Haggadah Typography through the Ages

In every generation, each person is required to see themselves as if they came out of Egypt.
—Passover haggadah

Cairo Geniza Haggadah

Haggadah from the Cairo Geniza, likely the oldest yet known, dating from around the 10th century.

The Passover haggadah holds a special place on the Jewish bookshelf. Unlike a torah scroll or megillah, it is not a ritual object. Unlike a bible, its contents and layout are not subject to codes and conventions. Unlike a siddur or mahzor, it is not used ceremoniously in regimented communal prayer. Unlike a talmud or typical other work of exegesis, it is short and self-contained and not exclusive to the learned. Instead, it is a layered book of prayers, teachings, and songs, used privately at home with family and friends who join together to celebrate and learn in one of the most enduring Jewish rituals, the Passover Seder. By design, the Seder encourages participation by attendees of all ages and backgrounds, and that universality makes the haggadah the most creatively designed book throughout Jewish history. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting haggadot over the last thousand and a bit years for a glimpse into how Jews have taken the styles and tools of the day and created works of lasting beauty. With an eye on type, of course.

Darmstadt Haggadah

Darmstadt Haggadah, currently at Universitäts-und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt. See another amazing page here.

A number of haggadot were found in the Cairo Geniza. They are humble texts, written on paper, primarily in Oriental hands somewhere in the Middle East. While later haggadot were produced as stand-alone volumes, these early haggadot were included in compilation books of various prayers. Judging by the unfussy way they were written, they seem to have been assembled by the end user for personal use rather than commissioned by a scribe. Some, like the one shown here, are evidence to a long-lost Palestinian rite, which was later subsumed by other traditions after the Crusades devastated Palestinian Jewry. These are the oldest haggadot extant.

Around that time, illuminating manuscripts became in vogue in Europe as a way to elevate the status of books deemed holy or important. As a fan of illustrative typography, likely my favorite Ashkenazi Haggadah is the Darmstadt Haggadah, created around 1430 in the upper Rhine. Its Ashkenazi provenance is clear from the unmistakable crisp lines and sharp corners of the Ashkenazi Hebrew square script. The initial word and letter panels and the illustration style are adapted right from medieval German Christian manuscripts. It’s also possible that the illustration was done in a Christian workshop. Either way, I enjoy the idea that Rabbis Eliezer, Yosi, Elazar ben Azariah, Akiba, and Tarfon are studying in a Bnei Brak replete with vaulted arches and Gothic spires.

Hamilton Siddur

Hamilton Siddur, currently at the Berlin State Library. Download the entire book here. I’d love to print it out and use it at the Seder one day.

Meanwhile in Spain, Sephardi Jews were putting their own spin on things. The Umayyad conquest of Hispania in 711 AD put Iberian Jews under Muslim influence, and that influence is very noticeable in manuscripts like the Burgos Bible/Damascus Keter. Aspects of French, Italian, and Oriental design all find their way into Sephardi manuscripts, along with very inventive original interpretations. The Hamilton Siddur, dating from the early 14th century, has characteristic Sephardi lettering: supple, curving strokes drawn with a brush-like reed, rather than the precise Ashkenazi quills. The most exciting feature of this haggadah is the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic lettering, where entire words are built out of grotesque animals and people.

prague haggadah

Prague Haggadah. View the whole book here.

After the invention of the printing press in 1450, illumination largely fell out of style because of the cost and difficulty of including etchings or woodcuts with movable type. The haggadah, however, stood as a notable exception to that rule, as it was for use by families, and was printed with fascinating illustrations over the centuries. The first typefaces for the printing press were based on local lettering styles, and the Ashkenazi type of the Prague Haggadah of 1526, the first printed illustrated haggadah, is truly marvelous. Notice in the page shown here that the typesetters use a kind of backwards nun character to indicate an incomplete word reproduced on the next line, approximating how it would be done in a printed manuscript. Splitting words like this allowed text to be justified full, making a clean rectangle out of the text, similar to how we use hyphens now.1 Hebrew publishing in Italy by Daniel Bomberg and the Soncino family and their successors utilized Sephardi-derived typefaces, and their success eventually led to Ashkenazi type being supplanted by Sephardi type over the next century and a half.

Hand-drawn and lettered illuminated haggadah manuscripts made a resurgence in the 18th century as wealthy German and Austrian Jews commissioned haggadot as precious family heirlooms. The Copenhagen Haggadah, created in Altona, Hamburg in Germany in 1739, is a great example of this, which you can view at the Royal Library of Denmark’s digital collection. Look closely at the type and see that, despite the book’s German origin, the type is not Ashkenazi which had largely fallen out of use by this time, but a replication of Sephardi-derived fonts used in printed books.

