Purim and a Medieval Cutting in the Free Library of Philadelphia

By Joe S. RSS Wed, March 4, 2015

Purim is celebrated every year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar. It is a day of feasting and rejoicing, commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to annihilate them. The story is told in the Book of Esther, which is part of the Jewish Bible and Christian canonical scripture. It recounts a series of events that are said to take place in Shusan or Susa, which was part of the Persian Empire during the reign of King Xerxes (who was probably King Ahasuerus in the Biblical text). Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai helped to avert a plot to slaughter the Jewish people by Haman, King Ahasuerus' right hand man. Haman was killed with the contraption by which he had meant to kill Mordecai.

It is traditional to read the Book of Esther for Purim: copies of the text exist in scrolls called “megillot” and the Free Library has several manuscript and print copies of the Esther megillah in the Rare Book Department.

This medieval manuscript cutting is from a Bible made around 1260 in France. The two pictures start the Book of Esther: the top picture, or miniature, shows Queen Esther before Ahasuerus and the bottom picture shows the Death of Haman.

This second picture is a total spoiler, as Haman doesn’t die until the seventh chapter of the Book of Esther. It’s hard to know why the artist chose to use this image at the beginning of the text. The most common image used at the beginning of this text is Esther being crowned by Ahasuerus.

Additionally, there is a textual question about whether Haman is hanged in the text or whether he is impaled. It varies according to the translation. In the NRSV, or New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Haman is hanged. The New Jewish Publication Society translation has Haman impaled rather than hanged. A discussion by Joel M. Hoffmann can be found here

For more information about the Free Library's medieval manuscripts or the Esther scrolls, please feel free to contact the Rare Book Department, open Monday through Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. 215-686-5416. You may also visit many images of our medieval manuscripts online here.

Katharine Chandler and Joseph Shemtov


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