights interpersonal relationships, internal and external community issues, as well as geography, faith and monarchical rule– the modern celebration often includes items mentioned directly within the text.  The tradition of celebrating the holiday with merriment, sending gifts to others and presents to the poor continues until today in many communities worldwide.  What is truly is interesting is that although it is a time of partying and celebration there is a clear recognition to consider others.

Merriment and joy are carried through in the various activities and celebrations of the holiday – whether through Purim plays (that are often comedic, slapstick, or can be a representation of the story of Purim replete with costumes), dressing up in costume (which can evoke the main characters of the Purim story or can be completely creative), sumptuous meals, the giving of Mishloah Manot (gifts of food to friends) and even through all of the happiness, one should still recognize those in need through the distribution of Matanot L’evyonim (gifts of charity).

Traditional and modern commentators find many interesting nuances within the Book of Esther to comment upon, whether it is family relationships, gender and leadership roles.

Purim and Hanukah are often placed in a similar category, there are similarities – but of course there are differences. Among the similarities of the two holidays is the addition in the prayer liturgy and Grace After Meals (Birkat HaMazon) of the ‘Al HaNissim supplication that notes the various particular events and miracles ascribed with the holiday. These two holidays differ in areas such as length of celebration, related narrative inclusion in the biblical canon, type of observance – but like many of the Jewish holidays each one has distinctive food associated with the holiday.  For many Purim equals Hamantaschen, a triangular shaped cookie filled with anything from prune or raspberry jam to chocolate chips, meant to evoke the ear or hat of the character Haman in the story of Esther.

An innovation that dates from the medieval period is that of communal local Purim celebrations in communities worldwide – each notes a time when a community or family was saved from peril.  While commemorations and celebrations of local Purims vary, some include special prayers, reading of a special created scroll detailing the story of thanksgiving and a celebratory meal.

Consider browsing our library collection – from biblical commentaries, Purim plays, cookbooks to curricula, storybooks and illuminated manuscripts, we have something for everyone this Purim!

Hare Hunting in the Haggadah

Just why are there so many rabbit hunting scenes in early Haggadot? The Klau Cincinnati Library explores this question in their latest exhibit.

The term YaKNeHaZ—also pronounced YaKN-HaZ—is an acronym composed of the initial letters of five Hebrew words: yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman.  It is a “seman,” a mnemonic aid to remembering the correct order of the blessings of the kiddush and the havdalah when Passover coincides with the conclusion of Shabbat.  If we tum to the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Pesahim, 102b-103a, we learn that Abaye taught that the correct order for these prayers was YaKaZNaH; while Rabba maintained it was YaKNeHaZ, and the halachah is according to Rabba.

In the earliest manuscript siddurim and haggadot, including the Mahzor Vitri and the Seder Rav Amram Gaon, as well as the Birds Head Haggadah and the Kauffmann Haggadah, the seman YakNeHaZ appears either before or immediately after the kiddush and havdalah prayers. This practice of including this seman continued through the centuries in both manuscript and then printed haggadot, but began to disappear from printed haggadot in the nineteenth century

YakNeHaZ sounds similar to the German phrase “jag den Häs, hunt the hare.”  At some time unknown to us, and most likely in a German- speaking region, an artist illuminating a Haggadah decided that the insertion of a hare-hunt scene at this point in the liturgy was a suitably amusing piece of artistic whimsy, a punning pictorial witticism.

We have no data that reveals exactly when some illuminator first inserted a hare-hunt scene in a Haggadah adjacent to the seman yaknehaz or the kiddush which includes the havdalah.

Indeed, the attempt to find some solution to this question is potentially clouded by the prevalence of hare-hunting scenes in the broad genre of European manuscript illustration and in the narrower area of Jewish illuminated manuscripts.  From the pre-Carolingian era, the hare hunt was a recurring motif in European illuminated manuscripts.  In one type of image, a dog or dogs chase a hare or hares.  In another, individuals, armed with various weapons and accompanied by dogs, chase after a hare or hares.  In one style the hunter holds a boar spear—a spear with a large head and a cross-piece to prevent a charging boar “running-up” the spear and goring the hunter with its tusks—which certainly seems to be ironic overkill when hunting a rabbit!

Hamburg-Altona. 1740/1741. Written and illuminated by Jankew Sofer ben Rabbi Judah Loeb, Shamash of Berlin.

In the Ashkenazi Haggadah, produced in the south of Germany around 1460 and illustrated by Joel ben Simeon Feibusch, there is neither liturgical direction nor seman; the illustration appears on the bottom of the page which contains the blessing for ner, and part of the havdalah. The image itself has come to represent the vocalization of the seman, that is “jag den Häs = YaKNHa”Z.”

First Cincinnati Haggadah. 15th century. In this famous example from the First Cincinnati Haggadah, produced in southern Germany towards the end of the fifteenth century, we see that the scribe, Meir ben Israel Jaffe of Heidelberg, has written the seman as part of his liturgical directions, and then "spelled­out" the seman underneath as five words. Immediately under these words is the hare-hunt scene.

Conegliano Haggadah, 1742/1743

Like the Ashkenazi Haggadah, the Washington Haggadah was also illuminated by Joel ben Simeon. As is common in medieval Haggadah illustration, we see an armed man next to the beginning of the paragraph beginning “Tse, u-lemad, Go forth and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to Jacob our father. Pharaoh only decreed concerning the males; but Laban sought to destroy all, as it is written ‘An Aramaean destroying my father’. " If you look carefully, you will see that the drawing of a hare has been incorporated into the rubrication surrounding the word "va-yered'' beginning the very next paragraph. What we have here in the Washington Haggadah is a "hare hunt," with a hunter and a hare. The image of the armed man represents Laban, who is out hunting for Jacob, represented here by the rabbit hiding in the rubrication.

