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 from the Munich Haggadah1 and from the Barcelona Haggadah,2 both depict this passage, while the image from the Rylands Leipnik Haggadah3 illustrates a later passage from the "Arami Oved Avi" section of the Haggadah which similarly references the slave experience. 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.

Rylands Leipnik Haggadah

In this miniature, the slaves all appear to be children, though it is hard to tell if they are male or female. They are engaged in a variety of tasks, with one holding a pick, a second carrying buckets of water, a third loaded under a pile of hay, and yet others pulling a wheel barrow loaded with stones. In the foreground and background piles of bricks attest also to brick-building. On the left, three adult figures (including one female), all clad more richly than the slaves, stand next to a building, perhaps to oversee the work.

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?

The artist of the Munich Haggadah depicts only male slaves, with children working alongside adults. In contrast, the images in the Barcelona Haggadah 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 the Barcelona and Rylands Leipnik Haggadot, 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 mark the brick building of the Israelites, but the Leipnik Haggadah also depicts people working in the field and carrying water. 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?

Perhaps surprisingly, the slaves of all three Haggadot appear to be decently attired rather than dressed in rags as might be supposed. 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.

עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת

In both the Munich and Barcelona Haggadot, the Israelites work to build a tower. This is lacking in the Rylands Leipnik Haggadah, which instead highlights the Israelites bringing wheat, water and stones into a walled area. The different depictions might relate to a debate regarding the meaning of "עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת".  While a majority of commentators assume the term refers to cities for food storage, the Septuagint translates the phrase as "fortified cities" built for defense.