The Mysterious History Behind The World's Oldest Illustrated Haggadah

This 14th century manuscript is known for its figures that have peculiar, bird-shaped heads.

Around the year 1300 in southern Germany, a Jewish scribe known to historians only as Menahem reportedly rolled out a piece of parchment, dipped a writing utensil in dark brown ink and proceeded to write out the story of his people's liberation from captivity in Egypt. 

Hundreds of years later, Menahem's medieval manuscript is treasured as the world's oldest illustrated Haggadah, a book containing the liturgy for the first ritual feast of Passover. It has come to be known as the Bird's Head Haggadah because the figures that decorate its margins are human in every way -- except for the fact that their heads are shaped like birds. 

Although it's been housed in Jerusalem's Israel Museum for years, the manuscript grabbed headlines recently after a family came forward claiming that the artifact was stolen from them during the Nazi era and sold without their permission. 

Eli Barzilai, a 75-year-old resident of Jerusalem, told The Associated Press that the manuscript once belonged to his grandfather, Ludwig Marum, a German Jewish lawyer from the town of Karlsruhe. Marum had reportedly kept the Haggadah in his law office. During the war, Marum was killed in a concentration camp.

E. Randol Schoenberg, a lawyer with expertise in restoring art stolen during the Holocaust, has taken on the case. Barzilai will be meeting with museum staff in May to discuss the future of the Birds' Head Haggadah, according to The Associated Press.

This is just the latest chapter in the ancient Haggadah's long history. Barzilai told the AP that he believes the Haggadah was a wedding gift to his grandfather from his grandmother's family.  Beyond that, the origins and meaning of the Haggadah are still shrouded in mystery.

For Marc Michael Epstein, a religion professor at Vassar College, the manuscript "possesses all the classic qualities of a perpetual enigma."

"Within the rather modest field of Jewish visual culture it is, in its own unassuming way, as mysterious as the Pyramids of Giza, the monoliths of Easter Island, or Mona Lisa's smile," Epstein wrote in his book about the artifact, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination.

According to Epstein, the manuscript contains two full-page illustrations and 33 pages of marginal illustrations. The peculiar birds' head figures are young and old, male and female. Some have beards and long hair, others are wearing hats and colorful cloaks. They're shown preparing matzah and gathered around tables with large goblets in their hands to say blessings over their food. And then, there are the figures that illustrate important parts of the Exodus, such as the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and Moses receiving the Torah from God. 

The Birds' Head Haggadah isn't the only manuscript in which the creators drew animal heads in place of human faces. According to The Israel Museum, other manuscripts of the 13th and 14th centuries created for the Ashkenazi (central or eastern European) Jewish community contained these kinds of illustrations. 

There are a number of different theories about why these figures were given birds' heads. Some scholars believe the animal heads highlighted the exalted and holy status of the figures. Others believe that the heads were a response to religious restrictions on drawing human faces. 

In his book, Epstein proposed that the heads are actually representations of griffins, a mythical creature that is a composite of a lion and an eagle. These two creatures have a distinguished history in Jewish art and visual culture. Epstein argues that the griffins were a way for the creators of these manuscripts to honor the prohibition on drawing human faces while finding a positive way to represent the spiritual nature of Jewish people.

"Far from being anti-Jewish caricatures, the griffin-headed figures in the Birds' Head Haggadah are dignified portrayals of Jews, full of character and personality," Epstein wrote. "All are going seriously about their business or are posed with stateliness and monumentality in spite of the singular strangeness of their heads." 

Click through the slideshow below to see more images of this fascinating historical artifact.

Birds' Head Haggadah