Frogs, Griffins, and Jews Without Hats: How My Children Illuminated the Haggadah

About a decade ago, just before Passover, I found myself in a Conservative synagogue in Riverdale, New York, discussing the way that the magnificent 14th-century illuminated Spanish "Golden Haggadah" illustrated the plague of frogs. I was pointing out the fact that the image—which shows Aaron striking a large frog and many other, smaller frogs emerging from it—depicted not only scripture, but also a midrash found in Tanchuma and mentioned by Rashi. Since Exodus 8:2 uses the singular "the frog emerged" when describing the plague, this interpretive tradition suggested that only one frog initially came out of the Nile.

Epstein 1The illustration thus demonstrates a point made by Bezalel Narkiss and his students at the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. Whereas previous scholars tended to view medieval Jewish art as simply illustrating scripture, Narkiss and others showed that illuminated Jewish manuscripts illustrated not only the literal biblical text, but midrash as well. This demonstrated that, regardless of whether the artists were Jewish or Gentile, their patrons were commissioning art that was not only stunningly beautiful but distinctively Jewish.

"Some versions of this midrash describe the single frog as monstrous in size and imagine the swarm of frogs as emerging from its mouth, as we see here," I was saying, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw my then 8-year-old daughter Elisheva bouncing up and down. "Not now, Shevi!" I stage-whispered. "But, Abba," she replied, "I noticed something in the picture!" Swallowing my annoyance, I decided to use this as ‘a teachable moment.'"

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About the Author

Marc Michael Epstein teaches at Vassar College. His most recent book is The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale University Press). 


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