The symbology of Passover, the Festival of freedom, liberation, emancipation, or self-determination – depending on how one interprets the Hebrew definition of the celebration, חג החרות, chag ha-cherut – is difficult to escape.
Ritual objects and material culture do not shy away from these interpretations, and instead enhance them by pointing to the practical implications of the understanding of symbols through history.
Passover haggadot, the books that include the ritual text read during the Seder, are often illustrated, and give a visual representation of what history meant, and continues to mean, to their makers (and to their readers).
One could feast on the diversity of views represented in the Hagaddah Collection of The Magnes, which ranges from 18th-century Germany to 20th-century Shanghai, passing (of course) through Berkeley in the Sixties.
Passover textiles include specially designed covers for the matzah (Heb. מצה; Yiddish matsoh), the unleavened bread eaten during the Passover Seder, and cases used to cover pillows on which those attending a Seder ritually recline.
The materials and shapes of these textiles vary through time, and from place to place. The often round form of earlier examples (mostly from Central and Eastern Europe) follows that of hand-made matzah, and may include separate compartments for the three pieces of matzah eaten during the different stages of the Passover Seder. The rectangular or square shape may instead reflect that of modern, often machine-made, matzah. The textiles are often inscribed in Hebrew, with words lifted from the Passover Haggadah. They may also include dates, initials, and names of their makers.
The Magnes Collection includes a matzah cover from San Francisco, dating from 1880:
…and a pillow cover (possibly from Eastern Europe) that, quoting the Haggadah, reminds those attending the Seder that “This night, we all recline” (הלילה הזה כולנו מסובין).
In a different way than texts, Passover textiles seem to be meant to help focusing on a more practical approach to the Festival.
Their varying forms and styles are designed to facilitate the performance of the ritual, an interpretative path that travels through actions, and body language. They instruct Seder-goers by stating: “place the matzah here,” “move it there after it is broken in two parts,” “recline,” and so on.
Perhaps so that the intellectual yearnings can truly roam free.