The Esther Scroll of Amsterdam That Damned the Enemies of the Jews

This was what happened when the Purim merriment of the Jews of Amsterdam mixed with a desire for revenge against the Spanish.

One of the things the Jewish people are good at is storytelling. Every year on every holiday we tell the stories of persecution, courage, and consequence that happened to every generation of Jews wherever they were.

And that includes tying events described in the Scroll of Esther and the holiday of Purim itself to more contemporary events. For our purposes, the turn of the 18th century will count as “contemporary”.

How do you make a story that is thousands of years old relevant to the Dutch Golden Age?

Why, with art of course.

It is through the illustrations found in a Scroll of Esther manuscript drawn and copied around 1700 that we see this direct tie between the ancient telling of the persecution of Jews in Persia and the more recent persecution of Jews by Catholic Portugal and Spain.

The drawings are graphic and contemporary for their time, and as the saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words.

“It happened in the days of Ahasuerus” – Ahasuerus in modern clothes

The Jewish quarter of Amsterdam was established in the 17th century by Ashkenazi and Portuguese communities. This particular matter focuses on the Portuguese community.

The descendants’ of the Jewish conversos who emigrated en masse from Portugal to Amsterdam throughout the 17th century had not been permitted to keep and practice their ancient religion. In their new Dutch home they wished to return to their Jewish faith.

One way back was through the holidays. Purim was a good start considering joy and merriment are the main aspects of the festival, along with the commandments of drinking and eating, and the celebration of surviving near extermination; it is a story of Jewish continuity while in the diaspora.

“So he set a royal diadem on [Esther’s] head and made her queen”

And so the Jewish community of Amsterdam commissioned an artist to illustrate a contemporary Scroll of Esther – telling the story of surviving the evil Persian Haman, as well as exacting revenge upon the more recent Portuguese ‘Hamans’.

The unknown artist illustrated unforgettable scenes. The opening page features two semi-nude women, hinting to the readers that they are going to be reading a theatrical play.

The title page of the scroll

The artist also illustrated the more violent and gory scenes of the story.

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had put up for Mordecai”

“So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying”

There are also additional scenes, which the artist took from the Talmud: We see Haman leading a horse as his own daughter throws wastewater onto his head.

“So Haman took the garb and the horse and arrayed Mordecai and paraded him through the city square; and he proclaimed before him”

There is also an illustration of the Midrashic scene of Vashti’s beheading.

Vashti’s beheading

And of course, the more explicit scenes of violence that are described in the scroll: “In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men.”

So the Jews struck at their enemies
Slaying their enemies

But one scene truly surpasses the rest. In order to emphasize the fate of those who persecute the Jews, as well as to kiss up to the Dutch who defeated Spain in their War of Independence (and not forgetting that the Spanish had expelled the Jews 150 years earlier) – the artist decided to draw what can only be described as a circumcision assembly line.

On this assembly line are three Gentile men suffering the pain of circumcision while the mohels seem quite at ease.

The scene accompanies the verse: “And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”

“And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them”

The Scroll of Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible in which God’s name is not mentioned even once. This fact did not stop the artist from again linking elements of the story to his own time period. In one of the illustrations, we see Jews kneeling and thanking God in a synagogue, the style of which was typical of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam.

“Mordecai gathered all the Jews to fast”

And the victorious 18th-century Jews of Amsterdam could finally make time for merriment, joy, and a good meal.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor”

The Scroll of Esther
Holland, 17th century
Handwritten in ink on parchment
H 30.8 cm; L 309 cm
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Gift of Michael G. Jesselson, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum
B12.0709

Click here to see the entire scroll




A Spectacular 400 Year-Old Scroll of Esther

​Take a look at the Scroll of Esther of Ferrara, Italy, whose magnificent illustrations show the expected fate of anyone who threatens to harm the people of Israel.

Esther Ferrara Scroll

The Scroll of Esther is different from the other books in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is God not mentioned at all in its pages, but Halakha (Jewish religious law) allows the Scroll of Esther to be illustrated without rendering it unkosher. Thanks to this, there are dozens of illustrated scrolls of the Book of Esther.

The Banquet of Queen Vashti from the Esther Scroll of Ferrara

Among the treasures preserved at the National Library of Israel is a unique Scroll of Esther that is over 400 years old. What is particularly interesting about the scroll, inscribed in 1617, are the illustrations that adorn it.

They seem almost cartoonish, and the scribe and illustrator, Moshe ben Avraham Pascarol, was not afraid to look directly at the atrocities described in the scroll, and accentuate them in order to achieve a dramatic effect. Many of the violent scenes, such as the decapitation of Vashti as well as the hanging of Haman and his sons, are graphically illustrated on the pages. The promotion of modesty is also apparent. While the violence and colorful gore are celebrated, the sexual aspect of the Scroll of Esther is completely downplayed.

