Calling all Occitanists: a unique copy of La reine Esther in Judeo-Provençal?

A Judeo-Occitan (Judeo-Provençal) manuscript in the Hebrew manuscript collection of the John Rylands Library, may turn out to be the only known manuscript copy of an early modern Provençal Purim play.

The play survived in a printed edition published in 1774. This edition attributes the work to two people:

En reconnaissance des graces merveilleuses et
continuelles que Dieu a fait de tout temps à son Peuple
d’Israël, nous sommes déterminés à faire imprimer la
présente Tragédie d’Esther, composée par l’Illustre Rabin
Mardochee Astruc de la Ville de Lisle, perfectionnée et
augmentée par le très-digne Rabin Jacob de Lunel de la Ville
de Carpentras […]. Ce 15 Tevet, an de la création du monde

[In recognition of the marvellous and continual mercies that God has performed at all times for His people Israel, we are determined to print the present Tragedy of Esther composed by the illustrious Rabbi Mardochée Astruc of city of Lisle, perfected and augmented by the very distinguished rabbi Jacob de Lunel of the city of Carpentras […] 15th Tevet, of the year of the Creation of the World 5535.]

The play was thus composed by Mardochée Astruc (believed to have lived in the late 17th century), and amended some time later by Jacob de Lunel (18th century), both of them are rather obscure characters, about whom is little known.

Fig. 1: The facsimile of the title page of the 1774 edition in the 1877 edition. Credit:

The manuscript in question arrived at the John Rylands Library as part of Moses Gaster’s collection. Gaster identified the text as a Provençal Purim play, and a possible autograph, but did not mention its title or its author. The manuscript itself simply begins with a descriptive title in Hebrew: “Poems in the vernacular ridiculing Haman which young students sometimes play on the day of Purim.”

Fig. 2: First page of the play with a descriptive title at the top. Gaster Hebrew MS 1690, folio 1a.

Some preliminary observations by the cataloguer:

The manuscript contains corrections in the margins probably by a different hand, and these corrections seem to correspond to the 1774 printed edition (see for instance Figs. 3-6).

Fig: 3: A section from the play with corrections in the margin, Gaster Hebrew MS 1690, f. 3b
Fig. 4: The same section in the printed edition.

Figs. 5-6: additions by a different hand(?) on folios 12b and 15b. Gaster Hebrew MS 1690.

There are significant differences between the manuscript and the printed edition:

  • The printed edition is divided into five acts, while the manuscript does not have such divisions.
  • The manuscript quotes a few verses from the book of Esther in Hebrew next to some characters’ names, while the printed edition usually only brings the name of the speaker and sometimes the addressee(s), and it is always in Occitan. For instance, on folio 3b of manuscript next to the heading Vashti says, there is a quote from Esther 1:9: “Queen Vashti gave a banquet for women”, while in the printed edition it is simply “Le Reyne” (Figs. 7-8).
  • The manuscript also contains stage instructions in Hebrew. At the beginning of the scene with Mordechai and his students, we read the following: “Mordechai cloaked in sackcloth comes with his students, and each of his students has a book in their hands, and the messenger is standing in a corner, and they do not notice him, so he calls out in a bitter voice” (Figs. 9-10).
  • The manuscript seems to be a work in progress, with corrections in the margins, blank pages, and headings without text (Fig. 11).
Fig. 7: Gaster Hebrew MS 1690, folio 3b.
Fig. 8: The corresponding section in the printed edition, page 8.
Fig. 9: Stage instruction, Gaster Hebrew MS 1690 folio 21b.
Fig. 10: The corresponding section in the printed edition, page 42.
Fig. 11: Headings without text. Gaster Hebrew MS 1690, f. 23a.

We know very little about the provenance of this manuscript. According to Gaster’s handwritten note, he acquired it in 14 July in 1925. Two previous owners left their marks on the manuscript: J. David Mirargues and Isaak Barhuc Manahen Mayrargues (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12: ownership inscriptions on the front flyleaf. Gaster Hebrew MS 1690.

Could this be an autograph of Astruc with the amendments of Jacob de Lunel? Was this work based on a community play that Astruc wrote down and revised? How does the text of the manuscript relate to the printed edition? Can this manuscript written in Hebrew characters have some additional linguistic value for the study of (Judeo-)Occitan? So many questions only an Occitanist could answer… I hope this short piece has aroused your interest. If so, get in touch!

Further readings:

Sabatier, Ernest, ed. La Reine Esther: Tragédie Provençale; reproduction de l’édition unique de 1774 avec introduction et notes par Ernest Sabatier. Nimes: André Catélan, 1877.

Strich, Adam and George Jochnowitz. “Judeo-Occitan (Judeo-Provençal).” In Handbook of Jewish Languages, edited by Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, 517-551. Leiden: Brill, 2016. See especially page 524.
Courouau, Jean-François. “Rite ou art? Esther chez les Juifs comtadins (1774),” Littératures classiques 97, no. 3 (2018): 129-144.

Weinstock, Nathan. Le livre d’Esther dans la tradition occitane judéo-comtadine. [Toulouse] Institut d’estudis occitans, 2018.

Curator of Global Manuscripts, John Rylands Research Institute and Library, specialised in Hebrew manuscripts, but enthusiastic about all book cultures.

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