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The Perfect Scribe and an early engraved Esther scroll

Eva Frojmovic


THE origins of the tradition of decorating Esther scrolls for Purim are shrouded in mystery. Esther scrolls, also known by the Hebrew term Megillot (sing.: Megillah,' 'scroll') are copies of the Biblical book of Esther, transcribed on parchment scrolls to be read publicly on the feast of Purim, the anniversary of the Jews' deliverance from the threat of annihilation by Haman. Thus they are at once Biblical and liturgical texts. Among Hebrew liturgical texts, the Megillah appears to be the only book which was not decorated or illustrated during the Middle Ages or, indeed, until after the mid-sixteenth century. The earliest dated decorated Megillah known, a manuscript with hand-painted decoration, was produced at Castelnuovo in northern Italy in 1567. This late genesis may be explained, at least in part, by the special status of Esther scrolls: like Torah scrolls (Pentateuchal scrolls used for the pubhc reading in synagogue), their execution was governed by ancient rabbinical rules. Thus, the strict aniconism imposed on Torah scrolls was applied to Esther scrolls, too - at least until the end of the Middle Ages. To this day, the Esther scroll used by the cantor in synagogue must remain unadorned. It is, thus, all the more interesting to reconstruct the making of what will be identified in this article as one of the earliest decorated Esther scrolls, a near contemporary of the Castelnuovo Megillah. This specimen, possibly the first Esther scroll decorated in the technique of copperplate engraving, will emerge as a product of 'artistic recycling'.

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