Megillot Esther (Esther scrolls) can vary widely from one tradition to the next. Line counts can range from 8 to 42, for instance – generally 8, 11, 14, 21, 28, 42 or 48. The latter two are most commonly used for synagogue readings, since they are similar in height to that of a Sefer Torah and require less rolling during the reading than a smaller scroll. Megillot Esther, like Sifrei Torah, must must be handwritten, and is never be written from memory.
While there is much more room for creativity in a megillah than in a Sefer Torah, there is a distinct prohibition against writing the names of Hashem in gold ink/paint.
Illumination vs. Illustration
Generally speaking, the terms illumination and illustration, as pertaining to Hebrew manuscripts, are not interchangeable. Illustration refers to the practice of depicting scenes from the work in cameo images, whereas illumination refers to applying colored inks or paint to border art which is more thematic than illustrative. Nota bene: The Chofetz Chaim opines that though illumination is permissible, illustration is not (Mishnat Hasofer 28), but many 10th-18th century Megillot Esther – most often in Ashkenaz and Italian exemplars – contain both elements (in line with Shu”t Zerah Emet 1:100).
Illuminated manuscripts began to appear in Jewish society in the 10th century in the Middle East and around the 1230s in Iberia, France, the German Lands, and Italy.1 Note the image above depicts a megillah written according to the tradition of the Vilna Gaon (haGr''a), i.e. with no change in text size for the aseret b'nei Haman (10 sons of Haman) passage (Biur HaGr”a, Orach Chaim 691:25). Though it is presently en vogue to write megillot in 11 lines and call it "haGr''a," his own megillah was written with the list beginning at the head of a 48-line column in normal size script, completing the column with the subsequent text (as is the Chabad practice). Another method sometimes employed is to write in 21 lines with blank lines interspersed between the lines of aseret b'nei Haman.
It is stated in Shemot 20 that graven images for the purpose of bowing down to worship them is forbidden, but where idolatry is not the intent, illustration or illumination is permitted – in some cases. Though it is never permissible to decorate a Sefer Torah in this manner, other texts can be so adorned, and doing so for Megillat Esther is a long-held tradition dating back to medieval times.
For as short as the Esther scroll is, it is packed full of visual midrash! It contains, in some traditions, as many as 23 enlarged (majuscule) letters and 3 suspended (minuscule) letters. Additionally, most modern megillot Esther are written in what is called "HaMelekh format."
The Two Gates
The first modified letter occurs in tandem with the last, forming a sort of inclusio (envelope) for the entire scroll. These two enlarged letters – the chet of חור in 1:6 and the tav of ותכתב in 9:29 – are both similar in appearance to the shape of a gate and have, in fact, been interpreted as representing "two gates." Having one at the front and one at the back symbolizes that Judaism opens wide both the front and back doors/gates so that all may be welcomed in – rich or poor, Jew or Gentile – to enter into the celebration of the Feast of Esther (Purim).2
An additional explanation for the final enlarged letter of the megillah is alluded to in Yoma 29a, i.e. that Esther reflects the last of the recorded miracles in the Tanakh.
Another interpretation is that of R’ Moshe David Valle (1697-1777), who opines that the large tav testifies to Esther’s purity (temimut).3
Hashem in Hiding
It is often asserted that Hashem is absent from the Book of Esther, but there is a scribal tradition which challenges this. Considering that אסתר (with different vowel pointing, as above) can mean "I will hide" in Hebrew,4 it is not surprising that in Eastern (mostly kabbalistic) megillot, it is common to find acrostic letter enlargements which spell out the shem hamephorash of Hashem, not just once but four times!
- 1:20 הִ֑יא וְכָל־הַנָּשִׁ֗ים יִתְּנ֤וּ (it all the wives shall give)
- 5:4 יָבֹ֨וא הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ וְהָמָן֙ הַיֹּ֔ום (let the king and Haman come today)
- 5:13 זֶ֕ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁוֶ֖ה לִ֑י (this avails me nothing)
- 7:7 כִּֽי־כָלְתָ֥ה אֵלָ֛יו הָרָעָ֖ה (that there was evil determined against him)
In the first two instances, look at the initial letters of the four words (left-to-right in 1:20 and right-to-left in 5:4). What do they spell? In the last two instances, look at the final letters of the four words (left-to-right in 5:13 and right-to-left at 7:7). They spell the same name. These are understood by many of the Sages to be crypto-occurrences of the Covenant Name of Hashem, i.e. the Tetragrammaton, hidden within the text. Interestingly, the two instances where the name is spelled left-to-right occur in verses spoken by gentiles (Memuchan and Haman), and the two where the name is spelled right-to-left are found in the words of Jewish speakers (Esther and the author, presumably Mordecai).
