Among other things, the Exodus story is a biblical menagerie. Joseph interprets a bovine dream; Moses’ and Aaron’s staffs become serpents; and plagues kill all of the fish in the Nile (first), Egyptian horses, donkeys, camels, sheep, and cattle (fifth), and all of the Egyptian first-born animals (final plague). Additionally, the second plague summons frogs or crocodiles; the third conjures lice; the fourth unleashes wild animals; and locusts constitute the eighth.
Perhaps desert hares—which were evidently prominent enough to earn their own hieroglyph—were among the casualties of the 10th plague, but they don’t appear at all in the story of Passover, which begins the night of March 25. That’s why it’s all the more bewildering that hares appear so prominently in manuscripts of the haggadah, the central text of the Passover Seder meal. Hares are particularly bizarre additions since they aren’t Kosher per the standard translation of the Hebrew arnevet in Leviticus 11:6, which condemns the hare for chewing its cud but not having split hooves.
But when it comes to Passover texts, there’s an entire megillah when it comes to hares, for whom the holiday seems to be an open hunting season.
Two brown hares flee from a hunter brandishing a spear and his three dogs in an illustration from the First Cincinnati Haggadah, which was produced by German scribe Meir Jaffe in the late 15th century. In the 1742 Haggadah by Jacob ben Joseph Conegliano, two hares try to escape the clutches of two dogs and a hunter on horseback blowing a horn. The hare hunt illustration in a 1526 Haggadah from Prague adds the obstacle of a net, and in some illustrations, the hares appear stuck in the nets.
Although the nets which appear in the illustrations are quite large and one wonders how trapped the hares would really be in such an enclosure, medieval hunting manuals, such as Gaston Phoebus’ Livre De Chasse (1387-8), detail the method, according to Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “It apparently was a real technique,” he says.
Epstein’s 1997 book, “Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature” includes a chapter on “The Elusive Hare: Constructing Identity,” in which he argued that Jews appropriated the iconography of the Christian majority—in this case the hare hunt—to “articulate their own, often subversive critiques.”
Whereas some scholars had identified the origin of the hare hunt imagery in the haggadah as a pun (the German jag den has, or hare hunt, resembles the Passover Hebrew mnemonic Yaknehaz), Epstein cited the pun as a later parking space for the imagery after it had already entered the Passover vocabulary in other contexts.
“I must confess that when I wrote that book, I viewed Christians as ‘owning’ medieval visual culture, and Jews appropriating images from it in a sort of love story in aggressive garb,” Epstein says, but that had changed by the time he published his second book, “The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination,” in 2011. That book “views the Jewish and Christian relationship to medieval visual culture as more of a mutual fishing expedition, where each side drew upon symbols in the common cultural pool, and did often radically different things with them,” he says.
Hare hunts don’t only appear in Jewish and Christian contexts, of course. A mid-7th century Corinthian vase, for example, features a lion and hare hunt. And a scroll attributed to the Japanese artist Toba Sojo (1053-1140) depicts more than half a dozen scenes with hares, including a hunt, but Sojo’s hunt casts the hare (or perhaps a rabbit) as the pursuer and a monkey as the hunted. Sojo’s other images include hares shooting arrows and wrestling frogs. In a late 13th century or early 14th century manuscript at the British Library, a hare—which carries a spear and a shield and rides a snail with a human head—jousts with a similarly armed dog riding on another hare.
That kind of playfulness (perhaps anticipating Surrealism) with more promising odds for the hare surfaces in some Passover texts too.
Not only does the hunter pose no threat to the hunted in the 14th century Barcelona Haggadah, but the illustration at the top of the page shows the hare enthroned as the dog serves it a goblet of wine. And elsewhere in the same haggadah, a regally dressed hare standing on its hind legs hits a seated dog with a club. A demonic figure looks on and offers an enormous chalice to the hare, which has bested its canine opponent; talk about the mouse that roared.