In some medieval miniatures of Seder feast, feline creatures appear under the table at the feet of the celebrating family.
What do these animals do at such an occasion?
The Pesahim tractate of the Babylonian Talmud discusses at length what to do if a mouse runs into the searched house with a bread crumb in its mouth (bPes 10b). The question is if the house has to be searched again or not.
In the Second Nuremberg Haggadah, the cat itself comments on its task: “Behold, I bite the mouse, lest he eat the grain” (הנני נושך בעכבר פן יאכל את הבר). Another image on the same folio depicts a man pouring the content of a bowl into a big vessel. The caption says: “One hides the leaven and the grain, lest the mouse drag it away.” Thus it seems that cats are “invited” to catch mice which might bring in some leavened bread crumbs to the searched and already ritually clean house.
A fifteenth-century Italian prayer book shows how warmly cats were welcomed under the Seder table:
Sounds a bit contradictory with this, what Bernard Picart in his famous Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (published with Jean Frederic Bernard between 1723 and 1743) says about cats and mice being “welcomed” during the preparation of the matzah.
“Nor are the Jews less scrupulous as to the composition of their unleavened bread, than in their search for the leavened bread and in the preparation of the grain… and the master of the house, or father of the family would do well, some way, to have a hand in making the unleavened bread; if he cannot, or must not set his hands to the paste, at least to stand by during so pious an operation; to give free course to such small bits of paste as fall off from the great lump, and full liberty to the cats and mice to eat them, still as they roll down upon the ground.” (Bernard Picart and Jean Frédéric Bernard, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Nations of the KnownWorld, vol. 1 [London: Nicholas Prevost, 1731], 208)
The Religious Ceremonies and Customs
Cats under the Seder table appear not only in Ashkenazi and Italian, but also Sephardi context.
Hag Sameakh to all those celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover; bon appétit to your cats!