Today is Easter, a feast Jesus did not celebrate. Friday and Saturday began Passover, a feast he celebrated every year of his adult life. As Christmas is a Christian holiday that invades the Jewish calendar, so Passover is the reverse, for Christians cannot tell themselves their Easter story without hearing, in the New Testament itself, about the most famous seder in history, the Last Supper. The Passover story--in Hebrew the haggadah shel pesakh --is therefore the pre-eminent book of this season.
As told, or as read aloud at the Passover meal, the Haggadah is the story of Israel's deliverance from bondage in Egypt--adorned with rhymes, psalms, proverbs, songs and riddles for children, and, in short, a little of everything. The respect in Judaism for the letter-by-letter transmission of the Hebrew Bible stops here, for the Haggadah, rather than sacred scripture, is a kind of religious folk literature. For all the gravity of the central subject matter--an escape from mortal peril--Jews have quite literally played with this text over the many centuries of its life, and they continue to do so.
The traditional Haggadah can be had free in pamphlet-sized editions distributed by the manufacturers of special Passover foods. Or for $65 ($75 after June 1), it can be had in the form of a new Abrams facsimile edition of "The Ashkenazi Haggadah," an illuminated Hebrew manuscript written in Germany in the mid-15th Century and now the property of the British Library.
One opens this outsize slipcased volume from either side: 100 pages read from right to left in the Hebrew manner; 40 pages from left to right in the Latin manner. The "front" 40 contain both a transcription and a translation of the text of the "back" 100, which in turn contain both the Hebrew Haggadah proper and a 200-year-old Aramaic commentary on it (the Aramaic, written in an academy in Germany, was 200 years old at the time the manuscript was copied ; the Haggadah itself is hundreds of years older still). David Goldstein, curator of Hebrew manuscripts and printed books at the British Library, is responsible for the translation, the transcription and an informative introduction entitled "The Book and Its History."
The bold illuminations of the original manuscript are, of course, its principal claim on our attention. I will mention only two among the several dozen.
At one cheerful juncture, the Haggadah asks, in effect: How many kinds of students are there? There are four, it turns out: the wise, the wicked, the simple and a fourth variety, distinct from the simple, called circumlocutionally "who does not know how to ask a question." This fourth type is presented in the marginal illumination as a young, blond man in a blue-and-gold costume smiling at himself in a mirror. My association to this illumination, I regret to say, is the Associated Students of UCLA, who celebrate Mardi Gras, year after year, some weeks after Easter. Someone should tell them, which is what the Haggadah says should be done with all who do not know enough to ask.
A second, more serious illumination, perhaps the most powerful in the manuscript, is the one reproduced on Page 4 of this week's Book Review. "LO LANU," it reads, "NOT TO US," in minatory, lion-headed majuscules that would more than fill the space occupied by this entire column. The words quote a verse from Psalm 115: "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory!"
A strange notion this one: Why ask God to glorify himself? But the odd, antique prayer that God remember to be no less than God carries within it a recognizably "modern" hope that man remember to be no more than man; that the nation and the world be spared, in other words, the inflation of any human being, any human power, to the superhuman size of a pharaoh, a monster, an oppressor. From that inflation, this Easter Sunday, may all Jews, all Christians and all the Associated Students of UCLA be delivered.