The Beheading of Vashti

Each illustration ascribed to a verse in the Scroll of Esther illuminates it in a certain light. But one illustration is known to be inspired from other sources beyond the Scroll; in this image, Haman is seen offering Mordecai, who is dressed in mournful attire, the garments of the king. We also see three children who are asked to interpret what is happening, and they do so with three additional verses, all taken from other books in the Bible.

The third verse is the most telling – “I will wreak My vengeance on Edom through My people Israel” (Ezekiel 25:14).

Haman arrays Mordecai. The children interpret

This statement reveals a deliberate message from the illustrator. Traditionally the nation of Edom is linked not with Persia (the kingdom mentioned in the Book of Esther), but with the Roman Empire, and thus all of Christendom. Since the scroll is Italian and influenced with paintings of figures from the Italian Renaissance, the hidden message of the scribe and illustrator was very likely there for the Jews of Italy to interpret.

The message was probably meant as encouragement, calling on the Jews to take heart, for in every generation and in every place where the people of Israel reside – the Almighty will avenge any assault on them.

The Coronation of Queen Esther
The Hanging of Bigthan and Teresh, who plotted to kill the king




A Rare Photo Album Reveals the Lives of the Samaritans in Early 20th Century Nablus

The fascinating series of photographs documents ceremonies and traditions, some of which no longer exist in mainstream Judaism.

Like the majority of ancient nations, the truth regarding the origins of the Samaritan sect is lost in the mists of time. Samaritan tradition claims that the members of the sect are the Shomrim [guards] – the guardians of the true Torah who refused to accept what they saw as the false Jewish version, which considers Mount Moriah in Jerusalem as the holiest site in the Jewish faith and which was traditionally compiled during the Second Temple period.

According to this tradition, only the Samaritans – “the true Israelites” – live according to God’s law. This is because they sanctified Mount Gerizim, the sites of the temporary alter built by Joshua when the Israelites people entered the promised land, and built their temple there.

The book of Kings II 17:24, the most ancient source containing information about the origins of the Samaritans, presents a different version:

“And the king of Assyria brought [people] from Babylonia and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and from Sepharvaim, and he settled them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel, and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities.”

Based on this source, the Jews believe the Samaritans do not originate from the ancient Hebrews who were faithful to the original tradition concerning Mount Gerizim, but rather from a considerably later period. In their opinion, the Samaritans originate from nations brought by Esarhaddon king of Assyria, son of Sennacherib (who ruled between 681-669 BCE) to Samaria to take the place of the ‘ten lost tribes’. According to the book of Kings, the new settlers began to worship the God of Israel out of fear of the lions God sent against them (Kings II 17:26) and were therefore also referred to as ‘lion converts’. This is also the reason why the Jews who returned from Babylonia to the Land of Israel in the period of Cyrus refused to allow the Samaritans to help them rebuild their destroyed Temple.

Over time the two groups became so detached that the Samaritans, who branched off from the Jewish people over a thousand years ago, have their own version of the Torah, which they refer to as Sefer Abisha. The Samaritans do not accept the books of Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”), only the Torah, and they continue to use an ancient script known as Daatz. They similarly reject the Oral Torah.

Researchers who compared the traditional wording (that accepted by Jews) of the Torah and Sefer Abisha found some 6000 differences between the two versions. The majority stem from differences in spelling but others relate to the crux of the dispute between the two nations. The most prominent example is the question of the precise location of the holy place chosen by God.

“And it will be, that the place the Lord, your God, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 12:11)

  

The Samaritans continued to live in Samaria for centuries. However, the sect which had extensive influence and resources during the Byzantine period underwent a process of gradual, constant decline following the quashing of the violent revolts during the Byzantine period, and later with the influx of Arab tribes into the region following the Muslim conquest.

By the beginning of the 20th century the sect had only a hundred and fifty adherents and Western travelers who toured through Israel at the time predicted their impending demise. Despite this, the sect continued to cling to its holy sites and to hold its traditional ceremonies, including the ceremony of the Passover sacrifice on Mount Gerizim as in the days of old. The renewed interest of the Western world in the history of the sect and later the establishment of the State of Israel improved its social and economic standing. Due to this, the tiny sect expanded, and currently consists of eight hundred members some of whom live in the city of Holon and some who continue to live in Nablus, adjacent to their holy mountain.

A rare photograph album preserved in the National Library of Israel offers a rare glimpse into one of the most important of the Samaritan customs – the pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim on the festival of Passover.

View the entire album

We are unable to determine the precise year the photographs were taken, but it appears to be a ceremony held in the early 20th century, no later than 1911, the year of the death of the tour guide Rolla Floyd whose name appears on one of the tents in the photographs.

Pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim

The Samaritans are commanded to go on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain on three different festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The pilgrimage on Passover is considered the most significant, a fact clearly seen in the photographs themselves.

The pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim is conducted as a journey infused with grandeur and holiness, during which the worshipers recite a series of special prayers.