Moss Haggadah. When European Jews included hare hunt scenes in their Haggadot, I suspected that their sympathies lay with the hare! It seems to me that this apparently incongruous hare-hunting scene found its way into these European Haggadot precisely because it represented the image of the persecuted Jews. I became suddenly obsessed with images of hares and their relentless huntsmen. Then, at one point, my focus shifted from the human hunter of the hare to its natural predators. I caught a glimpse of a stark and powerful new image: that of the eagle. I began tracking down this bird of prey in zoology and mythology, heraldry and human history. I’ve collected some of these images on page 7b, adding only the hares which appear in the eagles’ clutches. … The last panel shows the hare which, always, somehow, manages to escape." —David Moss, A Song of David, Commentary

Barcelona Haggadah. The Barcelona Haggadah is a most exquisite fifteenth century work produced in the Catalan region of Spain. There are several different types of hound-hunter-hare vignettes that are depicted in this work. On the YaKeNHaZ page, one hound has caught sight of a hare, the other just sits there. On the facing page, in the bottom left, we see a rabbit emerging from the foliage; the rabbit seems to be chasing the dog. In the left panel, a dog with a hunting horn and a shield and dagger seems ready to do battle with a rabbit, armed either with a carrot or some sort of spear head. On the page following the kiddush for weeknight, at the bottom of the page, we see a hunter, with horn, and a staff from which seem to hang hares already caught. We also have a pack of hounds, and a hare.


Sarajevo Haggadah. Perhaps the single best known Jewish illuminated manuscript is the Sarajevo Hagadah, produced in Spain during the 14th century. We see here a hound chasing a hare, separated by the words "min ha'aretz." Turning back to the preceding page, we find the motivation for this image in the text, where the Egyptians plot the destruction of the Israelites: "... Let us, then, deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and in the event of war, join our enemies in fighting against us and gain ascendancy over the country." Egypt is the dog; Israel the hare. The phrase "gain ascendancy over the country" translates the Hebrew "ve-'alah min ha-'aretz,” which can be rendered literally: “And he sprang up from the earth." The hound takes off after the rabbit as it springs up from cover.


Rare Mahzorim at your Fingertips

At this time of year, many of us are spending much time with our mahzor. While many of us are using the Gates of Repentance, Birnbaum or Koren, (I use the excellent Goldschmidt critical edition) many variations of the liturgy exist in manuscripts in the HUC collection and beyond.

Not long ago, using manuscripts for liturgy research involved traveling to rare book rooms around the world or looking at microfilm in the basement of the National Library of Israel (Department of Manuscripts and The Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts – National Library). Progressively, the digitization of Hebrew manuscripts gives librarians and scholars the opportunity to view manuscripts without leaving one’s chair. The manuscripts or Jewish prayer books are a great resource for Jewish art, liturgy, history and more.  Entering “mahzor” or “siddur” into Google gives you the Wikipedia articles ( and, which provide a good introduction to the mahzor and siddur.Once you get oriented, it is time to begin seeing the world of Jewish liturgy on the Web.

images from Worms mazhor

Worms Mazhor

You may want to start with the National Library of Israel manuscript collection website that has a few good examples of mahzorim, including the famous Worms Mahzor, copied in 1272.

image from Nuremberg mahzor

Nuremberg mahzor

There is also the beautifully illustrated Nuremberg Mahzor copied in 1331. The website includes an introduction to the manuscripts as well as scholarly articles related to them. ( and

Another website that includes many manuscripts, including mahzorim, is the Braginsky collection. This is a must-see website for anyone interested in manuscripts. This private collection includes beautifully illustrated manuscripts of Ketubot, Passover Hagadot, Megilot Esther and more. The website allows you to englarge the high-resolution images to see a very fine level of detail.

Another research tool for finding rare books is the website. Just type in Mahzor using the virtual Hebrew keyboard and find hundreds of titles which can all be viewed online or downloaded. Dozens of these mahzorim are from the 16thcentury, which are very valuable in liturgical study.

However, for those of you who prefer to see and touch the manuscripts (like me), the Klau Library in Cincinnati has a good collection of mahzorim including some from the 14thcentury.

Shana Tova!

Gifts, Gifts, and more Gifts ?!

Yes, we’re approaching that most “consumerish” time of the year.  With my kids getting older and my house filled with “stuff” I’m wondering again at how to get through 8 nights of gift-giving.   A Different Light : the Hanukkah book of celebration by Noam Sachs Zions and Barbara Spectre has 8 great suggestions.

  1. Everyone gives/receives from everyone.  Assign each family member a night and have them give a gift to everyone at the table on their night.
  2. Homemade gifts. Arts, crafts, jewelry, personalized objects …
  3. “Secret Admirer” gifts.  Have everyone draw a name out of a hat to give a gift annonymously
  4. Gelt giving and Tzedakah.  Give each family member a gift of cash and invite them to donate a portion to tzedakah which you will match (or double or …)
  5. Grab bag. Have everyone bring a wrapped gift and then take turns drawing them out of a bag.
  6. Quality time gifts. Give certificates for spending time together doing a favorite activity.
  7. Edible food gifts. Bring homebaked (or not) goodies to a Hanukkah party, but also bring canned good to be donated to the homeless.
  8. Give of yourself.  Give certificates for services that you can do for family and friends (cleaning, shopping, cooking, etc.)

I’m sure that some of these ideas will help out at my house.  Wishing you all a wonderful Hanukkah filled with light!