Jewish holiday of Purim symbolises the saving of the Jewish people from their annihilation, as plotted by wicked Haman who was a government official in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. These dramatic events unfold in the biblical book of Esther, and the main characters of its narrative are queen Esther, Mordecai, king Ahasuerus and Haman. As Haman’s plans to kill the Jews fail, the story has a happy end and ever since, every year on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month Adar, Jews celebrate the festival of Purim, with lots of merrymaking and thanksgiving. In Jerusalem and a few other walled cities, however, the date of the festival falls on the fifteenth of Adar.

The Book of Esther is unique among the other books of the Old Testament. First, it is a scroll, being one of the Five Scrolls (the Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, the Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Esther), and it is indeed usually written down in the format of a scroll, often illustrated in colour (see online catalogue of illuminated Esther scrolls). Second, the book is interesting because its protagonist is a beautiful Jewish woman, Esther, and it is the last of the twenty four books that became a canonical part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, it is the only book in the Old Testament where the name of God is not explicitly mentioned, although it is possible to associate the act of saving the Jews with God.

Perhaps these are the very reasons why the story of queen Esther has become so popular and there are many traditions that make the festival of Purim a very lively communal event. Traditionally, the book of Esther is read from a scroll in the synagogue and the whole community participates in the reading, making loud noise with special rattles, when the names of evil Haman and his ten sons are mentioned (54 times). During the festival, it is customary to eat sweet pastries filled with seeds and nuts (that relate to Esther’s diet in the royal palace) and drink wine, as well as to make gifts to children and give charity to the poor.

Since Purim coincides with the time of the Italian carnivals and German Fastnacht proceedings, it is known that already since the fourteenth century Jews had started to dress up and wear masks for Purim. Today, in Jewish communities around the world, Purim is celebrated with colourful parades and parties, - both religious and secular -, that take place in the atmosphere of a lively carnival.

Because the holiday of Purim became cherished among all ranks of Jewish society, it was only natural that it also found a wealth of expressions in literature. Several forms of Purim parody are known from the Middle Ages; manuscript copies of these can be found also at the Bodleian Library. MS Mich. 346 comprises a late fifteenth century Italian manuscript of מגלת סתרים by Levi ben Gershom (1288-1344). As Purim parody became a common form of written Hebrew satire, another genre of literature, the so-called Purim-spiel became established, especially among Ashkenazi Jews. The latter is a play that is performed on Purim and usually develops around a theme from the Book of Esther. Today new versions of the Purim-spiel are written and performed every year, in Israel as well as in the diaspora. Nowadays one might, or might not, identify with different kinds of heroes and villains (often inspired by our contemporary personae), but for Jews, the evil personality is traditionally represented by Haman, as also demonstrated in Hebrew manuscript illumination.

The hanging of Haman and his sons is a common theme in a number of important medieval Ashkenazi prayer books, such as MS Mich. 617  and MS Laud Or. 321. This is even true of early printed books: Merton College Library has a copy of a Hebrew incunabulum that contains the Book of Esther where we can see a sketched image of a man on a gallows that accompanies the names of the ten sons of Haman.

Christ Church Library’s Hebrew holdings include three interesting antiquarian books that relate to Purim. In chronological order, the oldest of these volumes is Eliezer ben Elijah Ashkenazi’s (1512-1585) commentary on the Book of Esther, i.e. Perush Megilat Ester, also known as Yosef leḳaḥ (see MA*.1.24). It was printed in 1576 in Cremona (Italy), the last Hebrew book to be published in that city, after more than twenty years of Jewish scholarship and printing there - an activity that was ended by the censorship of the Inquisition. The book was issued at the press of Cristoforo Draconi (active as a printer between 1569 and 1614), with the help of his Hebrew printer Solomon ben Jacob Bueno. The copy at Christ Church is the second of the two almost identical editions of Yosef leḳaḥ, both of which date to 1576. It is possible that Bueno reset the type (there are minor variations) and reprinted the second edition independently.

The author of the book, Eliezer Ashkenazi, a sixteenth-century rabbi, Talmudist, physician and scholar, was a curious character, to say the least. Born in the Mediterranean basin and educated in Salonica in the kabbalistic circle of Joseph Taitazak, he served as a prominent rabbi, first in Egypt, and later in Cyprus, Venice, Prague, Cremona, Posen and Cracow, where he is buried. Ashkenazi was known to speak twelve languages and his name frequently comes across in rabbinic responsa of his contemporary leading authorities. Yosef leḳaḥ is dedicated to the influential court Jew don Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos (1524-1579), whom Ashkenazi compares with biblical figures of Joseph in Egypt and Mordecai from the Book of Esther. The year of its publication, 1576, corresponds to the Jewish calendar year 336. Since 336 is also the numerical value of the word ‘Purim’, the year of publication is given on the title page as a Hebrew quote from the Book of Esther 9:26, with the word ‘Purim’ printed in bold characters. The lovely title page of the book is presented as an architectural gate that is adorned with naked, winged putti. Soon after its publication, in 1598, the copy of the book was checked and signed by Domenico Hierosolymitano, the censor of Inquisition. An Italian Jewish owner named Isaac Levi signed his book in 1675 and his relative Abram Levi has left his name in the book, too. Both names appear in Roman script.

Another edition of a sixteenth-century Hebrew commentary on the Book of Esther in the Upper Library at Christ Church is called Yeshaʻ Elohim (see MA.7.9/1). Its author Abraham ben Isaac Tsahalon is a sixteenth-century Talmudist and kabbalist from a Sephardi family of rabbis and scholars who settled in Italy and Levant, after their expulsion from Spain. The book was printed at the press of Giovanni di Gara (active as a printer between 1564 and 1610) in Venice, in 1595. Our copy of the book is bound together, amid other works, with two editions by Tsahalon, which comprise his calendrical tract, Yad ḥarutsim, as well as his kabbalistic work, Marpe la-nefesh. The latter two works were also printed in Venice in 1595 by Giovanni di Gara.

The third Purim-related item in the Christ Church collection is of a different nature: Melitsah le-Furim (MA*. 4.12) has been printed as a pamphlet, there is no mention of its author, place or year of publication in its introduction, which is presented in rhymed prose. Israel Davidson, in his Parody in Jewish Literature, attributes the authorship of this booklet to an important Jewish philologist, lexicographer and scholar of the maskilic period, Judah Leib Ben-Ze’ev (1764-1811), who had this edition of Purim parody printed in Breslau (Wrocław) in 1800. Ben-Ze’ev, who was born in a conservative religious environment in Galicia, became one of the pioneers of the movement to revive the Hebrew language, when he relocated to Berlin which was the capital of Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment). He dedicated his short life to the study of Hebrew grammar, philology, and lexicography; as a member of the Me’assefim group of Hebrew writers, he contributed to the journal Ha-Me’assef with poems, parables and fables in Hebrew. His Melitsah le-Furim is a collection of seventeen parodies of liturgical hymns for the festival of Purim; Judah Leib Ben-Ze’ev wrote some of these in the style of classical piyyutim, where he also made use of the technique of acrostics. His Purim pamphlet is a beautiful example of Haskalah literature that has recently been discovered among the other Hebrew treasures at Christ Church and can only be fully appreciated once the entire collection will be catalogued.

If not now for Purim, when would be a better time for unscrewing a bottle of House sherry ‘Pale Dry Fino, Christ Church Oxford’?!
לחיים! Prost! Cheers! Zum Wohl! Skål! Terviseks! Salute! Noroc! Santé! На здоро́вье! Salud! για την υγεία! Proost! Kippis! Nunc est bibendum!

Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library

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