Weird History The Luckiest Book In History Has Somehow Managed To Survive Three Genocides  

Matthew Lavelle
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What do the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the Bosnian-Serb siege of Sarajevo have in common? It's not just the disgusting attempt to cleanse a nation-state of an entire people; it's also the fact that a 14th-century book of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, the Sarajevo Haggadah, survived each event, from the 1492 Alhambra decree to the Bosnian genocide.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript version of the Passover Haggadah that transcends its status as a religious artifact. Its centuries of survival came not only at the hands of Jewish believers but also at the hands of non-Jewish people who saw the value of the Sarajevo Haggadah beyond its being a 14th-century Passover Haggadah.

The survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah is an incredible true story that speaks more to the selflessness of some during times that epitomized humanity's deepest depravity than it speaks just to the interesting story of a historical text that lingers today.

The Haggadah Is A Religious Text Used In The Jewish Faith During Passover


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Photo: Smooth_O/Wikimedia Commons/GFDL

The Haggadah is a sacred text that faithful Jewish believers use at their Passover Seder. It's read at the Seder table where celebrants review God's commandments. The Passover celebration is a recognition of the story of the Exodus in the Torah, when God sent Moses to free the Israelites from bondage; it was at this time that God provided Moses with the Ten Commandments. Strict adherents to the Jewish faith do not conduct any business, go to work, or go to school during the first two and last two days of Passover, which lasts for a total of seven days.

It's no wonder that the Sarajevo Haggadah, with its incredibly detailed illuminations, is a deeply revered text.

A Haggadah's Contents Provide For The Ritual Steps In The Seder Meal


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Photo:  Seder (The Passover Meal) by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The contents of the Haggadah outline the custom of the Passover Seder meal. Traditionally, celebrants begin with a blessing and by filling each other's cups with wine. This act represents the Jewish liberation from Egyptian rule. The Haggadah then guides celebrants through the remainder of their Seder meal, which includes washing their hands, partaking in the consumption of an appetizer, and breaking and sharing of the matzot, unleavened bread.

The inclusion of unleavened bread represents the hurried nature with which the Israleites fled the Egyptians who enslaved them. After, and before the participants partake in their actual meal, the celebrants read from the story of Passover from the Haggadah and discuss the tradition. The Haggadah text guides the contents of their discussion and analysis of the Jewish Exodus.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, Handwritten On Bleached Calfskin And Stained With Wine, Has Seen Many Seder Tables


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Photo: Gamliel/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated version of the sacred Haggadah text. It was handwritten on bleached calfskin and decorated in copper and gold. The first 34 pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah have beautiful illustrations with stories from the Torah, beginning with the creation story and ending with Moses' liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian enslavement.

The Torah preceded the Bible but served as a foundation for the Bible's Old Testament, a fact that many people confuse when they refer to the Sarajevo Haggadah as a biblical text, which it's not. The pages of the Sarajevo Haggadah have stains of wine, proof that Jewish adherents utilized the ancient book at many Passover Seder meals throughout history.

The Sarajevo Haggadah Is Special, Not Only In Its Age But Also In Its Uniqueness From Contemporary Haggadah Books


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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Sarajevo Haggadah is a 14th-century book that inspires curiosity among art historians, as much as it does the Jewish faithful. Historians believe that the Sarajevo Haggadah originally came to be in Spain, at a time when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in a sort of harmony. However, the book, which is revered by believers and analyzed by historians, survived many centuries when the religious persecution of its faithful was rampant.

The Sarajevo Haggadah, filled with religious-historical images, speaks to the traditions of the Jewish faith and its belief in eventual redemption through God. The Haggadah demonstrates how interpretations of scripture can change over time. For example, an art historian, Dr. Marc Michael Epstein, points out that the Sarajevo Haggadah has some interesting iconographic images, which do not comport with contemporary Haggadah books. One such example is that in the Sarajevo Haggadah a dog chases a hare over the verse, "and they tortured us." The depiction of the dog and the hare contrasts greatly with contemporary Haggadah, where a dog serves a hare.