Every Picture Tells a Story: The Sarajevo Haggadah

Festive meal from The Sarajevo Haggadah People of the Book: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks (2008) is a popular book of Jewish historical fiction. It explores various times and places of Jewish history by tracing the journey of The Sarajevo Haggadah, originally created in the fourteenth century.

Kiddush, etc. in the Sarajevo Haggadah
Kiddush, etc.

The author portrays what life was like via imaginary characters. Muslims are shown in a most sympathetic light (except for one story). I found the Inquisition story very disturbing; torture is graphically described. The stain in the Haggadah, that I always assumed was wine, is said to be blood. The book is reminiscent of James Michener’s The Source (1965), except that the stories are in reverse chronological order in People of the Book. I know many people love this book and that it is a popular Book Group selection. I found the writing not as polished as I would have liked. I was especially disappointed by the absence of any pictures since the plot refers to the Haggadah’s illustrations so often.

Ha Lachma Anya from The Sarajevo Haggadah
spills on "Ha Lachma Anya ..."

One important plot point has to do with the fact that a reproduction is never entirely the same as the original. Digital copies of a picture, no matter how small the pixel size is, will never be quite like a painting done by hand. And certainly copies of the things that get spilled or dropped on a book  as it is used will not be the same as the actual spillage. I think this relates to the interest in the analog qualities of music records as opposed to the digital audio files that have mostly replaced them. Anyway, ….

Cover of The Sarajevo HaggadahThe book I really want to recommend this week is the library’s facsimile edition of The Sarajevo Haggadah. Half the book is English commentary and history by Cecil Roth; the other half is a reproduction of the original on shiny paper. The more recent, unfortunately exciting, history of the Haggadah happened after this version was published. It is mentioned in Geraldine Brooks’ novel.


Reed Sea; Miriam in The Sarajevo Haggadah
Reed Sea; Miriam
Creation in The Sarajevo Haggadah

The Haggadah starts with pictures of Creation and the origins of the Jewish people.

Wise and wicked sons in The Sarajevo Haggadah
Wise and wicked sons

The illustrations are brilliant and the Hebrew is surprisingly readable. It was exciting to see two of the four sons, Hacham (wise) and Rasha (wicked),  highlighted in decorative borders on facing pages.

Every page is beautiful. It reminded me how important the visual appearance of books is. I’m toying with the idea that one problem with too many Jewish ritual books is that there are no pictures. Why can’t we have a siddur with cartoons?

Two illustrated 20th-century Haggadot in our library are by Arthur Syzk and Ben Shahn; Cecil Roth is connected to these books as well. And there are others on display on top of the bookcases in the children’s  section of the library.

Next week I’ll talk about some books that you can use to get ready for and celebrate Passover.

Meanwhile, if you would like to comment with recommendations about Haggadot (and foods and activities) for the Seder, I would be most appreciative: After about a quarter of a century (wow!), I think I’ve done all I can with the Conservative movement’s Feast of Freedom and my husband is eager for a book that has page numbers.


5 thoughts on “Every Picture Tells a Story: The Sarajevo Haggadah

  1. I loved your question: “Why can’t we have a siddur with cartoons?” I heartily agree with you. I loved seeing the illustrations you included with your, as usual, interesting reviews. We easily forget how important the visual world is to experience.

  2. When my daughter and I designed a booklet for her Bat Mitzvah ceremony, we included cartoons.

    I totally agree with the importance of the visual. Maybe that’s why I like children’s picture books so much.

    I think pictures stimulate a different part of our brain/psyche/soul than words do. I think prayer should not be only a rational/intellectual experience. That’s why music/melody/chanting and movement are important.

    As a student of mathematics I learned that there are more irrational numbers than rational ones and more transcendental numbers than non-transcendental irrational numbers. Based on this, well, … it does not really follow logically that we are greatly limiting ourselves if we only deal with the rational and not what is transcendental, but it’s fun to say. [The problem with this analogy is that the mathematical terms express value judgments of the creators of the terms, but have no actual mathematical (or spiritual) meaning. “Rational” numbers could just as easily be called “Q” and transendental ones, “T.”
    [There are an infinite number of both rational and non-rational numbers, which makes it a little tricky to define “more.” It turns out you can talk about levels of infinity and when doing so, you use the Hebrew letter, Alef, followed by a numerical subscript.]]
    [All of this babbling does not address my actual feelings about prayer. And I’ll be relatively good and not talk about levels of observance now.]

  3. I just finished reading “People of the Book”. Of course, I immediately had to do a search. To see the actual pictures of the actual Hagaddah…I am speechless.

    It does not matter what medium we use to teach, as long as we continue to teach.

  4. Hello, Miriam. I tried to find a copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah in a nearby library, (http://www.worldcat.org/title/sarajevo-haggadah/oclc/11283925) but Oregon seems to the closest place to Salt Lake City with the book.

    I can’t believe that there are no pictures of the Haggadah in the novel. Especially since there are so many references to the manuscript and an important plot point has to do with the value of original copies. But, hey, in this case, even secondhand copies would have been extremely worthwhile. Maybe the publishers hope that everyone will go to Google Images and search.

    I am lucky enough to own a copy of the Cecil Roth’s book mentioned above. We bought it in 1971 in Dubrovnik, when it was a part of Yugoslavia, along with Sarajevo. There is something special about being able to leaf through the pages of a book, each one of them fascinating, instead of seeing just one two-page spread in a photograph or behind glass.

    My husband’s job moved to Salt Lake City in the ’80s. We attended services at a merged Conservative-Reform synagogue; I remember enjoying services. But Kosher food was problematic: apparently you could order kosher meat every three months. Even the brands that were kosher in New Jersey, such as Wonder Bread, did not have any kosher symbols there. And the nearest mikvah was in Denver. We ended up in Connecticut.

    I hope you regain your powers of speech. Feel free to comment further.


  5. Thank you for this. What I found most disturbing in the book was that at no time did she place the Haggadah at a family seder. Every story was troubled and violent.
    And I agree that the wine stain should have just been a wine stain. I see no proof of her claim in her fictionalized book that the wine stain included blood.

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