Excerpted from the book
Jewish Art Masterpieces


Southern Germany, c. 1300


photo not available
Parchment, pen and ink, tempera; handwritten.
11 x 7 1/2 in. (27 x 19 cm).
The Israel Museum Collection 180/57; 912-4-46.
Photograph: Moshe Caine.


The so-called Birds' Head Haggadah derives its name from the images featured in the manuscript. Most of the human figures are depicted as having birds' heads with pronounced beaks. Some figures also have short pointed animal ears. All male adults in the manuscript wear the conical "Jew's hat," which was compulsory for Jews in Germany from the time of the Lateran Council in 1215. In addition to the birds' heads, other methods distorting human faces such as blank faces, heads covered by helmets, and a bulbous nose are employed in the manuscript.

The phenomenon of distorting the human face, familiar from other Ashkenazi Hebrew illuminated manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, is somewhat enigmatic. Both animal and bird heads, in place of human faces, were employed by artists who illustrated medieval Hebrew bibles and prayer books (mahzorim). Although various explanations for this curiosity have been offered, they are often controversial, and scholars have yet to provide an answer to this intriguing mystery. The practice of distorting the human face may have arisen from the growing asceticism among the Ashkenazi Jews of the period and their strict observance of the biblical prohibition against creating graven images.

Prominent medieval rabbis dealt with the problem of depicting human figures in their writings. Rabbi Ephraim of Regensburg (died c. 1175) permitted the flat painting of human figures, provided that they did not have human faces. In the early fourteenth century, depictions of "a body without a head" are referred to by Jacob bar Asher (died 1340), a rabbi and codifier of religious laws.

The Birds' Head Haggadah is the earliest illuminated Ashkenazi haggadah to have survived as a separate book. It is richly illustrated in the margins with biblical, ritual, and eschatological scenes. The pages reproduced here depict the preparation, pricking, and baking of the matzah, the unleavened bread eaten on Passover.

The scribe's name appears to have been Menahen, as he marked the letters of his name in the text. He was the same scribe who copied the Leipzig Mahzor (festival prayer book) around the year 1300. The Leipzig Mahzor is somewhat similar to the Birds' Head Haggadah and also features figures with the heads of birds.

The haggadah was in the possession of Ludwig and Johanna Marum of Karlsruhe, Germany, until the Nazi epoch.

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