Avadim Hayyinu in Art


At the beginning of the Maggid section of the Haggadah, we read the passage, "We were slaves to Paroh in Egypt" ("עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם"). The two miniatures shown here, one from the Munich Haggadah1 and one from the Barcelona Haggadah,2 both depict this passage, while the "The Egyptians Afflicted the Israelites" image3 draws off the original description of slavery in Sefer Shemot. The artists' different portrayals of the bondage and the slaves' dress, gender, and age suggest different possibilities as to the nature of the Israelite oppression as a whole.

Contrasting Images

Munich Haggadah

This miniature depicts several slaves working in various stages of building construction. Two adults mix raw materials, while three younger males form and carry the bricks. On the left side, another slave uses these bricks to build a tower. All are dressed in cloaks of various green or pink shades. In the middle, an Egyptian slave master looks surprisingly similar to the slaves over which he stands guard. He is distinguished only by his accusatory stance and the club he holds in his hand.

Egyptians Afflicted the Israelites

In contrast to the Munich Haggadah, this engraving portrays both male and female slaves, all dressed in tattered clothing. In the foreground, a man bends under the weight of four heavy bricks, while an elderly slave slumps in exhaustion next to him. One woman carries a jug on her head ,and another kneels on the floor, her hands held to her head in distress. To the left, a richly garbed Egyptian watches over the slaves with a raised staff in his hand. In the background, another Egyptian lifts a child to throw him into the river, while the anguished mother protests behind him.

Barcelona Haggadah

The top half of the page displays several Israelites building a brick tower. They are clothed in dull grey tunics and white bonnets, and appear to be female.4 On the right, a slave master beats one of the slaves, while two other Egyptians sit on horses and watch. The bottom of the image depicts the various stages of brick building, with one slave mixing the mortar, another forming the bricks, and a final slave carrying the finished product. The entire page is framed by fanciful creatures and foliage scrolls.5

Relationship to the Text of the Haggadah

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the text of the Haggadah and different possible interpretive stances:

Who Was Enslaved?

While the illustrator of the engraving in Foster's Bible Pictures includes both male and female slaves in his image, the artist of the Munich Haggadah depicts only males, with children working alongside adults. The images in the Barcelona Haggadah are somewhat androgynous, but at first glance appear to be predominantly female. Who was included in the edict of bondage? Were only men expected to work, or also females?6 Did children work beside their parents, or were they exempt? What about the elderly? Finally, if women were enslaved, were they expected to do the heavy work of brick building, or were they assigned tasks generally performed by females?7  See Who was Enslaved in Egypt? for more.

Masters and Servants

In both Foster's Bible Pictures and the Barcelona Haggadah, there is a clear demarcation between masters and servants.8 In the Munich Haggadah, in contrast, master and slave look almost identical. The only indications that one is the Egyptian are the club in his hand and his accusing finger. How different were the Israelites from their neighboring Egyptians? Was their slave status evident to all? Did the Israelites maintain distinctive dress or habits that separated them from others, or had they assimilated to the extent that they appeared and acted just like the Egyptians amongst whom they lived? See Israelites' Religious Identity for elaboration.

Type of Work

All three images highlight the brick building of the Israelites, but the illustrator of Bible Pictures also adds an image of a woman carrying a water jug. Was the work of the Israelites limited to construction of storehouses or did they work in other areas as well? Were they slaves to the state or also to individuals? The majority of verses would suggest the former, though one might suggest that "בְכָל עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה" refers to fields of individual Egyptians. RambanShemot 1:11About R. Moshe Nachmanides further suggests that the word "מִצְרַיִם" in the phrase "וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ" refers, not to the government of Egypt, but to Egyptian laypeople.9

Penniless and Ragged?

While the Israelites in Foster's Bible Pictures are dressed in rags, the slaves of both Haggadot appear to be decently attired. Was poverty part and parcel of the Egyptian slavery experience? Did the Israelites have any possessions they could call their own? Though one tends to think of slaves as people who get no wages and therefore own nothing, the verses attest to the Israelites having their own homes and cattle. At the same time, before leaving they are told to ask for gold and silver vessels and dresses, suggesting that these might have been lacking.  See Nature of the Bondage for elaboration.