The Earliest illuminated scroll in existence. Earliest Ashkenazi scroll known to have survived.

Scroll of Esther, circa 1400, containing unique customs, written with an extraordinarily beautiful hand and supplemented with gorgeous illuminations

Scroll of Esther, From Germany or one of the Ashkenazi communities of northern Italy. c. 1400, following Ashkenazi custom. German parchment, with no differentiation between the hair side and the flesh side. Height: 48 cm. Length 418 cm. 7 sheets. 19 columns of unusual breadth of 18-21 cm. 27 lines (except the column which contains the names of the ten sons of Haman, which is of 11 lines).

Square Asheknazi script, decorated and utterly unique.

The entire scroll was illuminated by the scribe who decorated the letters, and added charming, merry marginalia of whimsical plants following the western medieval tradition, supplemented with his own fantastic imaginings.

The margin to the right of the first column and the top of all the sheets are illuminated with a scrolling shrubbery some of which sprout from vases, with leaves and colorful rosettes. The plants at the top of every sheet are placed between two hills, each pair of hills being a different color. At the summit of these mounds is a clover alternating with a slice of watermelon on a tray or a basket.

Decoration of the Script
The masts of the letter lamed are shaped like a lily as in the Greek letter psi – ψ. The ψ atop the letter lamed of the preposition על in the phrase על המלך (Esther 1:16) has been further embellished with acanthus-like leaves. In the verse ומרדכי ישב בשער המלך (Esther 2:21) at the head of the middle prong of the ψ or the lily there extends a coiling branch ornamenting the space between the two portions in the line above, with flowers and tendrils hanging along its length.


The purpose of this ornamentation it would seem is to highlight the word המלך – the king, which hints at the King of The World as it is expounded in TB Megillah 15b.

The decorative mast of the letter lamed is a little similar to one found in a seventeenth-century scroll from Italy,[1] which looks like this:

The crowns placed on the heads of the letters שעטנ”ז ג”ץ in this scroll are drawn in the shape of three buds, like this:

The letter het is composed of two letters zayin joined by a plank laid across their summits, with a hook extruding from the top of the plank. The legs of the het conclude with a curlicue which extends outwards, following the tradition found in Sefer Tagi.[2]

In the word חור (Esther 1:6) which according to the Massorah is written with a large het, the legs of the het are composed of two rhombi with the inner surface being covered with  a fine mesh, rather than being uniformly filled with ink.

The base of the letters lamed, mem and most occurrences of the letters nun end with a curlicue, similar to the letters which “tails are curled” according to the tradition of the Sefer Tagi.

The midsection of some of the letters peh are curled, similar to the letters peh “whose mouths are curved inwards” according to the tradition of the Sefer Tagi.

The traditions found in Sefer Tagi are relevant only to a Torah scroll, and have no bearing on a scroll of Esther. Adopting this tradition for the scroll of Esther is a result of the fertile imagination of the scribe and his lively sense of humour.

The decoration and colour of this scroll express the joy of the text, and when the jubilance increases, as in the list of the ten sons of Haman which are written in the form of a poem in two rows, the page is decorated far more. A vase containing a tall plant stands at the base of the page in the space between the two rows, from which branches drooping with flowers extend to the two sides, and at the top there are three fabulous carnations in dazzling colours. At the apex of each row there is a colourful crown.


The letters of the ten names of Haman are surrounded by fine decorative lines, upon which the scribe suspended intricate and sinuous flourishes, a common motif found for example in the Worms Manuscript.[3] Instead of the usual curlicue extending from the line forming the front part of the letter mem of the word פרמשתא, the scribe inscribed there instead an acanthus leaf. Instead of the ψ at the mast of the lamed of דלפון and אדליא, he added branches with coloured leaves at the head of which he placed a flower.

Echoes of the botanical style of these illuminations can be found in a much later Italian scroll illuminated by Moses the son of Abraham Pescarolo in the year 1616.[4] See the following two details found in this scroll between the two rows forming the column of the names of Haman, and compare them to the same details found in Pescarolo’s scroll:


And here are details of the two miniatures from the Pescarolo scroll. Despite the fact that these scrolls were copied many years apart, these miniatures exhibit similarities, and form witness to the longevity of these motifs.


Customs regarding the writing and details of traditions
All the portions in this scroll are closed as is customary, and they are of two kinds: Either a space was left in the middle of the line (see illustration above), or if there was not enough space for that, the scribe left a space at the beginning of the next line and then resumed writing.

After every verse the scribe left a space of two-three letters to indicate to the reader the end of the verse. This rare custom is of doubtful validity for a Torah scroll,[5] however, since such a custom did exist there was no problem adopting it when writing a scroll of Esther.

