April 10, 2008

The Venetian Haggadah and Modern Sensitivities

Many years ago I got a reprinted, softcover edition of the famous Venetian (or Venice) Haggadah from Arachim (yes, the kiruv organization). There were two editions. The first was printed in 1609 and then it was reprinted in 1629. None of the images were changed, only some commentary was added. I have a feeling my version is the 1629 one because I do see some addition commentary inside. It has amazing wood cut drawings of not only the biblical episodes but also of things you find in the Midrash. I don't want to get too deep in the history of this haggadah right now. Anyone interested is more than welcome to do some further readings.

With this post, I would like to basically show you modern day censorship that I happen to have found in the Venetian Haggadah. Some of it may be correct and following halacha and perhaps some are just a bit silly in my opinion. To tell you the truth, with something as old as this haggadah, I had a strong feeling from the get go that I would find some things, and indeed I did. All the information I got on the original haggadah can be found right here.

The originals will be on the left and my edition is on the right. You may need to click on the image to see it larger.

This image has the Egyptians dying on one side while the Jews are dancing on the other. But if you look carefully, the reprinted edition has erased the two statues found on top of the column (inside the red circle.

In this image, you will notice that in the original, the moon in the background had a face to it while the reprinted does not.

You will notice that this image of people bowing down to idols and Terach and Abraham leaving in the background totally changed. The idols of celestials beings are removed and so are the people bowing down. Instead a man with a boy are put in which I am not sure where they got from.

There is an angel with a sword on the top left of the original, but it was taken out of reprint.

This image is of Avraham during the Brit bein HaBetarim (Covenant of the Parts). You will notice that not only was the sun removed, but the image of Avraham was changed as well. I'm not sure why. Maybe the way he was standing was a bit too Jesusesque for their taste.

Now, of course there had to be some tzniut issues. Well, if you notice the top left picture from the original has the woman showing some cleavage. In the bottom left image, you can clearly see the women's sleeves are rolled up. Well, in the reprinted edition, and it's a bit hard seeing it on the monitor, you can see the exposed skin was painted over, making you think everything is all covered.

Here's an interesting one. The scene is supposed to depict the Jews spreading and multipling. You can clearly see naked children in the original. In the reprinted they were all taken out except for the center part of the image which has everyone covered. Not only that, the entire background was changed. So where did they get that new background from? This one right here...

You can tell it's the same background. Look at the tree. They simply erased the other objects and colored over it.

Now, nothing was changed here, but I decided to add this because it has it's own fascinating story to it. You can read more about it right here.

The illustration in Plate 2 shows black idolaters. The caption below reads, in Italian Jewish vernacular, "Let the foolish nations perish, who serve devils and believe in witchcraft [raising the dead]." That language even gave the magical act of raising the dead, with its clear links to idolatry [Miamonides, Hilkot Avodah Zara 77: 11,13] a name that linked it to black sources, negromanzia. Blacks became identified with such activity within the Christian culture of the time. The source was popular etymology that associated teh similar phonetic sounds of the Greek nekros, a deady body, and 'negros.' Clearly this was no mere language error, but an associative link with the accepted cultural image of the black, with which the artist/printer of the Venetian Haggadah, so clearly identified.

Lastly are some images that were all together removed from my reprinted haggadah entirely.

Here is a scene of Akeidat Yitzhak. I am assuming the problem was with the angel on the top right. BTW, did you just notice something, cause I just did after putting up this image. Here is the man and the boy that were inserted to the photo above after the idol worshipers were erased. Now we understand why they simply didn't erase the angel. It's because they needed to use part of this image for something else and did not want people noticing them photoshoping an image and putting it someplace as well.

I guess it's not tzanuah showing a couple in separate beds. This is the description of this image from the website where I got the originals from: The lower image [the one I used] illustrates the rabbinic passage that the Israelites refrained from conjugal relations so as not to bring children into the world only to have them be drowned by Pharaoh’s men. The background picture shows infants being drowned in the Nile as their parents cry out to God.

This is my favorite one. Here is the description from the website: The image on this page illustrates the text which says that God will send evil angels to punish the Egyptians. The evil angels are depicted as demons whose breath emits one of the 10 plagues. For example, one of the demons crouches by the shore of the Nile while breathing on it and causing the water to turn to blood. Another emits lice from his mouth and a third locust.

So, are all of these changes being a bit too churadick, or are some changs halachically mandated. I just got out of a class tonight that mentions halacha forbids making images of anything in the heavens. So maybe its justified to make some changes. But I have to say, the painting the women's arms is rather silly, yet not something unheard of in the charedi community.

I emailed Arachim to see if they have any explanation for these changes. I haven't gotten a response yet, but I have a feeling I won't even get one and if I do, they won't even know what I am talking about. Could be, this wasn't even their call and this reprinted edition was changed by somone else and only later Arachim decided to use it. If they do respond, I will let you know what they say.