Object of the Month - March 2016 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Object of the Month - March 2016

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Object of the Month March 2016

Esther ScrollCarved ivory, watercolor, gold paint, ink, and gouache on vellumVenice, Italy, 1700Gift of Joseph B. and Olyn HorwitzB’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection of the Skirball Museum

The festival of Purim, which takes place in March this year, celebrates the continual resilience of the Jewish people. Purim commemorates the story of Esther and is celebrated with the reading of the story or performing it in a humorous rendition known as a Purim shpiel (lengthy and extravagant skit or speech). The story associated with Purim takes place in Persia under the rule of King Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus banished his wife for disobeying him and he set up a pageant to find a new wife. A Jewish man named Mordechai encouraged his cousin Esther to try and win the position of Queen, which she did. Esther did not reveal to King Ahasuerus that she was Jewish. Mordechai received notice from the King when he was instrumental in foiling an assassination attempt on Ahasuerus. Meanwhile, the King’s advisor, Haman, had his own altercation with Mordechai when Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman in the street. Once Haman learned that Mordechai was Jewish, he decided to kill all of the Jews in Persia. Mordechai alerted Queen Esther of Haman’s plan and she revealed her Jewish identity to King Ahasuerus and convinced him to stop the execution of the Jewish people.

Esther and her story have become a symbol of faith, courage, and resilience to the Jewish people and each year she is honored by the reading of the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther is the last of five Megillot, or scrolls, which are found in the third and final part of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) known as Ketuvim (The Writings). The Book of Esther, commonly known simply as The Megillah is the only biblical book that does not contain the name of God.

This Italian Megillah is truly a tiny treasure. The richly illuminated handwritten scroll measures only 2 inches high and is placed on an ivory roller. Unlike the Torah scroll, which is devoid of decoration, Esther scrolls typically contain drawings and painted details. In the case of this scroll, miniature illustrations with bright scenes decorate the bottom of the scroll and twisted columns topped by a winged creature separate each panel. The scroll also contains a large frontispiece representing Esther before the King and a concluding column representing the triumphal ride of Mordechai. It is not known when and under what circumstances artistic embellishment of Esther scrolls began. The earliest extant illuminated Esther scrolls emanate from 16th-century Italy, commissioned by well-to-do Italian Jews.

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