Every spring for millennia, Jews around the world have gathered to celebrate Passover, which commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Pharaonic Egypt. On the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, we participate in long festival meals called seders, where we sing ancient songs, drink many cups of wine, and play games to entertain the children. We also read from a book called a Haggadah, which retells the story of the Exodus.
Many of the passages in the Haggadah are ancient, either rabbinical or biblical in origin; but the text was compiled in the middle ages and survives in manuscripts from the 14th century onward. Among other things, the Haggadah demonstrates how community and memory help to make history present. The text stresses the universal message that redemption is an ongoing process that takes different forms in different generations.
This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, many Jewish families and communities will not be able to share a table for the seders. Perhaps we’ll go through the rituals alone with our housemates, but for the first time in my lifetime, we will be connected mainly by the text of the Haggadah and by its retelling of the Exodus story.
As a manuscript scholar and a fan of old stories, I find this shift compelling. Shared narratives provide models for our behaviors and frameworks for understanding our experiences. Everyone who has ever loved a book and read it again and again knows that there is a special comfort and privilege in returning to a favorite passage until it wears itself into our memory. With time and repetition, our thoughts begin to incorporate someone else’s thoughts, and we inhabit a world that is bigger than ourselves.
Some books bear more memories than others. In 2018, Getty’s manuscripts department acquired an extraordinarily rare and beautiful Hebrew manuscript. The Rothschild Pentateuch was written in 1296 by the scribes Elijah ben Meshallum and Elijah ben Yehiel. It is decorated throughout with brilliant headpieces, imaginative marginal decoration, and delicate, whimsical micrography – pictures made of tiny, calligraphic words.
Pentateuchs (or Chumashim in Hebrew) contain the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. The Getty’s manuscript also includes an Aramaic translation of the biblical text and the commentary of the medieval French scholar, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, commonly known as Rashi. The layout of the manuscript is designed to accommodate collective, public reading. It is divided into fifty-four parshahs, or main sections, which Jewish communities read each week in synagogue. Each parshah is marked by an elaborate decorative headpiece. The book also includes excerpts called haftarahs, which are taken from other parts of the bible and are read in synagogue after the parshahs.
Although the Rothschild Pentateuch predates the earliest surviving Haggadah, it includes the story of the redemption from Egypt, described in Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Bible. Here we see that the first words of the book of Exodus are enlarged and decorated with floral and geometric patterning and with pictures of animals and fantastical beings. The illuminations are not narrative, but their extravagance highlights the importance of the text.
The manuscript also includes special holiday haftarahs, including several that are read on Passover. These are marked by simpler headings, which again focus on the first words of the text.
The Pentateuch is read throughout the year, and not only on Passover. However, like the Haggadah, it participates in a tradition of repeated storytelling, which creates community through repetition and familiarity. In the Rothschild Pentateuch, the cyclical temporality of the text is highlighted by the richness of the chapter headings and by the inclusion of the Haftaroth, which mark the manuscript not only as a sacred text, but as one performed each year at set points in the religious calendar.
The Rothschild Pentateuch has witnessed several cycles of suffering and redemption. We do not know precisely where in western Europe it was made, but its date of 1296, recorded in a scribal inscription, places it just after the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. Manuscripts curator Elizabeth Morrison has suggested that the manuscript may have been made for an English patron who fled to France. The book passed through Italy, Poland, and then Germany, where it survived World War II in a state collection. In 1950, the German state gave it to a Jewish family in exchange for property seized during the war, and Getty acquired it from that family.
Now more than ever, the Passover liturgy and the Rothschild Pentateuch return us to a world of shared stories and pictures. Even when we are physically separated from one another, they remind us that the past lives on in the present and that we remain united when we read together.