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A silver cylinder case, with brown parchment paper with writing in Hebrew Script.
The Library's Esther Scroll made at the Bezalel School in Jerusalem. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Purim Holiday: The Library’s Esther Scrolls

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The handwritten Esther scroll, inked onto parchment and protected by a cylindrical case of silver filigree, is a delicate work of beauty and religious faith, more than a century old. It tells the biblical story of Queen Esther of Persia and how she helped save the nation’s Jews from annihilation by a wicked ruler.

The story of Esther, thought to have originated about 2,450 years ago, explains the foundation of Purim, the annual Jewish holiday being celebrated next week March 6-7. The scroll and its case, crafted in Jerusalem at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts (today the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design) in the early 20th century, is one of the centerpieces of the Library’s collection of 30 Esther scrolls, and an important moment in Jewish culture.

The scroll “simply breathes ‘Bezalel’ with all its milestones for modern Jewish culture, and all the aspirations and dreams it implies,” wrote Ann Brener, the Library’s former Hebraic specialist, who led the acquisition of the piece in 2021.

Color photo closeup of a silver case with a scroll of being parchment unrolled from it.
The Library’s Esther scroll, made at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem in the early 20th century. Photo: Shawn Miller.

The Scroll, or Megillah, of Esther is one of five sacred books read from scrolls in synagogues on Jewish holidays. Such scrolls, whether plain or ornate, have been an important part of worship over the centuries, though only Esther scrolls are illustrated. The earliest known examples date to Renaissance Italy.

The Library’s collection of Esther scrolls spans seven centuries. The oldest entry, from Germany in the 14th century, is also the largest, at 32 inches tall, with writing in beautiful calligraphy. The most recent is from the late 20th century.

The Bezalel scroll is itself plain – black ink on faded parchment – but the silver filigree case is strikingly ornate. It is illustrated with characters from the story of Esther, lettering in Hebrew and exquisite floral work.

Equally important is who made it: master silversmiths at the Bezalel workshop, the ambitious academy founded by Boris Schatz, himself the former court sculptor to Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria.

Schatz, as Brener noted in a 2021 post, wanted to create a new kind of Jewish art, blending the western influences of art nouveau with ancient motifs from the Near East. To this end, he founded the Bezalel school in 1906, envisioning it as a kind of artistic society set within the Jewish homeland. The school initially focused on painting, sculpture, carpet making and metal working.

The school started with two silversmiths, but the department soon grew to 80, mostly Jewish immigrants from Yemen, as their work was extremely popular. It’s not known who created the Library’s Esther scroll, or the year it was made, but it remains as a beautiful example of the form.

A close-up color photo of the silver case of the scroll, showing the fine silverware of its handle
Every part of the scroll, including the handle, shows off its delicate silver filigree. Photo: Shawn Miller.

The school closed in 1929 due to financial difficulty. Schatz died in 1932. The school was reopened in 1935 and, after the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the school flourished. It gained status as an academic institution in 1975. Today, with more than 2,300 students, it describes itself as “the essence of Israeli art and design.”

The scroll from its early days, depicting the foundation of one of the faith’s major holidays, is now preserved at the Library for future generations.

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Comments (3)

  1. I love jews cultural it really nice and always share love and peace

  2. Thanks for the article (and photographs), Mr. Tucker and the Library; Thanks for the kind Comment, “israadawood”; Happy Purim to those of my fellow Jews who observe and enjoy the festival.

  3. loveandpeace

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