Friday, March 29, 2024

Happy (Belated) Purim!

An image of an unrolled scroll with Hebrew text.Last weekend, Jews around the world gathered to celebrate the holiday of Purim, or the Festival of Lots. This joyous occasion, celebrated each year in the Hebrew month of Adar, celebrates the triumph of the Jewish community of ancient Persia against the threat of annihilation at the hands of the villain Haman. Jews traditionally celebrate Purim by dressing up in costumes, sharing baskets of treats and gifts with friends, eating delicious triangular hamantaschen cookies, putting on comedic plays (purimshpieln), and gathering in synagogue to listen to the Purim story read aloud from the Book of Esther. This is the story of how the beautiful Jewish Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai foiled the plot of the wicked Haman, advisor to King Ahasuerus, who sought to exterminate the Jews. Unlike Torahs, which take the form of a double parchment scroll, the Purim story is traditionally written on a single parchment scroll called a megillah, which gives the Book of Esther its Hebrew name, Megillat Esther.

Rauner recently acquired a rare Megillat Esther, written in elegant Hebrew script on parchment. While it can be hard to determine the date and place of origin for Hebrew manuscripts, carbon dating tests performed by the dealer narrowed down the potential date range, and analysis of the Sephardic script and Italianate parchment indicate that it was most likely produced in Italy between 1500 and 1550. According to the dealer, this megillah is one of only 30 surviving copies of this text dating from 1400-1600.

An image of an unrolled scroll with Hebrew text.
Amazingly, the scroll that bears this infamous story of Jewish persecution was produced during another infamous moment of Jewish persecution: the advent of the Jewish ghetto in what is now Italy. The first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice by ducal decree in 1516, in the same time period and approximate location as our megillah. The Jews of Venice and, later, other Italian city-states, were required to live segregated from the gentile population, only permitted to leave the ghetto during the day before being locked in at night. I like to think that for the Italian Jewish community that produced and read this very megillah, the Purim story had special salience and significance - an inspiring story of Jewish survival.

To see our Megillat Esther, come to the reading room desk and ask for Codex 003513.