Don’t mess with ‘The Boss’

The Ten Plagues in illuminated Haggadot.

The contemporary figure of a circus-like character being besieged by each plague dominates the renderings of the 10 afflictions by artist Eliahou Bokobza (photo credit: ELIAHOU ERIC BOKOBZA)
The contemporary figure of a circus-like character being besieged by each plague dominates the renderings of the 10 afflictions by artist Eliahou Bokobza
(photo credit: ELIAHOU ERIC BOKOBZA)
For centuries, the Ten Plagues that afflicted the ancient Egyptians have been a fertile subject for the creative imaginations of Haggada illuminators. Through the pages of the Haggada, artists have movingly applied their palettes to relay the visual drama of divine retribution, while graphically depicting pain, pathos, humor – and even horrific beauty. Their unifying visual message: “Don’t mess with The Boss.”
The Ten Plagues will be the focus of the Illuminated Haggada Fair, sponsored by Kol HaOt at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem on Monday, April 2, during hol hamoed – the intermediate days of Passover – from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. At the fair, visitors will be able to see a variety of impressive artistic Haggadot, as well as various interpretations of the Ten Plagues. “These will give visitors a dramatic sense of the awesome events of the Exodus story, and how we can re-imagine the plagues in contemporary terms,” noted Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, Kol HaOt’s executive director.
Some of the stations will be playful, such as origami workshops on the plague of frogs and shadow theater for darkness. There will also be engaging speakers, including Micah Goodman, author of Catch 67, who will speak on “The Ten Plagues, Past and Future: Jewish Approaches to Egyptian Suffering,” and Rachelle Fraenkel, who will explore the topic, “Firstborns: A Blessing or a Plague?” Most of the rare illuminated Haggadot from the medieval period portray the plagues in graphic detail, and do not shy away from portraying the suffering of the Egyptians, according to Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, editor of The Schechter Haggada. He adds that they are also a historic recording of the practices and lifestyle of the time and place where each Haggada was illuminated.
For instance, the Golden Haggada – a breathtaking work created in Catalonia around the year 1320 – provides insights into funeral processions of that period, as three mourners wearing brown monk’s habits march in front of the draped coffin of a firstborn, which is carried on poles by six men clad in medieval garb.
THE FLOERSHEIM Haggada, created in Germany in 1502, shows a man pulling up a bucket of blood attached to a pulley, out of a medieval well. “Clearly, these types of wells did not exist in ancient Egypt,” Golinkin adds.
The Leipnik Haggada of 1739 created in Germany shows Egyptians using oversized lice combs to frantically weed out the bugs from their stylishly coiffed hair of that period.
To desperately relieve the pain of their boils, figures soak in large, coarsely made wooden tubs.
Golinkin points out that many Haggadot of the past 100 years – such as the iconic Haggada by artist Arthur Szyk created in the 1930s – have continued the tradition of graphic depictions of God’s punishment of the Egyptians through the plagues. For instance, contemporary artist Ben Simon’s striking rendering of an Egyptian covered in boils, in his Fodde Edition Haggada, gives the viewer a visceral, immediate impact of horror of this affliction. “I treat the figure as though they have self-awareness,” Simon says.
But others, such the Sidi Haggada by Israeli artist Eliahu Sidi, convey a more light-hearted sense of the plagues.
His panel for hail shows a Egyptian collecting the icy pellets into a martini glass balanced precariously in his mouth, while he catches hail between his toes.
Artist Avner Moriah, in his Moriah Haggada as well as in his Illuminated Book of Exodus, not only depicts Pharaoh itching from lice, but comically portrays the Sphinx trying to scratch the critters out. The contemporary figure of a circus-like character being besieged by each plague dominates the renderings of the 10 afflictions in the Eliahou Haggada, by artist Eliahou Bokobza.
In a twist on the Ten Plagues, members of Kibbutz Beit Ha’emek deviated from the traditional plagues in their 1951 Haggada, and used the afflictions as the perfect platform to express their own exasperations with daily kibbutz life. Their primitive line drawings relay the drudgery of night-watch duty; the undesirable shifts in the cowsheds; kibbutzniks’ disdain for the need to outsource labor; and the general scarcity of food and water. Making No. 10 on their list are “the religious,” whom they feel unfairly impose restrictions on weekend public transportation and prevent kibbutzniks – who didn’t have private cars – from living it up on Shabbat after an exhausting week of hard work.
THE MILLENNIAL generation is amply represented in Eli Kaplan-Wildmann’s recently published Unbound: The Recreated Haggada, which adopts the commonly recognized graphic icons of our current era to symbolize the Ten Plagues. For instance, an exterminator symbol is used for the plague of locusts; familiar weather symbols depict hail; and the “dreaded” cellphone low-battery icon represents darkness. At the Kol HaOt Haggada Fair, a mazelike oversized replica of Kaplan-Wildmann’s new publication will be among the exhibitions, enabling the public to literally walk through the pages of his Haggada.
“I looked at what is currently plaguing our society, and used a contemporary visual language for contemporary issues,” he said. “For instance, weather icons for hail make us think of the natural disasters that occur in the Third World. I used icons that represent the meat industry for the cattle-disease plague, since people recognize how bad the meat industry is. For the plague of blood, I chose the symbol associated with breast cancer or HIV, because these diseases haven’t been resolved and are a plague in our society.”
In a radical departure from tradition, artist David Moss, in his acclaimed Moss Haggada, has created a decorative rendering of the names of the plagues, which he calls “an awful beauty.”
“What does this decorative page have to do with the horror of the Ten Plagues? How could I have forgone one of the juiciest opportunities for vivid graphic illustration that the Haggada provides? Where are those slimy frogs? I may have justified my radical step in not making the plagues so explicit, but need they be so pretty?” asked Moss.
“The beauty or ugliness in the plagues may be a matter of viewpoint,” explained Moss, the senior mentor of Kol HaOt. “Certainly for the Egyptians they were pure, catastrophic punishment. But from the perspective of all those who inherited this amazing story, the forceful removal of the Jews from Egypt, and the breaking of the might of the cruel Pharaoh by a loving and caring God, represent a revolutionary – indeed beautiful – image of a vastly different understanding of power.”
Being sensitive to the pain of the Egyptians was a priority for artist Matthew Berkowitz, who created a rainbow- colored spectrum in his Lovell Haggada, which abstractly mirrors the hues and characteristics of each plague. For instance, a band of reds represent blood, greens for frogs, browns for cattle pestilence, yellow for the boils, blues for hail, progressively darker grays for locusts gradually covering the skies, blackened tones for darkness, and reds again for the death of the firstborn.
“By eschewing realistic depictions of the plagues, my design parallels Rabbi Yehuda’s acronym for the plagues: d’tzach, adash, be’ahav. This is a way to avoid the triumphant pronouncement of the plagues, and sensitively minimize their role in the Passover story,” explained Berkowitz, a Kol HaOt cofounder.
In addition to its annual Passover fair, Kol HaOt conducts a variety of arts-based, interactive programs throughout the year for local residents, tourists and schools, at its center in the Hutzot Hayotzer Jerusalem Artists’ Colony.
All of the Kol HaOt workshops and events combine the magic of the visual and performing arts with Jewish texts, ideas, history and values.
Yair Medina, a cofounder of Kol HaOt, noted: “By harnessing the arts, participants in Kol HaOt programs can explore their own intimate connection to Jewish traditions and sources.”
The Kol HaOt Illuminated Haggada Fair is open to the public and admission is free. For more information, visit