From 17th-century Haggadah in a plain brown wrapper, a major collection grew

Dr. Ierachmiel “Yerach” Daskal (second from left), of Elkins Park, talks with attendees at his lecture and opening of an exhibit of Daskal's collection of historic Haggadot at Gratz College. Haggadot are the books used during a Passover seder to guide those gathered through the holiday meal.

It arrived at Dr. Ierachmiel “Yerach” Daskal's home 40 years ago, wrapped in brown paper and secured with twine — a humble package bearing a 17th-century religious book that eventually would multiply into a prodigious collection.

The old tome was a Haggadah, the guide to the liturgy of the Passover Seder. Published in 1695, it had been found in Israel and sent by a bookseller to Daskal, who at first was less interested in the words inside than in the rare map of the Holy Land attached to the back. But as the physician leafed through the yellowed pages of Hebrew text, with their ancient illustrations of the Exodus story, the roots of an obsession took hold.

“When you open one that is 300 years old and you see the wine stains on the pages, and crumbs of matzoh, it comes to life,” said Daskal, of Elkins Park. “You want to know what is the history. Who was this family?”

A retired chairman of pathology and laboratory medicine at Albert Einstein Medical Center, the 77-year-old Daskal and his wife, Dalia, have since amassed nearly 800 prized Haggadot (the plural in Hebrew) from scores of countries, dating from 1583 to 1969, and discovered in such unlikely places as an outdoor market in Jerusalem, in a pile near a gutter. Some of the couple’s most historic Haggadot are on exhibit through May at Gratz College in Melrose Park.

“We fell in love with the text, and it’s been an amazing journey,” Dalia Daskal said after her husband gave a brief lecture on the collection last week at the college’s Tuttleman Library.

Haggadot serve as step-by-step guides to the Seder dinner, which marks the beginning of Passover. The eight-day festival, which starts Monday evening, commemorates the Israelites' flight from slavery — a story that is the centerpiece of the book, which contains prayers, commentaries, songs, and illustrations.

During the Seder ("order" in Hebrew), guests participate in rituals including dipping greens in saltwater, symbolizing the salt in the tears of enslaved ancestors, and breaking the matzoh, the unleavened bread representing the haste with which the Israelites escaped Egypt, leaving them no time to wait for bread to rise.

“The Haggadah suggests that in every generation, people should view themselves as if they personally had gone out of Egypt, and that has allowed Jews to take the Passover story and to read it in light of their own times,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Tuttleman librarian Nancy Nitzberg calls the books “a tangible thread of Jewish history that serves as a link through time and geography.”

The first printed Haggadah, known as the Guadalajara Haggadah, is believed to have been published in 1480 in Guadalajara, Spain. The National Library of Israel has the only known copy, the greatest treasure among its 10,000 Haggadot. The University of Pennsylvania also has an expansive collection housed in the school’s Library of the Herman D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. The Arnold Levin Haggadah Collection includes more than 1,800 books.

Over the centuries, the book has evolved from traditional retellings of the Exodus story to modern adaptations that apply themes of slavery and freedom to social justice and political issues. The Freedom Seder, a New Haggadah for Passover, created in 1969 by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of Mount Airy, celebrated the Seder in the context of the civil rights movement. Other iterations focus on environmental justice, gay rights, and interfaith families.

At Haggadot.com, visitors can create their own Haggadah, culling parts from  myriad Haggadot that incorporate topics ranging from the art stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis during the Holocaust, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the challenges faced by people recovering from substance abuse.

“I think a lot of people use whatever Haggadah they have growing up and don't realize there is a lot of variety out there and you can find one that fits your needs or make one yourself,” said Tamar Fox, of Center City, Haggadot.com’s editorial director.

Yerach Daskal’s first memory of a Haggadah is the one his family used when he was growing up in Buhisi, Romania. The book had a red cover with brittle pages and a single illustration, of a plate with matzoh.

“I thought it was so boring,” Daskal said.

The family took it with them when they emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s. Daskal attended school, served in the military, and then moved to Canada, where he earned his doctorate in molecular biology at McGill University in Montreal. He later received his medical degree from the University of Texas, and moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1985, when he began working at Einstein. He retired in 2008.

Much of Daskal’s spare time has been spent traveling with his family, searching for Haggadot wherever they are in the world. He and his wife have found the books while riding bikes in Amsterdam and shopping at open markets in Israel. He declined to say how much he has paid for his Haggadot.

The Daskals count among their favorites an 1874 edition published in India with illustrations of women in saris making matzoh; a book likely published by Venetian Christians in 1583 because Jews in the ghettos weren’t allowed to own printing presses; and, of course, the 1695 Haggadah that began the quest.

On Thursday, Marge Boxbaum, of Lansdale, listened as Daskal talked about the collection. Boxbaum, a substitute teacher, said she came to the exhibit for a little inspiration to prepare “for all the work I have ahead of me to get ready for” Passover. She’s hosting a dinner for 10.

Boxbaum walked around the display table and called the exhibit a “treasure chest.”

“When we sit down at our tables, we are reading these words that have been through every century, every continent,” she said. “It’s just amazing to me.”

If you go: Selections from the Daskal Collection of Historic Haggadot, Tuttleman Library, Gratz College, 7605 Old York Road, Melrose Park. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays. Closed for Passover: April 10-12 and April 17-18. For information call the college at 215-635-7300. Ext. 159.