Slaves at the Passover Seder (2 Images)

Here are two mages reflecting the place of an African slave at the Passover Seder. The first is from the so-called Sarajevo Haggadah, produced in Barcelona in the 14th C. The other is from Ceremonies et Coutumes Religieuses de tous les Peuples du Monde, a multi-volume work by Bernard Picart, a leading engraver in the 18th C., illumining what we today call “world religions” (About Picart’s work see more here). In both cases the general milieu is Iberian Jewish

About the social and legal status of African slaves in the Portuguese Jewish community in 17th C. Amsterdam, this piece here is of interest. On the topic of Sephardic Jews and the slave trade, see scholarly works by Eli Faber, Jonathan Shcorsch, and Aviva Ben-Ur.

About the two images, there is the cozy elegance of the early bourgeois scene. The man at the far left is Picart himself, observing the scene. The African “servant” is presumably a slave; he seems busy at work. He is at the table from which he turns, at his task making sure that the ceremony is conducted without a hitch. More curious is that the African woman, presumably and most definitely a slave, at the seder table in the Sarajevo Haggadah.

On the image of this young woman, Sonja Drimmer forwarded me this link here to “Freedom and Slavery in the Sarajevo Haggadah” by Adam Cohen. A PDF is here.

On the one hand, Cohen, argues, the diminutive figure of the African slave in the Sarajevo Haggadah might be a visual prop made to exemplify the negative difference between freedom and slavery. Cohen cites the Babylonian Talmud and from Maimonides where slaves are pointed at in relation to the seder to highlight the distinction between freedom and slavery. Indeed, her position at the front of the table lines her face up along the same line as the table ritual objects. Cohen suggests also that she may, in fact, be a metonym for the bread of the affliction, the very matzah that she holds in her hand? Would she then be a like “object” at the table to which the pater familias would point?

On the other hand, Cohen also notes that her presence at the table is not one of serving guests (like in other Iberian Haggadot and in the image by Picart). Clearly nothing for modern liberal Jews to celebrate as a token of inclusion, she would seem, nevertheless, to be a more active participant in the family ritual. From her end of the table hierarchy. She is both with the family, but set apart from the family. Thinking who knows what, her gaze is not abject or downturned. Her gaze looks forward, is involved, and fixed on the rite.

Eli Rosenblatt is recommending Jewish Artists and Images of Black Africans in Renaissance Venice by Paul H.D. Kaplan, 2005.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Slaves at the Passover Seder (2 Images)

Leave a Reply