Plene and Defective Spelling
תמרקיהן (Esther 2:3) with a defective spelling, as it is found in all five Ashkenazi scrolls of Esther described by Dr. I. Joel,[6] and also in twelve out of thirteen Italian scrolls of Esther described there, and in the scroll of Esther which according to Dr. Joel’s estimate was written in Holland in the nineteenth-century.[7]

להרג (Esther 8:11) defective spelling, as found in all five Ashkenazy, in ten out of thirteen Italian scrolls and in the Dutch scroll.

בפניהם and not לפניהם (Esther 9:2) as found in all five Ashkenazi scrolls, in twelve out of thirteen Italian scrolls of Esther, and in the aforementioned Dutch scroll.

ארדי (Esther 9:9) with a defective spelling as found in five of the thirteen Italian scrolls, in three out of the four scrolls which Dr. Joel ascribes to Holland, but in none of the Ashkenazi scrolls.

לקים (Esther 9:31) a defective spelling like none of the Ashkenazi scrolls, but like four of the thirteen Italian scrolls, and in the Dutch scroll.


The Tetragrammaton
The first letters of יבא המלך והמן היום (Esther 5:4) and the last letters of זה איננו שוה לי (Esther 5:19) and כי כלתה אליו הרעה (Esther 7:7), are written in larger letters in order to indicate the four letter Divine name which is not mentioned explicitly in the scroll due to mystical reasons.[8] Of the forty-five scrolls of Esther found in the collection of the National Library in Israel,[9] the emphasising of the Tetragrammaton at the beginning or end of the words is found in only four scrolls (by way of adding lines above these letters): in a scroll from eighteenth-century Italy, a western European scroll, and two scrolls from Holland, one of which was mentioned previously.


This amazing Scroll of Esther is the earliest illuminated scroll in existence, and the earliest Ashkenazi scroll of any kind of which is known to have survived.


Illuminated scrolls from an early period are not common altogether, and Ashkenazi illuminated scrolls are not found in even later periods. Of the forty-five scrolls in the previous list, only two are from the fifteenth century according to Dr. Joel, neither is Ashkenazi and neither is illuminated. One is written on parchment in a Spanish hand, and according to Dr. Joel’s estimate is from Spain (Heb. 137/3, no. 32 on the list). The other is clearly Italian about which Dr. Joel claimed that it is not impossible to consider that it is from the fifteenth century (Heb. 137/32, no. 18 on the list). From the illuminated scrolls listed there, there is not even one which is Ashkenazi.


Shlomo Zucker
June 2012


[1] The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Collection of Scrolls of Esther Heb. 137/11. The date of ownership is given there as 1622. See: Dr. Issachar Joel, Collection of Scrolls of Esther, in: Kiryat Sefer 32 (1957), pp. 230-240, no. 22.

[2] Sefer Tagi, ed. Jacob Besser, Israel 1970, p. 85.

[3] The Worms Mahzor was copied in 1272, it would seem in Weyburg Franconia, south Germany, now found in the National Library of Israel, Heb. 4o 781/1. This manuscript was printed in a facsimile edition and can also be found online in the Scanned Books Collection of the National Library. For a description of these flourishes, see Aliza Cohen-Mushlin, the Artistic Style of the Maḥzor, Worms Maḥzor, Ms. Jewish National and University Library, Introductory Volume, edited by Malachi Beit-Arié, Vaduz-London, 1985, p. 90.

[4] Published in a facisimile edition by Turnowsky (1997) and available online in the Scanned Books Collection of the National Library.

[5] Rabbi Judah the son of Asher asked Rabbi Isaac the son of Sheshet Perfet (Rivash d. 1408) whether a Torah scroll which had a space after most verses was valid. He replied (Responsa Rivash, 286) that the Torah scroll is valid, as only a Torah scroll which is punctuated is invalid as found in tractate Soferim 3:7. According to Rivash the space between the verses is of no worse status than the space left at the end of a line when there is no room to write more text, or in the middle of the line as the occasion arises; any space which is not as large as that found between two portions is acceptable. Based on this responsa one can conclude that even in his time this was a rare custom, for the inquirer found it in only one scroll, and even then only in most of it but not in all. All the rabbinic authorities who deal with this question post Rivash quote his opinion, and none mention that they actually encountered a Torah scroll which had a space after each verse.

[6] See Dr. Issachar Joel, Collections of Scrolls of Esther (above, n. 1).

[7] National Library of Israel, Heb. 137/13, no. 39 on Dr. Joel’s list. A scroll written on Ashkenazi parchment with no differentiation between the flesh side and the hair side written in an Ashkenazi hand, with the family’s escutcheon, a standing lion supported by a grape vine.

[8] See Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, Kad Hakemah, s.v. Purim, The Writings of Rabbi Bachya, ed. Charles Chavel, Mossad Harav Kook, Jerusalem 1970, p. 339.

[9] See n. 1.