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Judaism The Whole Megilah

Scroll of Esther. Rephael Montalto, scribe. Amsterdam, AM 5446 (1686 CE). NYPL, Spencer Collection.

A megilah (literally, scroll) is the common name for the biblical book of Esther written in scroll format. These scrolls are publicly read during the celebration of the Jewish festival of Purim, which commemorates the triumph of the Jews of the Persian Empire over their arch enemy, Haman, in the 5th century BCE. The story of the salvation of the Jewish people unfolds as part palace intrigue and part court romance. Hidden identities and reversals of fortune are central to the plot.

Flanking each section of three text columns are full-length figures of the story’s main characters, while below each section, text illustrations set within elaborately framed panels depict salient features of the plot, distilled from the verses written above them. Above the text sections of the scroll are a series of distinct cityscapes. The striking diversity of these urban settings is an allusion to the vastness of the Persian Empire, described in the text as encompassing 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia. The entire scroll is profusely decorated throughout its length with images of animals and floral motifs interspersed with dozens of animated cherubs.