Birds Heads

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20130324-212234.jpgThe Birds Head Haggadah, from Germany in approximately the year 1300, has long baffled readers. Why are people depicted with bird’s heads in the haggadah’s illustrations? The challenge raised by this popular haggadah, which is still available today (link), has provoked scholarly speculation, such as in Prof. Marc Michael Epstein’s recent The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative and Religious Imagination (link). But why should academics have all the fun?

The following are my top ten speculations in answer of this centuries-old puzzle:

  1. The faces were distorted for tzenius purposes
  2. What we consider Jewish religious art is really an anti-semitic depiction of long-nosed Jews.
  3. Birds fly through the sky and symbolize freedom. They represent the redemption of Pesach.
  4. As every visitor quickly learns, all Jewish cats have already made aliyah and live in Jerusalem. Therefore, Jewish birds celebrate Passover in the exile unharassed.
  5. When it comes to the afikomen, parents react like birds: “cheap cheap cheap”
  6. Planet of the Birds was the less famous companion to Planet of the Apes.Thankfully the Apes’ Head Haggadah is lost to history.
  7. The haggadah was commissioned to be an artistic bird’s eye view of the seder but the artist got confused and instead drew a birds head view.
  8. The illustrator made each drawing only after drinking four cups of wine.
  9. This haggadah anticipated Twitter by about 700 years.
  10. Why are pictures of people different on this night from all other nights?
  11. Two additional suggestions from R. Elly Krimsky:

  12. At the exodus we left on the wings of eagles.
  13. We are to be a BEAKon to the nations.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

13 comments

  1. Amusing. I would have moved #4 up to #2 or #1.

  2. Presaging The Byrds doing “Turn, Turn, Turn” from the Book of Ecclesiastes – To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven (truly a Pesach message)?
    KT

  3. 😉

    —–

    See also Marc Michael Epstein’s article http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com/publications/detail/frogs-griffins-and-jews-without-hats-how-my-children-illuminated-the-haggadah

    —–

    An interesting observation someone made to him at the recent Symposium on “The Medieval Hebrew Manuscript Today” at the Jewish Museum was that one should look at the use of books in the Birds Head illustrations.

  4. Maybe the Birds Head Hagadah was created the day after Purim, when Jews were still wearing custumes?

    If you wanted to create a new Hagadah, you would not wait until erev Pesach; you would start the day after Purim.

  5. Mr. Cohen – doesn’t matter when you start, you won’t finish by Pesach. Spoken from experience 🙂

  6. Shkeyach. Chag Sameach!

  7. This post is for the birds. Really fowl. Looks like you just chickened out from writing a real Pesach post. Nothing to crow about. (OTOH, maybe since this is Erev Pesach, you are a bit hen-pecked.)

  8. MiMedinat HaYam

    last week’s parshat tzav (that almost always precedes pesach) discussed bird sacrifices whose procedures involve specifics about birds heads.

  9. Perhaps so that the children would ask the question. : ) Chag sameach.

  10. Apparently in ancient Egyptian heirogliphics, the bird’s head was a common symbol. And the bird’s face was often attached to a human body. The direction that the bird’s head faced indicated whether the heirogliphics were to be read from right to left or left to right. Perhaps significant? Perhaps co-incidental?

  11. Mair: No one could read hieroglyphics until the 1800’s. 🙂

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