18-19c Polish Pale of Settlement Megillat Esther
A fifth acrostic appears at Esther 7:5, and its initial letters are likewise enlarged in the aforementioned tradition. This one spells out EHYH, alluding to ehyeh asher ehyeh (Shemot 3:14), using the final letter of each of four consecutive words in natural order (i.e. right to left): מִ֣י] ה֥וּא זֶה֙ וְאֵֽי־זֶ֣ה [ה֔וּא]] ([who] is he and where is [he]...."). These words come from the mouth of King Achashverosh, a Gentile, but the acrostic is formed as though from a speech spoken by a Jew. As the following word ends with an aleph, it would be possible to form the acrostic left to right, so its right-to-left structure reflects that the king is an ally of the Jews at this point. Since Hebrew verbs convey "verbal aspect" (aktionsart, i.e. kind of action) as opposed to "verbal tense" (time of action), the most accurate rendering of this phrase would be something akin to: "I have always been, still am, and will always be whom I have always been."
Sfat Emet warns that he who reads the Megillah backwards (out of sequence) does not fulfill his obligation; for the allusions to G‑d's Name will not have been read in proper sequence.
It is not just Hashem who appears hidden, however. Rabbi Hillel Rivlin of Shkov paints a portrait of Mashiach ben Yosef which could suggest that this messianic figure is also hidden within the book of Esther, and may, in fact, be Esther herself for that generation.
The Ben Ish Chai explains that ora of 8:16 is written with a seemingly superfluous hey because it means ohr H', the light of HASHEM.
Citing Rashi on Mishlei 1:8, Rav Tzaddok HaKohen insists that ora is written with a letter hey because the verse intends it to be feminine, since the Torah being described here is specifically Torah she’bal peh (“the Oral Torah”).
In this view, Esther 9:27 is understood as indicating that the Jews of Esther's Persia reaffirmed (accepted anew) the Oral Torah at this time.
R’ Chaim Kanievsky writes that it is written incompletely because circumcision, which this represents, has an element of pain. He notes that sasson is spelled completely in the next verse (Esther 8:17) because we should strive to add to the joy of Purim as though nothing is missing, as the Halacha (Biur Halacha 695, dh “ad d’lo yada”) states explicitly regarding the custom to become inebriated on Purim.
At 10:1, there is a variant spelling of the name Achashverosh.5 According to Lekach Tov, the verse spells Achashverosh’s name differently here to indicate the people’s displeasure in being taxed. As the Talmud (Megilla 11a) notes, there is a vey (as in “oy vey”) in Achashverosh’s name because having to pay the extra money gave his citizens headaches.
The Aseret B'nei Haman
It is a long-established tradition to write the list of Haman's hanged sons in two columns, i.e. half-brick over half-brick and brick over brick, to visually represent that the family of Haman, on account of their antisemitism, is in a chasm from which they may never find escape.
The vav of Vayzatha is generally written enlarged, as ordained in numerous scribal authorities.
R’ Moshe David Valle adds that Vayizatha was chosen to bear the enlarged vav because his hatred for the Jews was the greatest among the ten brothers.6
The three suspended letters in this passage have traditionally been understood to be highlighting their numerical values, and the enlarged waw as indicating the 6th Millennium. Thus, they seem to be pointing to a particular year on the Biblical Calendar.
- ת = 400
- 300 = ש
- 7 = ז
- 6th Millennium = ו
Their sum indicates Creation Year 5707, which runs from September 1946 to September 1947. On October 1, 1946 (which falls within that Biblical Year during the feast of Sukkot), a trial took place in Nuremberg, Germany in which twelve Nazi leaders were sentenced to death by hanging. One of the twelve, Hermann Goering, committed suicide in advance of the scheduled hanging, and another, Martin Bormann, was tried in absentia and was not in custody for the hanging, leaving ten to be put to death on the assigned date, i.e. October 16th of that same year.  One of the ten, Julius Streicher, uttered his final words on the way to the gallows: “Purim Fest ein tausend neun hundert sex-und-vierzig” (Festival of Purim, 1946), seemingly recognizing that the hanging of himself and his nine comrades was a second fulfillment of judgment against Israel’s enemies.
