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And the Scroll of Esther unrolls…

To mark the festival of Purim, Zsofia Buda discusses our recently digitised collection of Esther scrolls.

The John Rylands Library has recently digitised 19 of its Esther scrolls. They are all available on Manchester Digital Collections (see the list of shelfmarks at the end of this blog). Let’s give you a little taster of the collection. After all today is Purim!

Purim or the Festival of Lots commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the brink of destruction devised by Haman, a chief official of the Persian king Ahasuerus. The story is recounted in one of the later books of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Esther, which is read in the synagogue during the festival. In a nutshell, the evil Haman seeks to destroy the Jews, but then along come Mordechai and his niece, Esther, who is now Ahasuerus’ queen, and they save the Jews and defeat Haman.

Fig. 1: Detail from a Esther scroll by Moshe ben Avraham Pescarol, Ferrara, 1618. Hebrew MS 22.

Similarly to other biblical texts recited as part of the synagogue service, like the Torah (the first five books of Moses), the Book of Esther is read from a scroll called Megilat Esther or just Megilah. The word megilah (pl. megilot) simply means scroll or roll and comes from the root galal “to roll”. The Esther scroll is one of the Five Megilot, the five shortest books of the Writings, the last part of the Hebrew Bible. The others are: Song of Songs (Megilat Shir ha-shirim), Ruth (Megilat Rut), Lamentations (Megilat Ekhah), and Ecclesiastes (Megilat Kohelet). All are chanted in the synagogue during different Jewish festivals and fast days. When the word megilah stands alone, though, it refers to the Esther Scroll.

We have previously posted about our beautiful collection of Jewish marriage contracts. Esther scrolls are another group of Jewish manuscripts which are often richly embellished. The earliest known examples of such scrolls are from sixteenth-century Italy, the very first being the so-called Estellina Megilah, named after its scribe Estellina daughter of Menahem (שטעלינה בת מנחם), who copied it in Venice in 1564. However, most of the extant illustrated megilot are from the early seventeenth-century onwards.

Fig. 2: Colophon with incorrect date above column 29. Hebrew MS 22.

The earliest megilah in our collection is from this period (Hebrew MS 22). It was copied and illustrated in Ferrara in 1618 by Moshe ben Avraham Pescarol, one of the few scribe-illustrators we know by name. If you have a good look at the last section of the scroll, you will spot two colophons embedded in the border: one above the biblical text and one below. The one on the top, written as an inscription around a heraldic symbol ( a lion climbing a palm leaf?), says the following: “Completed on the twelfth day of the month Adar, the year 5271 (=1511)” (Fig. 2). Based on the style of the scroll, this date is very unlikely. We should accept the colophon embedded into the lower border instead (Fig. 3):

“Chance made it become the property of my son Benjamin, of Castelbolognese, on the Day of Purim 5378. By my hand it is, Moses, the young and humble in his works, son of the Gaon, the highly honoured Rabbi Abraham Pescarol [?], may he be remembered for the world to come; written here in Ferrara the sixth day [of the week] when the text is: And Moses knew not that the skin of his face shone, because he had spoken with him’. May God grant I begin and complete many other megilloth.”[1]

Fig. 4: The feast of Ahasuerus. Hebrew MS 22, column 2.
Fig. 5: The feast of Vashti. Hebrew MS 22, column 4.

Telling images

Parallel with the biblical text in the centre of the scroll, there is a visual narrative running in the upper border. You will be able to identify most scenes just by reading the Book of Esther. For instance, it is easy to spot the feast of Ahasuerus (Esther 1:3) and the feast organised by his first queen, Vashti (Esther 1:9) portraying groups of elegantly dresses people around two tables (see the scenes above columns 2 and 4 respectively, Figs. 4-5). But what do you make of a scene of the half-naked figure being beheaded over column 7? To find the answer, we need to go beyond the biblical text and explore the midrashim, later rabbinical interpretations of the text. According to the Bible, having been disobedient to Ahasuerus and refusing to appear in front of him and his guests naked, Vashti was expelled from the royal presence never to return (Esther 1:19). According to later interpretation though, she was not only banished, but was executed and her head was brought to the king “on a platter” (Esther Rabba 4:9 and 4:11). The scene thus must depict the decapitation of Vashti.

Beheading was considered the “noble” form of execution for royalty in Europe at the time (commoners were executed by hanging – as, of course, was Haman in the book of Esther). Just think about the beheading of Queen Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London on 19th May 1536 using a sword. In the Megilah, the executioner also wields a sword. However, while the depiction in the Megilah of the severed head is gruesome and very dramatic, in the representations of Anne Boleyn’s execution, her head is always still on her shoulders.

The illustration of Vashti’s decapitation does not seem to be finished. Note the figures sketched in but not completed behind the head of the soldier in the middle. This suggests a public execution. Or could they be the king’s seven councillors who called for Vashti’s execution? And what about the naked female figures on the right? According to the Talmud, Vashti was not an innocent victim, but was quite wicked herself. She “would take the daughters of Israel, and strip them naked, and make them work on Shabbat. Therefore, it was decreed that she be brought before the king naked, on Shabbat…. That is to say, just as she had done with the young Jewish women, so it was decreed upon her” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megilah 12b).

