The National Library of Israel (NLI) in Jerusalem has been given one of the oldest known Esther scrolls, also called as "megillah," in time for the celebration of Purim.
Megillah contains the story of the Book of Esther in Hebrew translation. In Jewish tradition, the story is read during the festival of Purim.
Purim is celebrated annually on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, happening on Feb. 25-28 this year. The event commemorates the saving of the Jews, through the mediation of then Queen Esther, from Haman's evil plot of annihilation, during the reign of King Ahasuerus in the Persian Empire.
Scholars have said that the Esther scroll was written in the Iberian Peninsula around 1465, before the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. The observation was made based on the scroll's "stylistic and scientific evidence," as well as by Carbon-14 dating, NLI wrote.
With resemblance to the Torah scroll, the megillah is written using brown ink on leather in Sephardic script. The traditional blessings, which are recited prior and after the reading of the megillah, are written on the first panel, before the text of the Book of Esther. NLI said that the "ritual use of the scroll" was practiced "in a pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewish community."
The experts said that there are only very few existing Esther scrolls from the medieval period, especially from the 15th century. Before the mentioned oldest megillah was gifted to the NLI, it was the only complete 15th century megillah owned privately. The medieval scroll was donated by Michael Jesselson and his family. Michael is the son of International Council of the Library's founding chairman, Ludwig Jesselson.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of NLI's Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, said that the newly-given megillah is "an incredibly rare testament to the rich material culture of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula."
"It is one of the earliest extant Esther Scrolls, and one of the few 15th-century megillot in the world. The Library is privileged to house this treasure and to preserve the legacy of pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewry for the Jewish people and the world," Finkelman further said.
The NLI has also made the scroll available for online viewing.
The British Library said that Esther scrolls are either handwritten, printed or decorated. Earliest copies of decorated or illustrated scrolls are said to have been found in Italy in the 16th century. But the practice of decorating and illustrating these scrolls developed in the 17th century, many of those were produced in Europe, particularly in Holland and Germany. Illustrated scrolls were also discovered in Middle East and North Africa.
The British Library keeps a copy of an illustrated Esther scroll, which is advertised to have been created in Germany during the 17th century. The scroll is written in Hebrew. But according to the library, some scholars believe that the manuscript was made in Holland around 1630 or 1640.
(Updated Feb. 26, 8:29 PM with correction regarding its donation to the NLI.)