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The Rothschild Haggadah: Journey to Jerusalem

Historical Hebrew manuscripts represent more than the rich content they contain. They are testaments to history that have been passed down through the generations, in many cases surviving expulsions, wars and persecution. They also stand alone as beautiful works of art, one-of-a-kind pieces distinguished by remarkable calligraphy, design, illuminations, or any one of a number of other noteworthy characteristics. While the National Library of Israel holds thousands of exquisite manuscripts among its collections, perhaps none of them embodies this powerful dual narrative of historical significance and aesthetic beauty as does the Rothschild Haggadah.

Written by hand on parchment in accordance with Ashkenazic ritual, this rare and distinct haggadah was produced in northern Italy circa 1450 CE. According to notes written in the margins of the manuscript, it seems to have been written by a scribe named Judah and illuminated by the notable artist Yoel ben Shimon, or perhaps one of his students, with colorful pictures of castles, kings and clowns gracing its pages. While its text is almost identical to the modern-day Ashkenazic haggadah, the well-known Passover holiday songs "Had Gadya" and "Ehad Mi Yodea" are conspicuously absent.

The haggadah was passed through a number of hands before its purchase by the Rothschild family, in whose possession it remained until the Second World War, when it was looted by the Nazis and mysteriously disappeared. After the war, the haggadah resurfaced. It had been acquired by Dr. Fred Towsley Murphy, a former Yale University football captain and baseball player, who went on to become a surgeon, decorated officer in World War I and successful businessman.  Upon Murphy's death in 1948, the haggadah was bequeathed to Yale, where it remained for over thirty years.

In 1980, the piece was determined to be the rightful property of the Rothschild family, to whom it was returned. Shortly after the restitution, the family generously donated the beautiful manuscript to the National Library in Jerusalem where it remains to this day. Interestingly, the haggadah was missing three leaves, which had apparently been ripped out before it was originally acquired by the Rothschild family. Two of the missing leaves were recently put up for sale and subsequently purchased for the National Library, due to the generosity of two anonymous donors.

Today, the Rothschild Haggadah, with the two lost leaves, has pride of place among the National Library's treasures, and it can be viewed online.