Fig. 6: The execution of Vashti. Hebrew MS 22.

A similarly graphic decapitation with blood bubbling up from the neck appears in another Esther scroll, probably from eighteen-century Italy (Hebrew MS 54; Fig. 6). And all this effect is achieved without using any colours! This scroll was illustrated using not a paintbrush but some sort of cutting-tool, the motifs having been cut out of the border above and below the text columns. The item, which is one of the few extant examples of this technique, is the only one that has not yet been fully digitised due to its extremely fragile state. It needs extensive conservation work before it can be shot.

Fig. 6: The decapitation of Vasthi? Hebrew MS 54, column 14.

It is difficult to interpret all the elements of the composition. Could this be the execution of Vashti? Or is it some other biblical scene, such as Judith killing Holofernes? The headless body seems to wear male clothes, while the executioner on the left holding a sword(?) and the severed head looks more like a woman. And indeed, among the illustrations of this scroll, there are several from other biblical books, apart from the illustrations of the Book of Esther: Abraham and the three angels, the Binding of Isaac, Jacob’s ladder (Figs. 7-9). The scroll cries out for a more in-depth analysis.

Beauty in the writing

The aesthetic value of Esther scrolls as artefacts is not only conferred by their lavish illustrations. There are plenty of megilot without any additional embellishment, but with carefully planned, beautiful layout and delicately penned, calligraphic letters. Just to draw your attention to these scribal traditions, here are a few curious details that appear in most of our megilot.

  • The names of Haman’s sons (Esther 9:7-9) are written in two columns in much larger characters than the rest of the text (Figs. 10-12). The Talmud describes this layout as “written in the form of a half-brick over a half-brick and a brick over a brick” Tractate Soferim 13:3). Why? Because the structure built this way is not stable and will not last. These names are written in this format to ensure that the enemies of Israel will never rise from their downfall. Compare this layout to the layout of the Songs of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) that Moses and the children of Israel sang having just crossed the Red Sea (see for instance Hebrew MS 36, folio 39a). That is usually written in a form of brick over half brick, a structure solid and lasting.
  • Certain letters have tagin or “crowns”, decorative strokes on top, sometimes throughout the text, sometimes just here and there (Fig. 13). Tagin appear most prominently in our Ashkenazi scrolls.
Fig. 13: Detail with numerous letters embellished with tagin. Hebrew MS 4.
  • Certain letters are written in tiny, minuscule or large, majuscule letters. Look, for instance, at the enlarged second letter of va-tikhtov (“and she wrote” in Esther 9:29), and some letters in the names of Haman’s sons Parshandatha (with minuscule tav), Parmashta (with minuscule shin), and Vaizatha (with majuscule vav and minuscule zayin) (Figs. 13-15). The talmudic sages explained the elongated first letter of Vaizatha with its resemblance to a pole “to indicate that they [i.e. the sons] were all hanged on one pole” (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megilah 16b).

To discover more fascinating details, start unrolling our Esther Scrolls now.

Hag Purim sameaḥ! Happy Purim!

Fig. 19. Esther scroll on wooden handles. Hebrew MS 37.

View the Esther scrolls of the John Rylands Library’s Hebrew collection on Manchester Digital Collections:

Gaster Hebrew MS 710, illustrated

Gaster Hebrew MS 711, illustrated

Hebrew MS 22, illustrated

Hebrew MS 37, illustrated

Hebrew MS 44, illustrated

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 17, decorated

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 18, not illustrated

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 19B, not illustrated

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 21, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 2, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 3, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 4, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 10, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 11, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 20, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 40, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 41, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 43, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 61, not illustrated

Hebrew MS 54, not digitised, in need of conservation

Further reading:

Cohen, Evelyn M. “Esther Imagined: The Art and History of Decorated Megillot.” In A Journey Through Jewish Worlds. Highlights from the Braginsky Collection of Hebrew Manuscripts and Printed Books. Amsterdam: Bijzondere Collecties, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2009. Pages 223-282.

Dunkelgrün, Theodor. “Chapter 2. Tabernacles of the Text: A Brief History of the Hebrew Bible.” In Impagination – Layout and Materiality of Writing and Publication. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pages 47-92, esp. 62-64.

Metzger, Mendel. “The John Rylands Megillah and Some Other Illustrated Megilloth of the XVth to XVIIth Centuries.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 45, (1962): 148-184.

Metzger, Mendel. “A Study of Some Unknown Hand-Painted Megilloth of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 46, (1963): 84-126.

Soltes, Ori Z. “Images and the Book of Esther: from Manuscript Illumination to Midrash.” In The Book of Esther in Modern Research, edited by Sidnie White Crawford & Leonard J. Greenspoon, 137-175. London: T. & T. Clark, 2003.

Stern, David. The Jewish Bible: A Material History. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017. Pages 160-164.

[1] Translation by Mendel Metzger, “The John Rylands Megillah and some other ilustrated Megilloth of the XVth to XVIIth centuries (With five plates)”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 45/1 (1962): 170.

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

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