Midrash Rebbe Akiva ben Yosef al Otion Ketanot writes that the small letter zayin in Vayizatha hints to the seven negative characteristics which Haman ascribed to the Jews (Esther 3:8):
- am echad – they are singular
- mifuzar – they are spread apart
- mifurad – they are splintered among themselves
- bichol midinot – they are everywhere
- vi’dateihem shonot– their laws are different from ours
- datei hamelech einamotim – they ignore your law
- ein shoveh li’hanicham – they are not worth keeping
The tradition of formatting the megillah so that המלך heads nearly every column (as below) does not seem to exist in the medieval period. It is a fairly infrequent one prior to the modern era,7 but has come to be the standard sofrut practice in current Ashkenaz and Sephardic practice. As the word occurs 192 times in the span of 10 chapters, it is not a difficult task. In order to accomplish this, these megillot tend to be written in 21 or 28 lines.
It is not uncommon to find the column-head instances of המלך adorned with a sketched crown or, alternatively, with embellished tagin on the lameds.
Yemenite Jews favor non-Hamelech megillot, as they hold to a tradition of heading every column with a new passuk (verse) so the Baal Koreh will not have to stop in the middle of the passage when moving to the next column. It can be seen in the image below that Rambam/Rosh paragraphing is also employed in Yemenite megillot.
As with Yemenite exemplars, older Sephardic and Ashkenaz megillot employ Rambam/Rosh paragraphing, i.e. 11 open (petuchah) and 12 closed (setumah) paragraphs. The modern practice, however, is for every paragraph to be written setumah.
The First and Last Letters
The Rokeach notes that the first and last letters of Megillat Esther are both vav, giving the total gematria 12. This, he suggests, alludes to the twelfth year of Achshverosh’s reign, when the Purim miracle occurred (Esther 3:17); the month of Adar, which is the twelfth month of the Jewish year; and the miracle occurring for the 12 tribes though Mordechai who came from Benyamin, the twelfth son of Yaakov. There is no special embellishment on either of these vavim in any known tradition.
Esther and Haman
Rokeach also observed that the names Esther and Haman each occur the same number of times in the megillah, i.e. 54 times apiece. The reason for this, he surmises, is to convey that the world was created with light and darkness present in perfect balance. This is seen as a picture of the free will to which every player in the account has equal access (as do we all).
The Longest Verse in the Tanakh
The longest verse in the Tanakh, with 192 letters and 43 words (these numbers don't seem to be significant), is found in Megillat Esther (8:9, below). The verse is pivotal to the message of the megillah in that it communicates the transmission of the edict through which the Jews of Persia were spared from extermination. The edict in view here is the counterpoint to the prior edict given at 3:12 and is similar in format. A question which the verse helps answer is this: "When Hashem's Covenant people are not where they are supposed to be (if this occurs after the Cyrus Decree allowing the Jews to return to Israel, yet these Jews remain in Persia), is He still with them?" The answer is an astounding "Yes, and He remains absolutely faithful to His Covenant!"
If, however, the midrash regarding Esther being the mother of Koresh (Cyrus) is to be regarded as correct, something else is being conveyed here. That would be, possibly, that Esther is where she is "for such a time as this" in order to become the mother of a mashiach (Yeshayahu 45:1 calls Koresh by this title) in addition to being the mashiach ben Yosef (redeemer) of her own generation.
The Longest Word in the Tanakh
The longest word in the megillah is tied with two other 11-letter words for longest length. This word, however, is unique in that it is not of Hebrew origin. It is a loanword from Old Persian, transliterated from xšaçapāvan (𐎧𐏁𐏂𐎱𐎠𐎺𐎠, literally "protector of the province"). It occurs at Esther 9:3. The other two are both found in Ezekiel — וּכְתוֹעֲבוֹתֵיהֶ֖ן (Ezekiel 16:47), “and their abominations,” and וְכַעֲלִילוֹתֵיכֶ֤ם (Ezekiel 20:44), translated as “and their doings.”
Physical Qualities of the Megillah
The Ink and the Parchment
With regard to the ink and parchment, the Maran Beit Yosef (R' Yosef Karo) cited specific requirements for the megillah.
