Rare: A Remnant of One of the Oldest Yom Kippur Prayer Books in the World

A glimpse at a remnant from an 11th century prayer book discovered in the Cairo Genizah

Yom Kippur prayer book fragment, the National Library of Israel collections

The Cairo Genizah is one of the most important sources for understanding Jewish culture, religion, economy and literature in the Middle Ages and in the modern era. It contains hundreds of thousands of Jewish documents and parts of documents discovered in a synagogue in Fustat (the ancient city of Cairo). Some of these are holy books; others are letters, and a few business and legal documents can also be found in the collection.

Among the documents found in the Genizah is part of a page preserved from an early Yom Kippur prayer book.

Among the treasures in the Genizah, is a fragment of a page from an ancient Yom Kippur mahzor.

The prayer book was written in the late 11th or early 12th century by a scribe named Hillel ben Eli, a cantor from Baghdad who immigrated to Egypt and worked as the official scribe of the Cairo rabbinical court. Many examples of certificates in his handwriting can be found in the Cairo Genizah, due to the communal position he held between 1066 and 1108. He is one of the most important scribes whose writings are found in the Genizah. The prayer book which this fragment comes from is the oldest in the Library’s collections and one of the oldest in the entire world. The Library is also in possession of more complete manuscripts of festival prayer books, but they were only written hundreds of years later.

“Please answer my whisper”

On one side of the page is a paragraph from the piyut (liturgical hymn or poem) of Rabbi Eliezer Kalir (one of the greatest poets in Jewish history) named Et Lachashi Aneh Na (“Please Answer My Whisper”). In the third line, one can make out the Hebrew words [Honi] hamulat kodesh, umehallelim behadarat [kodesh] (“[My riches] are holy noise, and they praise in [holy] splendor”). On the other side are prayers connected to the Yom Kippur service in the Temple.

It is fascinating to discover that nearly a thousand years ago, Jews gathered in synagogues and recited prayers so similar to the ones we recite today, with piyutim from poets we are familiar with from our own prayers.


This item is featured in “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel in collaboration with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.

The project also includes source sheets with questions and links to additional materials that can be used to help lead group discussions and activities or enriched personal reflection.

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

Click here to see the entire scroll

Purim Special: The ‘Azores Megillah’

The Azores Megillah at the National Library of Israel provides beautiful and early textual evidence of Jewish life in the Azores, and it has has recently been digitized for the first time.

Measuring just 12.7 cm (5 in) in height, this exquisite scroll was written in the 19th century and dedicated to David Sabach [i.e. Sabath], a well-known member of the Azorean Jewish community and a man eulogized as having great Torah knowledge. He was born prior to 1847, probably in Sao Miguel, Azores and died in 1915 in Portugal.

The Azores Islands belong to Portugal and are located some 1500 km (950 miles) from Lisbon. Jews fleeing persecution fled there in the 16th and 17th centuries, though they left no known written record of their Jewish lives or practices. The first written record we have of Jewish life on the islands comes with the arrival of Moroccan Jews in 1818. By the mid-19th century, the Azorean Jewish population was about 250, most of them living in Ponta Delgada, on Sao Miguel Island. The historic Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Ponta Delgada has recently been renovated and converted into a museum about the history of Azorean Jewish life.

The Azores Megillah came to the National Library of Israel as part of the famed Valmadonna Trust Library, the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world, which was purchased jointly by the National Library of Israel and archaeology, book and Judaica collectors Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn through a private sale arranged by Sotheby’s. The Valmadonna collection is currently being digitized and it will be showcased in the National Library of Israel’s landmark new building, designed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, and currently under construction in Jerusalem.

The Esther Megillah (or Esther Scroll in English) contains the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is read in Jewish communities throughout the world every year on the holiday. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of handwritten Esther Scrolls from across the world, some of which are hundreds of years old. Each was written in a different community. Many of them are decorated in a style which may reflect their origins, and they are often dedicated to prominent members of the community, sometimes the individuals or families who commissioned them.

The digitized Azores Megillah may be viewed here in its entirety.

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