The Mystery of the Spanish Megillah of Amsterdam

March 22, 2024 | Hillel Kuttler
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Even in the most liberal Reform synagogues in the world today, in synagogues where prayers are spoken in English or French, Torah and Hebrew Bible scrolls always remain written and recited in Hebrew. So what explains the existence of a scroll of the book of Esther handwritten beautifully in Spanish in 1684?

The scroll, now in the collection of the National Library of Israel, is unique for not being written in Hebrew, Hillel Kuttler reiterates. Could it have been created for private study, without any intention to be read aloud on Purim, as the book of Esther usually is?

No, said Aliza Moreno, NLI’s Judaica specialist and coordinator for Latin America, who is sure that the Amsterdam megillah was written for the purpose of being read publicly.

The proof, she said, lies in the three complete blessings that appear before the megillah’s text begins. The first words of each, Bendito tu ANDR, meaning, “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe,” is a standard opening for Jewish prayers. The megillah’s prayers are chanted only when the scroll is read publicly — and not, for example, when someone reads or studies it at school or at home.

The answer captures the history of Jewish migration and religious tradition:

Following the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, some of those who had outwardly converted to Christianity and remained in Spain and Portugal, continued to practice Jewish customs in secret. Some of their descendants eventually settled in Amsterdam beginning about a century after the expulsion, where they were able to reconnect openly with the Judaism of their ancestors.

Because they couldn’t read Hebrew, for the first time in Jewish history, we see a pattern of communities translating multiple Hebrew texts into languages written in Latin script, Moreno said.

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