The Eytz Chayim
Sephardic megillot must have an eytz chayim affixed in order to be considered kosher lechatchilla, but may be considered kosher b'dieved without one (Chazon Ovadiah on Purim, pg. 243). The general practice among older Ashkenazic megillot is to affix an eytz chayim at the end of the megillah only, as opposed to one at each end as with a Sefer Torah. The Rema opined that it is improper to affix an eytz chayim to the end of a megillah, insisting “nahagu shelo laasos lah amud klal b’sofah”, that our minhag is specifically not to have any amud at all at the end of the megillah (Orach Chaim 691:2). Modern Ashkenaz megillot, per R' Shlomo Ganzfried, are not to have eytzim chayimim attached.
Sephardic Preamble to the Megillah Reading
Sephardic megillot generally have rolled up with them on a loose sheet of parchment a liturgical preamble which is read prior to the obligatory Purim readings. It is a "string of pearls" liturgy called Hasdei comprised of several verses from the Tanakh in sequence with some liturgical bridges interspersed. This is generally written only in Hebrew and can be written with or without nikkudot. Divine names should be circumscribed and it is not uncommon to use aleph-lamed ligatures, as below.
זֶרַע עֲמָלֵק הָרָשָע חָשַב עַל הַיְּהוּדִים לְאַבְּדָם וְהִפִּיל פּוּר הוּא הַגּוֹרָל לְהֻמָּם וּלְאַבְּדָם:
The seed of the wicked Amalek thought the Jews to be lost and the downfall of the lot is the fate for them — to be destroyed and to be lost.
רָאָה ﭏהִים אֵת אֲשֶׁר זָמַם וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינָיו:
G-d has taken away their happiness, and he has done evil in his sight.
הָפַך עָלָיו אֶת גּוֹרָלוֹ הֵפֵר עֲצָתוֹ וַיָּשֶב לוֹ גְּמוּלוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ:
He overthrew his fate, spurning his counsel and having his reward resting on his head.
הִצִּיל עַמּוֹ מִיַּד אוֹיְבֵיהֶם מִּכַּף רְשָׁעִים פָּדָה אוֹתָם:
He delivered them out of the hand of their enemies; out of the palm of the wicked He redeemed them.
גָּבְרוּ חֲסָדָיו עָלֵינוּ וְלֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו מִמֶּנּוּ:
His righteousness prevailed over us, but His mercy was not with us.
זָכַר בְּרִיתוֹ אִתָּנוּ עַל יַד צִיר נֶאֱמָן הִבְטִיחָנוּ כַּכָּתוּב עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה נְבִיאֵנוּ:
Remember His covenant with us by the hand of the faithful, we have been promised as written by Moshe our prophet:
לְעוֹלָם אֶזְכּוֹר לָהֶם חַסְדִּי וּבְרִיתִי נֶאֱמֶנֶת לָהֶם וְלֹא אֲשַׁקֵּר בֶּאֱמוּנָתִי:
I will always remember them, for my lovingkindness and my covenant are faithful unto them, and I will not lie in my faithfulness.
a near-complete preamble sheet found in a bookbinding genizah
Manuscript Research Group, Spring Lake, Michigan
Blessings Before the Reading of the Megillah
The following blessing are sometimes included in the scroll itself, on a protocol panel. This is purely optional. If included, it should be written only in Hebrew, generally with Hashem circumscriptions and aleph-lamed ligatures, usually with nikkudot to differentiate it from the canonical text.
Fulfillment of a Mitzvah
- Katrin Kogman-Appel, Jewish Manuscript Illumination (2014), introduction.
- Morris M. Faierstein, ed., Ze’enah u Re’enah (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co, 2017), 1122.
Kitvei R' Moshe David Valle - Sefer HaYeshua al Megillat Esther (Italy, 18th century); online: https://www.torahmusings.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Esther-third.pdf.
Note that Esther is a Persian name (possibly related to Ishtar), chosen as a pseudonym for Hadassah (Hebrew for myrtle), but the similarity to the Hebrew root סתר (to hide) is likely not accidental.
The name Achashverosh is Hebrew for what occurs in many English texts as Ahasuerus (Latin: Rex Assuerus) or Xerxes/Artaxerxes (Greek: Ἀρταξέρξης, approximating Artaxšaθra). All are quasi-transliterations of the Persian name Khshayārsha (خشایارشا).
Kitvei R' Moshe David Valle - Sefer HaYeshua al Megillat Esther (Italy, 18th century); online: https://www.torahmusings.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Esther-third.pdf.
The NLI records 26 scrolls of Megillot haMelekh, beginning in the 18th century, including 16 before 1745.