The most beautiful haggadah
July 21, 2008
I came to Israel with the intention of buying myself a new tallit. I love the tallitot I have, very much. But I've been yearning for one in a different style -- the kind of big square tallit I can really wrap up in -- and I've also been contemplating getting a tallit with rainbow stripes, given the importance Jewish Renewal accords to the kabbalistic qualities represented by the colors of the rainbow. (Here's one account of how Reb Zalman created the original Bnai Or rainbow tallit.)
On Sunday, after my last class of the day, I walked down the hill to the artists' colony near the walls of the Old City. In a window there I found a big tallit with muted rainbow stripes. The studio was closed, but I called the number posted on the door. The man who answered explained that he couldn't return to the studio that evening, because the British prime minister was in town and the streets of his neighborhood were therefore closed to traffic. But we agreed I'd drop by another time to see the tallit and try it on for size. (Of course, I completely forgot to ask what it costs; here's hoping it will be within my price range!)
Anyway, I left that studio and went a couple of doors down, drawn by the sight of spectacular calligraphy and word-art in a window. When I realized what I was looking at, I was gobsmacked; I'd accidentally stumbled on the studio of David Moss.
An image from the Moss Haggadah: part of the 4 Sons spread.
In 1983, David Moss created The Moss Haggadah. It's a single-edition handmade haggadah, in the tradition of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and each page is a work of art. I've read about it, I've seen photographs online, but I hadn't realized that the artist's studio lies along the first route I walked between the Old City and my house, on my very first excursion to the Old City the first week I was in town.
He was on the phone when I walked in, making arrangements to fly out that night, so he opened a book in front of me and beckoned for me to look inside. It was a limited-edition facsimile edition of the haggadah. I moved through it page by page, completely spellbound. Every word of the traditional haggadah is there. The calligraphy is gorgeous. But what's really amazing is the artistry of the individual pages -- the papercuts, the illustrations, the symbolism behind every detail! Every page blows me away.
And then he opened up the companion volume: commentary about every page, references to source texts, explanations of his artistic choices. Why the Four Sons are depicted as playing cards (and the implications of using southern European card symbols rather than northern European ones), and which Hebrew blessing he chose to accompany each of the four sons in spirals of tiny tight words.
When he got off the phone, he came over and extended his hand and asked, "Hello; who are you?" I introduced myself and told him that I'm a huge fan of his work (I think I managed not to sound like a complete fangirl, but it was touch-and-go for a while there) and that I too have created a haggadah (The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach v. 6.0 [pdf]) -- though it doesn't begin to hold a candle to his.
The edition through which I had so reverently paged turns out to be the Song of David Facsimile Edition, a limited edition of 500 copies. (All have been sold; today copies cost about $45,000.) There's also a deluxe artists' edition (two large hardcover volumes, one featuring the haggadah and one featuring the commentary; heavy cardstock paper, gilt lettering, papercuts and all) which costs $595, and a simpler standard edition (a single hardcover book, smaller than the other editions; printed on glossy paper, though no papercuts or hand-attached mirrors) for $195.
After I spent half an hour in David's studio, admiring his other work and chatting with him about what he does and how he does it, I couldn't resist making a purchase. I bought the simplest and cheapest edition of his haggadah (and told him that maybe when I get smicha I'll invest in one of his prints, or upgrade to the artists' edition!) Given my deep love of the haggadah (in both its classical and creative forms), and given the importance of Pesach in my spiritual life and my nascent rabbinate, and given how utterly glorious I find David's labor of love, it was clear to me that this is a book I really need to own.
I can't wait to read all of the commentary page by page...and I know that every time I open my coffee-table-book edition, I'll remember what it felt like to stand in David's Jerusalem studio leafing through the truly limited edition, and his art will once again take my breath away.