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Article: A Renaissance Humorist

הומור בליל הסדר

A Renaissance Humorist

Yoel Finkelman

Joel ben Simeon was not only one of the most famous Jewish scribes of the Renaissance; he was also a very funny man. Born and trained in Germany in the second half of the fifteenth century, he moved between Germany and northern Italy, copying and illustrating magnificent prayer books. Around thirty of his works have survived and are examples of some of the most beautiful Hebrew prayer books and Passover Haggadot in existence. His impeccable calligraphy is matched by evocative illuminations, such as the enslaved Israelites building castles for the Egyptians or taskmasters drowning Israelite babies in the Nile.

Joel ben Simeon used his license as an illustrator to amuse readers. For example, the wise son in the Haggadah is picking his nose, thus making a witty pun on the Hebrew word af, used in the Haggadah to mean “even” but which can also mean “nose.” Likewise, the son “who does not know how to ask” is depicted as too foolish to wear matching shoes or put on trousers. One drawing depicts a nude woman in the margins of the holy book. There is also a depiction of a lazy man responsible for preparing the Passover sacrifice who, after making himself comfortable and removing his shoes, is far more interested in warming his feet by the fire and enjoying a bottle of wine than in the sanctity of the religious ritual.

This manuscript was stolen by the Nazis from the Paris branch of the Rothschild family, keepers of a renowned collection of Hebrew manuscripts. After the war, it made its way to the United States, where it was bought by an innocent collector who was unaware of the theft. He donated it to Yale University, from where it was returned to the Rothschild family, who, in turn, donated it to the National Library.