After ascending to the holy mountain, the sacrifices must be prepared. In the photograph we see young boys in the camp of tents established on Mount Gerizim at the foot of the alter together with the sheep brought to be used as a Passover offering.

At sunset, as the sun begins to sink behind the hills of Samaria, the High Priest (who we identified as Yaacov son of Aharon) recited the sacrificial prayer while lifting up the Torah scroll he brought with him. The Aramaic piyut which accompanies the ceremony deals with Isaac and the ram Abraham sacrificed in his stead – an event which the Passover offering sacrificed by the members of the sect comes to replicate. This is an ancient custom no longer found in Judaism and was therefore an object of curiosity for contemporary European researchers and tourists.

Two final preparations for the central event – the offering of the sacrifices: shearing the fleece and igniting the coals.

 

When everything is ready for sacrificing the offerings, the sheep are slaughtered and hung to be roasted.

 

Guests who are not members of the sect are permitted to attend the ceremony, and several curious figures in European dress appear in the ceremony documented in the photograph album.

The Passoverl offering was the only festival in the Samaritan calendar in which women were permitted to ascend the mountain and participate in the prayers together with the men.

Only members of the sect are permitted to eat from the offerings, which are eaten under the supervision of the High Priest – standing in the center leaning on his staff. The parts not eaten are burned on the alter.




Natan Sharansky’s Little Book of Psalms that Survived the Soviet Prison

During the darkest period of his eventful life, a small black book gave light to the imprisoned Natan Sharansky, symbolizing his connection with his wife and with the Land of Israel

Natan Sharansky's Book of Psalms

“On January 20th, 1980, my birthday, I was impatiently waiting for a congratulatory telegram from home…The next day I received an unexpected surprise – a real birthday gift! – when the official in charge of storing the prisoners’ belongings brought me a tiny book with a black binding, my Book of Psalms!”

(Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky, translated by Stefani Hoffman, Random House New York, 1988)

This is how former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky describes a rare moment of joy which he experienced on the 21st of January, 1980, when his prison officer gave him back his little black Book of Psalms. The book provided Sharansky with renewed hope throughout the long years of his imprisonment. He was never to be separated from this book ever again.

Natan Sharansky with his Book of Psalms

The book accompanied Sharansky during his most difficult years in prison. In his autobiography, Sharansky tells of how the book, given to him by his wife Avital on the eve of his arrest, was confiscated. As a religious book printed outside the Soviet Union, it wasn’t exactly recommended reading material in the Soviet prison system. At one point, when Sharansky was being transferred from one prison to another, the book was temporarily returned to his possession.  The prisoner took advantage of this opportunity and tore out the page which indicated the book had been printed in Israel. When asked about it later, Sharansky described it as a “book of folklore”. It was only thanks to this that the prison authorities finally agreed to return the book to him.

“The Psalm book was the sole material evidence of my mystical tie with Avital. What impelled her to send it to me on the eve of my arrest? And how did it happen that I received it on the day of my father’s death? The reading of the Psalms not only reinforced our bond but also demystified their author. King David now appeared before me not as a fabled hero or as a mystical superman but as a live, indomitable soul – tormented by doubts, rising against evil, and suffering from the thought of his own sins.”

In 2014, Natan Sharansky visited the National Library of Israel. One of his meetings was with the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, Timna Elper.

“I was so excited to meet Sharansky,” she said, “I told him of the impact that the story of his Psalm book, as he described it in his autobiography, had on my life.” Sharansky then pulled the tiny book out of his pocket and showed it to her. It wasn’t in great shape, as could be expected after years in a Soviet prison.

Upon seeing the state of Sharansky’s book, the Library administrators who accompanied the visit offered to restore it.

 

Natan Sharansky’s Book of Psalms, before and after restoration

The book was given thorough treatment in the Library’s facilities.  The heavily damaged cover was restored, torn pages were mended and and the many eroded page corners were treated using the Conservation and Restoration Department’s unique techniques. Finally, on the 8th of May 2014, the Psalm book was returned to its excited owner.

Sharansky receives his Psalm book after its restoration

Towards the end of his autobiography, Sharansky writes about his very last moments of imprisonment, all those years ago, just before he stepped onto the plane that would take him to freedom:

“Where’s my Psalm book?

“You received everything that was permitted,” answered the intellectual in an unexpectedly rough tone. He signaled to the tails to take me away. I quickly dropped to the snow.

“I won’t move until you give me back my Psalm book.” When nothing happened, I lay down in the snow and started shouting, “Give me back my Psalm book!”

The photographers were aghast, and pointed their cameras to the sky.

After a brief consultation the boss gave me the Psalm book. I got up and quickly mounted the ramp.

In a dark world of suffering and injustice, one small black book gave light to the imprisoned Sharanksy. It was a reminder of his Jewish heritage. It was a reminder of his wife, Avital, who gave him the book before his arrest. It was what provided him with the strength to survive those most terrible times.

 

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