Birds' Head Haggadah

Birds' Head Haggadah

South Germany — ca. 1300

Humans with the heads of birds participate in the Seder dinner and reenact the story of Passover in the oldest surviving Ashkenazi Haggadah

  1. This manuscript originated ca. 1300 in the Upper Rhine region of Southern Germany

  2. Jewish figures have the faces of birds while non-Jewish figures have no faces at all

  3. Scholars continue to debate the meaning of this unusual illustration 700 years later

Birds' Head Haggadah

  1. Description
  2. Facsimile Editions (1)
Birds' Head Haggadah

The name of this early Passover Haggadah derives from its depiction of human figures with pronounced birds’ heads. The enigmatic practice of drawing bird and animal heads in place of human faces is found in other Ashkenazi manuscripts of the 13th and 14th centuries and has been interpreted in various ways. This is the first illustrated Haggadah known to be produced as an entity separate from the prayer book. It contains depictions with ritual and textual themes: the preparation of matzah and the various blessings over wine and food recited during the Seder; biblical scenes like the gathering of the manna or the giving of the Torah; and messianic images such as the rebuilt Jerusalem. 2 full-page miniatures and 33 decorative borders adorn the text concerning the Seder, the ritualized feast of Passover.

Birds' Head Haggadah

As the central event of the Passover festival, the ritualized meal of Seder is one of the oldest and most important traditions in Judaism and one that would not be complete without a Haggadah to guide the participants through the meal and the story surrounding it. This manuscript created ca. 1300 is the oldest surviving Ashkenazi Haggadah and originated in the Upper Rhine region of southern Germany, possibly near Würzburg. Furthermore, it is the first to be bound separately and not part of a larger Hebrew prayer book. The text is executed in block calligraphy and is adorned by colorful illustrations showing people participating in the Seder as well as some depictions of historical events. A curious feature of this manuscript is that all the Jewish figures are depicted with the faces and beaks of birds, hence its name the Birds’ Head Haggadah. Non-Jews and the faces of angels, the sun, and moon are all blank but the reason for this unusual artistic program is unclear and debated. Nonetheless, the fascinating and whimsical illustrations of the manuscript make it a true jewel of medieval illumination.

A Famous Scribe

The hand responsible for the neatly written text is identified by the Hebrew name מנחם or Menahem, who is also credited with creating the Leipzig Machzor among other fine Hebrew manuscripts. Each page has twelve rows of text written in block calligraphy with dark brown ink and tempera on parchment. Smaller, more densely written script can be found in the margins with additional details for conducting the Seder and abiding by the laws that pertain to Passover, likely added at a later date, and similar “captions” have been added to certain illustrations.

A Feast for Birds

Two full-page miniatures are found in the text, one at the beginning and the other at the end of the text. The opening miniature shows a husband and wife seated at their Seder table while the closing miniature is a vision of a rebuilt Jerusalem in the messianic era. 33 of the text pages found between these images are adorned by marginal illustrations that closely follow the text and show both the feast itself and historical events associated with it. Images of the feast include roasting of the Paschal lamb, baking and breaking matzo bread, as well as grinding and eating bitter herbs. Other scene show the Jewish people fleeing Egypt with their unleavened bread, the pursuit of the Pharaoh to the banks of the Red Sea, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and presenting the Pentateuch to his people, and the Jews receiving manna from heaven while wandering the desert. Jewish figures are dressed in contemporary German clothing with the pointed “Jewish hat” that was mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 shown being worn by leaders and teachers such as Moses. Finally, the bird’s heads on their bodies are not uniform but are individualized.

Debated Birds’ Heads

Various theories attempt to explain the peculiar artistic choices made in this work. Some argue it was a way to avoid the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images and other Jewish manuscripts use animal head substitutes as well. Others claim they are the heads of eagles – a possible reference to the heraldic symbol of the Holy Roman Emperor, under whose protection German Jews lived, or that they are actually the heads of griffins and not birds, pointing to the common use of lion-eagle-human hybrids in Jewish iconography. They could even be a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the animal-head gods worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. Debates over the imagery, and whether it was Jewish or Christian artists who created them, continue to swirl around the manuscript.

A Contested Ownership

It is not known who commissioned the work or who owned it for most of the last 700 years, but in the 20th century the manuscript was owned by the family of Johanna Benedikt. The manuscript was presented as a wedding present to her new husband, the German Jewish lawyer and parliamentarian Ludwig Marum (1882-1934) who lived in Karslruhe. The manuscript disappeared after he was arrested in 1933 and sent to a concentration camp where he was murdered in the following year. It resurfaced in Jerusalem in 1946 in the possession of a German Jewish refugee named Herbert Kahn, who sold it to the predecessor institution of the Israel Museum for $600. The Marum family maintains that Kahn had no right to sell the manuscript and have demanded compensation for the manuscript but also maintain that it should be kept on exhibition in the museum for the public good. Indeed, many works of art stolen in the course of World War II face similar legal disputes over ownership.


Alternative Titles
Size / Format
47 pages / 27.0 × 18.2 cm
ca. 1300
2 full-page miniatures, 33 decorated borders
The full Hebrew text of the Haggadah
Artist / School
Previous Owners
Johanna Benedikt's family
Ludwig Marum
Bezalel National Museum

Available facsimile editions:
Facsimile Editions

#1 Birds' Head Haggadah

Commentary: 1 volume by Daniyel Goldshmidṭ and Moshe Spitzer
Languages: English, Hebrew
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
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