The late 19th and early 20th century saw a revival of interest in Jewish history and culture, and no doubt inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, Jewish artisans began to craft remarkable books. With title pages reminiscent of William Morris, the bible printed in 1933 in Berlin by the Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches (Soncino Society of the Friends of the Jewish Book, named after the historic Soncino printing family) utilized a typeface based on that of the Prague Haggadah in a nod to Ashkenazic Jewry’s ancestral typographic heritage.

Szyk Haggadah

Szyk Haggadah

In 1932, Polish-born illustrator Arthur Szyk began his masterpiece haggadah, completing and publishing it in London in 1940. Szyk was transfixed by ancient illuminated manuscripts, and melded historic conventions with his inimitable touch. True to his source material, the entire Hebrew text is hand-lettered, albeit in a style equal parts Ashkenazi calligraphy and Didone. There has been quite a bit written about the symbolism in Szyk’s haggadah, particularly his allusions to the threat of Nazi Germany, and I’d recommend googling his life and work. My grandmother had a copy of the 1960 edition, which was my haggadah of choice at the seder for many years.

Moss haggadah

Moss Haggadah

David Moss also took a historic approach in creating his haggadah in the 1980s. During three years of extensive research and design, Moss integrated Jewish craft and visual references from across Jewish history into his pages. Hearkening back to Sephardic manuscripts, he drew illustrative initial words, laced his text with micrography (a Jewish invention), utilized partial letters and words to fill out lines of text, and even vocalized his text with a different pen, as if it was done later by another hand, which it often was back in the day. He also added paper-cuts (a Jewish folk craft), traditional depictions of characters and events  (like the Jester for the son who doesn’t know how to ask, as he appeared in Italian manuscripts), and clever incorporation of Jewish history with his own interpretation of the text (see the B’chol dor va-dor spread). It is a masterpiece, yet a very backward-looking one. Is there something else that speaks to Jews today?

Asufa haggadah

Asufa haggadot from 2015 and 2013 with select pages. Both the 2013 and 2015 editions are available in the US from Print-O-Craft.

This Pesach I bought two new haggadot after seeing a blurb online. Asufa is an Israeli design collective who have issued haggadot annually for the last few years with each page designed by a different artist. I was excited by the covers alone. (Hen Macabi’s urban-inspired calligraphy for the 2015 edition in particular is stunning.) Many of the artists use digital drawing tools and all bring in a contemporary aesthetic from their creative subculture of choice. Liya Ophir recasts the plague counting of Rabbis Yosi, Eliezer, and Akiva as a computer-generated diagram, Meir Sadan channels 8-bit games, while Bina Katz goes lo-fi DIY hipster on her Sh’foch chamatcha (all in the 2013).  Some artists reach further back in time. Guy Tamam’s spread for 2013’s Kadesh takes a cue from old-school Hebrew calligraphy, while Itay Blaish’s 2015 Kadesh spread, with its rigid geometric type, an is an updated digital Tschichold. The variety of letterforms is continuously interesting. These are, to some degree, type catalogs for Israeli foundries: Hagilda supplied many of the fonts for the 2013 edition and alefalefalef for 2015.

Adding a twist to the intent of this haggadah, I get the distinct impression that the vast majority of these artists are secular Israelis. They speak Hebrew fluently and are aware of the traditions, but treat the source material with a degree of irreverence (notably Yonatan Popper’s 2013 illustration of bondage in Egypt with a whip-wielding dominatrix). As a product of vernacular Hebrew speakers, the books offer a glimpse into current Hebrew usage. Standard Western punctuation is used throughout most of the two editions — question marks, dashes, colons, etc. — with Western forms like the hyphen replacing Hebrew forms like the maqaf. The vocalization is inconsistent, with some pages not vocalized and some only partially vocalized, possibly because adding nikudot is tedious and difficult. There are other issues: 2015 is missing a portion of birkat hamazon, and both 2013 and 2015 use ד׳ and the tetragrammaton for God’s name in the same blessing after the final cup of wine. Did they get the same internally inconsistent text to work with? Are they familiar enough with the liturgy to understand the connotations of each? Was there simply not enough oversight? On the whole, I was pleased with my purchase and enjoyed the experience using thoroughly modern haggadot like these for this ancient holiday.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Other Hebrew scribal traditions to achieve the same full text include elongating letters to fill space, as seen in Sephardi manuscripts like the one above, and later also used in printed books.

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