Rabbit Season

6 04 2012

Some years ago, a friend of mine bought me a beautiful facsimile of a Haggada from Prague, originally printed in 1527. After a few pages, the Haggada features an odd illustration: a man, mounted atop a horse, blowing a bugle while his dogs chase a group of rabbits. Although the picture is small, it would appear that the rabbits are about to reach a fence, and so I assumed that the drawing was designed to convey the theme of persecution, the threat of annihilation, and the possibility of redemption.

All things told, it’s an odd way to convey this theme. Rabbit hunting was never a popular sport amongst European Jews, with hunting for any purpose other than the utility of animals (food, clothing, etc) being halakhically forbidden as “צער בעלי חיים”: [causing] suffering to living creatures. Does this illustration merely testify to the appropriation of a non-Jewish trope, refashioned into a Jewish message? Are the rabbits supposed to represent Jews, fleeing from their non-Jewish persecutors? If the horseman is a wicked tyrant and his dogs the means of his oppressing Jews, then why do the rabbits not have a leader of their own? Is not the message of Pesach the liberation that occurred under Moses in particular? No matter which way I choose to configure it, this picture causes me consternation.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, in his remarkable Haggadah and History, presents pages from printed Haggadot over the course of the last five hundred years. Second only to the Torah itself, the Haggada has gone through more reprintings than any other Jewish book, and the variety of different editions over this last half-millennium alone is fascinating. Surprisingly, the image of the rabbit hunt is one that recurs. Here, for example, is an illustration from the Augsburg Haggada of 1534. As you can see, the rabbits are making their way under the fence, but are very close to being devoured by the dogs that follow immediately behind them:

Later within the same Haggada, the image reappears. This time, it is clear that the rabbits have escaped, that the fence now lies between them and their hunters, and that the theme of liberation is the one that is being conveyed:

Still, this doesn’t explain the origin of the motif. Why a rabbit hunt in particular? As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi points out, it is actually an allusion to a sugya in the Babylonian Talmud, which appears in Pesachim 102b-103a. In that discussion, the issue is raised as to the order in which one must make the various necessary blessings, in the event that Pesach coincides either with the onset of Shabbat (as it does this year) or with Shabbat’s conclusion. The relevant section, which truly testifies to the fact that every Jew has his own opinion, reads as follows:

גופא יום טוב שחל להיות אחר השבת רב אמר יקנ”ה ושמואל אמר ינה”ק ורבה אמר יהנ”ק ולוי אמר קני”ה ורבנן אמרי קינ”ה מר בריה דרבנא אמר נקי”ה מרתא אמר משמיה דר’ יהושע ניה”ק שלח ליה אבוה דשמואל לרבי ילמדו רבינו סדר הבדלות היאך שלח ליה כך אמר רבי ישמעאל בר רבי יוסי שאמר משום אביו שאמר משום רבי יהושע בן חנניה נהי”ק אמר ר’ חנינא משל דר’ יהושע בן חנניה למלך שיוצא ואפרכוס נכנס מלווין את המלך ואח”כ יוצאים לקראת אפרכוס מאי הוי עלה אביי אמר יקזנ”ה ורבא אמר יקנה”ז והילכתא כרבא

When the festival occurs at the conclusion of Shabbat, Rav says [that the order of blessings is]: wine, kiddush, the candles and then havdala;
Shmuel says: wine, candles, havdala and then kiddush;
Rabba says: wine, havdala, candles and then kiddush;
Levi says: kiddush, candles, wine and then havdala;
The other rabbis say: kiddush, wine, candles and then havdala;
Mar, the son of Ravina, says: candles, kiddush, wine and then havdala;
Marta, in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua, says: candles, wine, havdala and then kiddush.
Shmuel’s father went to Rabbi [Yehuda haNasi] and he asked him, “How did the rabbis teach the order of havdalot?”
He was told, “Thus said Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi, who spoke in the name of his father, who spoke in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah: candles, havdala, wine and then kiddush.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah likened this to a king who is leaving while a governor is entering. We escort the king, and only afterwards do we go out to greet the governor.
What is the conclusion?
Abayyei says: wine, kiddush, “time” [a reference to the previously unmentioned blessing of thanksgiving – “שהחינו” – over enabling us to reach this season], candles and then havdala.”
Rava says: wine, kiddush, candles, havdala and then “time”.
The halakha is like Rava.

In this sugya, we have no fewer than eight different opinions and two different conclusions, each one of which is expressed by means of an acronym for the words wine (יין), kiddush (קידוש), candles (נר), havdala (הבדלה) and time (זמן). The resulting halakha, given in the name of Rava (which is a slight modification of the first opinion, given in the name of Rav) is thus conveyed by the acronym יקנה”ז, or yaknehaz. And as it is not uncommon for liturgical texts to feature halakhic information, there were many haggadot that were printed with this acronym, somewhere near the various blessings themselves.

Of course, a picture tells a thousand words, and as יקנה”ז (yaknehaz) sounds an awful lot like יאגן האז (yagn haz), which is Yiddish for “rabbit hunt”, the pictorial mnemonic in question came into existence. Although Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi doesn’t suggest as much, it would appear that this is another instance in which the metaphor is mistaken for the message. The development of the illustration into a motif that conveys the theme of escape, rather than merely a rabbit hunt with the word יקנה”ז beneath it, evidences both a distaste for the hunting of animals, as well as a certain confusion over why the Haggada appears to be advocating such a thing in the first place.


Wishing you all a festive season of liberation, whether you identify with the rabbit or the hound. For my part, I’m still sitting on the fence.




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