We invite you to be as understanding as possible. There’s just no need to rush to judge here. Those gathered around the Passover Seder table are required by tradition to drink four glasses of wine during the festive meal. As fate would have it, during the Seder, the wine in these glasses has been known to spill over onto tablecloths, food platters, nearby Seder guests, and even the cherished pages of our reading material. Passover: the Haggadah.
Discover the manuscript known in Hebrew as the Yom Geulat Avadim (“The Day of Redemption of the Slaves”), completed in Persia in 1782 by scribe David Shabtai. It is in fact an Easter Haggadah, containing a distinctive feature: a series of mysterious spots, which appear only in its second part.
Why is only one section of the manuscript adorned with these stains? The answer probably has something to do with when the various sections were written. Pages 1-13 feature a different handwriting as well as a different type of paper, which fortunately has not been exposed to the coloring liquid. This section was apparently added to the manuscript at a later stage. It contains a Hebrew piyyuta liturgical hymn, beginning with the lyrics “Yom gueulat avadim”, and also includes a Judeo-Persian translation.
Generally, when we come across stained manuscripts, we tend to assume that they are the result of the ravages of time that have left their mark. But in this case, we have reason to believe that the stains are the result of spilled wine at a Passover Seder, because the stained section of the manuscript contains the Passover Haggadah. The work’s colophon states that these pages were copied by David Shabtai, while adding an ominous warning – “The reader will rejoice and the thief will be obliterated” (“הקורא ישמח והגונב ימח”).
the second tinted manuscript that we will present here, registered in Amsterdam in 1712, also has its spots on the “good” pages. In the case of this Haggadah, the wine stains appear on the very pages that ask readers to drink from their glasses. Granted, we didn’t bother sending the Haggadah to a lab to confirm the molecular structure of the liquid we suspect to be wine, but we think the evidence is pretty compelling. The stains reappear naturally in the part reminiscent of the ten plagues of Egypt, the reading of which is accompanied by the traditional immersion of the finger in one’s wine glass. That’s all the confirmation we need.
The stains appear on a page mentioning the four glasses of wine, “טעמי ארבע כוסות”
It seems four glasses were more than enough for one reader, as a huge wine stain also covers an entire page containing part of the classic Passover song. Dayenu.
Ten copies of this edition of the Haggadah arrived at the National Library of Israel with the deposit of the Valmadonna Trust Collection in 2017. Of these ten Haggadot, the Library decided to digitize the wine-stained copy, in remembrance of a particularly festive Easter. Seder held a long time ago.
The practice of spilling wine during the Seder has endured over time, of course, with our next piece of evidence from 1946 – a Haggadah published in the Land of Israeltowards the end of the British Mandate period.
Here we see that the Jewish pioneers of the pre-state era were just as reckless and unruly as their Diaspora ancestors, if not worse! In fact, wine stains can be found on almost every page of this Haggadah, unrelated to the written instructions for drinking wine. It seems that these people enjoyed their vacation.
Although this is the most recent example that we could find in the catalog of the National Library, we have reason to believe that this custom is still valid. The National Library of Israel wishes you a very happy Easter!
This article first appeared on Librarians, the official online publication of the National Library of Israel dedicated to Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern history, heritage and culture.
Chen Malul is content editor for the National Library of Israel. His hobbies include reading about history, writing about history, and talking about history.