Menachem Mendel

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This Bitter Herb

Dan at Seforim has a very interesting post on a number of facets of early illustrated haggadot, especially those from the Prague haggadah (1526). He describes an intersting comment found in the Prague haggadah (see his post for the text itself).

In the margin at the mention of marror the bitter herb, is the following “It is a universal custom to point at one’s wife [at the mention of marror] as the verse says ‘I have found the woman worse [more bitter] than death. (Kohelet 7:26)'”

A number of days ago I became interested in this custom when I became aware of it from an e-mail which I received. The writer of the e-mail, D.G., pointed out that Bezalel Narkiss in his book Hebrew Illustrated Manuscripts brings a plate from what is known as the “Brother” to the Rylands Spanish Haggadah which illustrates this exact custom (Narkiss, 69; the haggadah is British Museum, Or. Ms. 1404). Narkiss writes that “The man in the lower panel is pointing at his wife while reciting ‘maror zeh‘, a playful custom common in many European Jewish communities during the Middle Ages” (ibid, 68). A similar illustration can be found in the famous Rothschild haggadah which is at the Israel Museum. In their important book Jewish Life in the Middle Ages Thérèse and Mendel Metzger describe the illustration as follows:

For Ashkenazi Jews in Italy and Germany, maror, the bitter herbs-the symbol of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt-became associated with a joke directed against woman, i.e. woman like honey became ‘bitter as wormwood’ (Proverbs V:4). The husband, with the maror in his hand, cries maror ze (‘this is the maror’) and touches his wife’s forehead with his other hand. The wife seems to accept the joke with complete submission. (p. 225)

The last line in their description is striking, “The wife seems to accept the joke with complete submission”. In a separate work devoted to illustrated haggadot, La Haggada Enluminée, Mendel Metzer examined this illustration and similar ones in greater detail. Metzger describes a number of variations of this same genre of illustration found in four Ashkenazi haggadot and one haggadah illustrated in Italy but according to the Ashkenazi rite. In the Washington Haggadah the man holds the maror in his left hand while his right hand is put on the woman’s head. As Metzger says, “One understands that this action is done to indicate an equivalence between the maror and her the woman (p. 207).” It is another aspect of this illustration which brought about the connection with the verse from Proverbs 5:3-4 (“For the lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.)”, the women is holding a long sword stuck in the ground. Metzger analyzes a number of other similar illustrations and focuses on some of the subtle differences between them (pp. 206-9). In some the man is standing and the woman is sitting, a more submissive relationship, while in others they are both sitting. In one they are both sitting at different ends of the table as equals. In one manuscript both the sword and the maror are absent. Here Metzger describes the woman as becoming a total substitute for the maror. Often the man only points to the woman and does not actually put his hands on her head. One interesting illustration has the woman pointing back at the man! Metzger interprets this as a woman’s refusal to accept her designation as the maror.

An interesting question is does evidence for this custom exist outside of either illuminated or printed haggadot, or is its sole vestige as either illustrations or texts accompanying them? I apologize for not being able to actually provide images from these haggadot but I couldn’t find an adequate way of doing so.

Update: The first person to find a connection between the illustration and the verse from Proverbs as cited by Metzger was Franz Landsberger. See his “The Washington Haggadah and Its Illuminator”, HUCA XXI (1948), 73-103, esp. 76-77 and the illustration is from plate 6. I also just found an announcement for a lecture delivered last year which includes a picture of this illustration.

One Response to “This Bitter Herb”

  1. 1
    Menachem Mendel:

    Great post, but now I need to get those pictures
    Dan Rabinowitz | Homepage | 04.02.06 – 10:30 am | #




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