The Book of Esther forms part of Ketuvim (Writings) which is the third section of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. A short book consisting of 10 chapters and 167 verses, it is one of only two biblical books in which God does not get a mention. The divine presence and intervention are nevertheless felt throughout the narrative, whose central figure, a Jewish maiden called Esther saves the Jews of Persia from an annihilation plot, and is crowned Queen of Persia.
The book’s Hebrew name – Megilat Ester (Scroll of Esther) – clearly indicates that it has been traditionally copied on and read from a scroll. Megilat Ester is read yearly at Purim (Festival of Lots), a Jewish spring festival with a carnival-like atmosphere that celebrates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from the death sentence. Purim is Hebrew for ‘lots’, a reference to the lots cast to determine the day when the Jews of Persia would be killed.
During the festival, Megilat Ester is read publicly in the synagogue from a plain parchment scroll wound on a single rod affixed to its left extremity. Private scrolls used by worshippers to follow the synagogue service, or for home reading, are either handwritten or printed, and some contain decorations and illustrations. The earliest decorated Scrolls of Esther appeared in Italy in the 16th century CE. The tradition of decorating and illustrating the Scroll of Esther flourished in the 17th century, and continued in the following centuries, with handsome specimens being produced in Europe, particularly in Germany and Holland, as well as the Middle East and North Africa.
This 18th-century CE miniature Esther scroll was written in a minute square script on a single strip of vellum wound on a silver-plated roller. The middle section of the scroll is occupied by two pen and ink illustrations depicting scenes from the Esther story. Also included are two benedictions (the utterance of a blessing): Shoshanat Ya’akov (The Rose of Jacob) and Arur Haman (cursed be Haman). Both are recited at the completion of the Megilah reading.
Browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.
- Article by:
- Kristin Phelps, Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert
- New technologies and digital research
Kristin Phelps and Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert look at 3D imaging at the British Library.
- Article by:
- Ann Tomalak
- Jewish Liturgy, The Hebrew Bible
As part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project, the British Library imaged 74 scrolls. Former project conservator Ann Tomalak describes some of the challenges of conserving these unique items.