The First Musical Haggadah was Not for Jews

The first Haggadah to include musical notation was Liber Rituum Paschalium (The Book of Passover Rituals), a Latin translation of the Haggadah written by Johann Stephan Rittangel. Released in 1644, Liber Ritum Paschalium is part of a long-standing Christian interest in Passover as Christians perceive the holiday to be Jesus’s last supper. It was one of many books produced by non-Jewish scholars of Hebrew, known as Christian Hebraists, to satisfy German-gentile curiosity in Judaism during the 17th century. As antisemitism continues to plague our world, and discussions of cultural appropriation are top of mind, Rittangel’s Haggadah speaks to how deep rooted these issues are in our society. 

Christian Hebraism is the study of Hebrew Judaic texts, most commonly the Torah, by Christian scholars. Christian Hebraists exhibit both a fascination with Jews as the creed of Jesus and contempt for Rabbinic Judaism. The study of Hebrew was a gateway to a better understanding of their Messiah as well as their Jewish enemies. Christian scholars studied Hebrew scripture for polemic ends, translating Jewish texts to attack their merit, often with the hope of converting Jews to Christianity.

Their attack on Jews was not anything new. Since the Middle Ages, Christians made troubling assertions about Jews, which some historians believe plays into the ritual of opening the door for Elijah during the Seder. In the Middle Ages, anti-Jewish hate often took the form of blood libels. Many accused Jews of using the blood of gentile children for baking their matzah. Some accusers even resorted to laying the corpses of children outside Jewish homes to plant evidence for their false claims. The historian Shalom Ben-Chorin asserts that Jews who opened their doors during the Seder were trying to ensure that an infant’s body was not left in their doorway. The philosopher Adi Ophir agrees there is a more sombre reason behind opening the door for Elijah. He does not, however, paint Jews as the victims in this narrative. Instead, Ophir interprets the door opening as a demonstration of perseverance, where Jews of history would prove to themselves and their adversaries that they were not afraid. 

The scholar Rittangel was one such adversary. 

Born in 1606 in Forchheim, Prussia (now Germany), Rittangel was a controversial figure. His contemporaries judged him for looking like an Eastern European rabbi and he was so well-versed in the Hebrew language and matters of the Jewish faith that rumours circulated about whether he was born Roman Catholic or Jewish. Though his religion at birth has never been confirmed, historians agree Rittangel died as a member of the Church. With his religious allegiance in question, no faith group, whether Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, was certain he represented their interests. 

Jewish or not, Rittangel expressed a strong kinship toward Jews. He spent around 20 years studying Hebrew and Jewish literature, living among the Jews of Poland and Turkey sometime between 1606 and 1640. 

In 1641 Rittangel left Prussia, as well as his wife and child, for the Netherlands to teach Hebrew in Amsterdam. En route, according to Rittangel, his houseboat was attacked by pirates and he was taken to London, England, against his will. In London, Rittangel built a reputation as an eminent scholar of Karaism among Christian Hebraists.

A few years later, in 1644, Rittangel published his Latin translation of the Haggadah, including his own commentary on the Passover rites of Jews. Given Rittangel’s simultaneous devotion to Christianity and affinity for Jewish customs, his Haggadah abounds with contradictions. Liber Rituum Paschalium features a fascinating combination of nuanced insights on Passover and incorrect assumptions about the holiday. At some points he expresses admiration for the Jews while also expressing prejudices against them. 

Rittangel ransacked Jewish sources for depictions of the ritual world that birthed Jesus and his apostles. He translated the Passover Haggadah to promote the word of God as he understood it. If Christianity was born out of Judaism, Rittangel believed Jewish works would prove the veracity of the offshoot religion.

In the preface, Rittangel writes, “When this book [the Haggadah] came to me, I saw the beauty of its description and the beauty of its appearance, and I said in my heart to copy it from beginning to end in order to benefit us and our hearts and those after us in Euphrates in matters concerning the roots of our religion but especially in matters regarding the foundations of [our] faith.”

However, serving God and his faith wasn’t the sole purpose of Rittangel’s endeavour. He unabashedly reveals, in the Haggadah’s dedication, that he hopes the reader will increase his status and desirability as a translator, because, “soon you will encourage me to transfer more and more famous books with my own hand.” 

The only illustration in Liber Rituum Paschalium is a rendering of the Messiah on a donkey, inserted below Rittangel’s description of Elijah’s cup. 

Rittangel includes transcriptions of two Passover songs in his Haggadah: Ki Lo Naeh and Adir Hu. Interestingly, both are Hebrew acrostic hymns of praise.

Ki Lo Naeh was popular among Western European Jewry and during the period in which Rittangel was translating the liturgy of Passover. At this time, the first night of Passover, Addir Hu was the hymn’s second-night counterpart. While these two Passover melodies are the first to ever be transcribed in a Haggadah, their lyrics were some of the last to be included in Jewish Seders, inserted into the Haggadah toward the end of the Middle Ages. Addir Hu was first written in the 16th century and popularized in the 17th when Rittangel published his Haggadah. Today, the hymn is heard in the synagogue during Passover and is also recited as part of the Seder. The most common tune is a simple Germanic melody that is similar to the one Rittangel uses. 

Rittangel includes transcriptions of two Passover songs in his Haggadah: Ki Lo Naeh and Adir Hu. Here is the musical notation of the former.

Rittangel does not clarify where he heard the melodies he includes for Ki Lo Naeh and Addir Hu, nor does he credit the person who notated them. He was not a musician so I assume he did not notate these melodies. By only giving himself credit, we are reminded of what may be the primary purpose of Rittangel’s musical Haggadah: to heighten the scholar’s own status in the world of Christian Hebraism. 

By notating Passover melodies, Rittangel strengthened the picture of the Jews he wanted to paint. He selected two messianic Jewish hymns to depict the Jews as a misguided community who have failed to recognize that the “true messiah” already arrived. 

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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