One of the world’s oldest known Esther scrolls, also known as a megillah, has found its final home in Jerusalem after recently being gifted to the National Library of Israel (NLI), which has the world’s largest collection of textual Judaica.
Esther scrolls contain the story of the Book of Esther in Hebrew and are traditionally read in Jewish communities on the festival of Purim, which will take place on February 25-28 this year.
Scholars have determined that the newly received scroll was written by a scribe on the Iberian Peninsula around 1465, prior to the Spanish and Portuguese Expulsions at the end of the 15th century. These conclusions are based on both stylistic and scientific evidence, including Carbon-14 dating.
The megillah is written in brown ink on leather in an elegant, characteristic Sephardic script, which resembles that of a Torah scroll.
The first panel, before the text of the Book of Esther, includes the blessings recited before and after the reading of the megillah, and attests to the ritual use of this scroll in a pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewish community.
According to experts, there are very few existing Esther scrolls from the medieval period in general, and from the 15th century in particular.
Torah scrolls and Esther scrolls from pre-Expulsion Spain and Portugal are even rarer, with only a small handful known to exist.
Prior to the donation, this scroll was the only complete 15th-century megillah in private hands.
The medieval scroll is a gift from Michael Jesselson and his family. His father, Ludwig Jesselson, was the founding chair of the International Council of the Library.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, a curator of the NLI’s Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, said that the new addition 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,” he added.