The 17th-Century German Former Minister Whose Illustrations Graced America’s Best-Known Haggadah

February 5, 2021 | Henry Abramson
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Aware that Ashkenazi custom forbids the consumption of legumes on Passover, Maxwell House decided in 1932 to publish and distribute haggadot for the holiday—aiming to reassure Jews that coffee beans were not beans by either rabbinic or botanical standards. Henry Abramson tells the remarkable story of the artist behind the images reproduced in the early editions of this now-famous bilingual guide to the seder.

The . . . illustrations were taken from the classic Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, the work of an unusual former German minister and convert to Judaism who took the name Abraham bar Jacob.

Only a few tantalizing details of bar Jacob’s life are preserved. Born in 1669, most likely in the Rhineland region of Germany, he moved at the age of twenty-six to liberal Amsterdam, where he studied Judaism and became a convert.

Bar Jacob’s illustrations were technically superior to the Venetian illustrations that were popular at the end of the 17th century. Freshly drawn on copper plate, they captured so much detail and emotion that they were reprinted in dozens of editions of haggadah over the next four centuries. . . .

While his artistic originality is demonstrated in complex images that detail biblical scenes such as the rescue of baby Moses from the Nile or the adult Moses striking the cruel Egyptian taskmaster, bar Jacob also had an ability to recognize powerful imagery elsewhere and incorporate it into the Jewish narrative. By modern standards, this would be considered plagiarism (or at least “sampling”), but it was standard fare in printing at the turn of the 18th century.

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