The Golden Haggadah is a Hebrew service book for the celebration of Passover Eve that originally belonged to a wealthy medieval Jewish family. Richly illuminated, the manuscript was produced in Catalonia in the early fourteenth century. Each full-page miniature comprises four panels meant to be read from right to left (beginning at the upper right)—as when reading Hebrew.
This is the Golden Haggadah’s final fully-illuminated folio, and its first panel shows Miriam’s victory song (Exodus 15:20), followed by the preparations for the ritual Seder in the three accompanying panels: the distribution of matzoh and horoset to children at the upper left; the cleaning of a house by the women in preparation for the Passover at the lower right; and the slaughter of the Passover lamb and the purification of utensils at the lower left .
It is interesting that the decision was made to highlight Miriam’s Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:20) in this folio rather than the song recited by her brother Moses (vv.1–19). In making this choice, the focus of attention is directed to her ritual leadership of a religious and politically significant ceremony: the celebration of the deliverance of the Israelites from their enemy.
Miriam is depicted as a young maiden, clad in an elegant medieval gown. She holds a small square frame drum (adufe) decorated with an Islamic motif, alongside three other female musicians who play a lute—an instrument associated with the female form (Dowling Long 2011: 108–113)—a circular frame drum (pandero), the cymbal, and clappers.
Interestingly, in many cultures, the adufe or frame drum is a woman’s drum, associated with female sexuality. Often it is the only drum that women are permitted to use (Montagu 2007: 29)—a tradition that continues in parts of Portugal and Spain today (Cohen 2008). Doubleday (2008: 13) notes that the drum is ‘a symbol par excellence of the womb’, with the drum skin signifying ‘the unbroken hymen’, and the women’s drum playing ‘likened to sexual intercourse’ (ibid: 28).
It is no wonder that the artists of the Golden Haggadah included it in their depiction of Miriam playing her ‘timbrel’, alongside other scenes of Jewish domestic life, where a women’s role, as a mother and a homemaker, are considered pivotal in nurturing and sustaining the religious life of the community.
Cohen, Judith R. 2008. ‘“This Drum I Play”: Women and Square Frame Drums in Portugal and Spain’, Ethnomusicology Forum, 17.1: 95–124
Doubleday, Veronica. 2008. ‘An Overview of Musical Instruments and Gender’, Ethnomusicology Forum, 17.1: 3–39
Dowling Long, Siobhán. 2011. ‘Musical Instruments in Biblical Art: Evaristo Baschensis’s Still Life with Musical Instruments’, in Bible, Art, Gallery, ed. by Martin O’Kane (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix), pp. 97–121
Montagu, Jeremy. 2007. Origins and Development of Musical Instruments (Lanham: Scarecrow Press)
Saulter, Cia. 2010. The Miriam Tradition: Teaching Embodied Torah (Urbana: University of Illinois)
20Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”