Megillat Esther from Persia; The Tension Between Restoration and Conservation… and Halachic Frontier
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
For me, more than the thrill of the challenge itself to take on this project was the motivation behind it. My inner mission statement was threefold:
a. To make this gentleman happy simply by fulfilling his request.
b. To reinstate an ancient Megillah scroll back into the fold of Jewish ritual use by making it kosher in order to fulfill the “Mitzvah” (Rabbinic precept), of “Mikra Megillah”, “Megillah Reading” during the upcoming holiday of Purim.
c. To restore a sacred, heirloom artifact, that would strengthen this man’s family roots of his past, present and future.
When I am entrusted with a scroll like this Megillah, I seriously weigh the approaches to take in order to reach the goal and avoid risk. I imagine or assume the approaches taken by my colleagues and teachers and when necessary, I consult.
Aside from the inner tension of emotion and responsibility that I bare with regards to handling my client’s invaluable and irreplaceable scroll, I am clad with another mantel of tension. This tension arises from perceiving the task to repair this Megillah from 3 related, yet distinct fields of expertise: Halacha, (Code of Jewish Law) Restoration and Conservation. In many ways, these fields converge, yet, in others, they diverge.
Halacha: (Code of Jewish Law)
As a sofer STaM, (scribe of Jewish ritual scrolls), the Halachic concerns are primary. Halacha is the basic instruction manual or driving force that forms the very foundation of my work. These rules are the parameters that govern the entire category of Jewish ritual scrolls, their use and their function. If one deviates from these rules, even inadvertently, these sacred scrolls consequently and automatically exit this category.
Rabbi Chaim Tabasky
The category of Halacha is immense and tricky business on its own accord. The principals are many, the details are more and the applications vary. To start the process of tactic exploration concerning the restoration of this megillah
Due to the condition of the Megillah and the magnitude of repair work necessary to restore it, Rabbi Tabasky advised by citation of the “Mishna Berura,” the standard code of Jewish law, by Moshe Isserles, known as The Rema, רמ״א, (b. 1520) based on the Code, “Shulchan Aruch” by Joesph Karo, (b. 1488).
It is stated in the Mishna Berura, Hilchot Megillah, siman תרצ, saif ג, that the precept of Megillah reading should be performed with a hand-written scroll using black ink on parchment and cannot be performed merely by memory. If, however, the scribe omitted words, even segments of text, then, provided that:
1) at least 51% of the Megillat Esther is intact,
2) at least the first and last verses, (pasukim ,פסוקים) are intact,
3) an entire episode of the story of the Book of Esther is not completely omitted,
then the reader may rely on memory and does fulfill their obligation and may except others as well with an incomplete Megillah Esther scroll as this one. This law is also cited by the Rambam, (Maimonides, b. 1135) in his Mishna Torah, Hilchot Megillah, ב:י.
Now, I have learned this halacha before, however, my association to it was one of pure theory and zero practicality, or at the very least, not a law for a scribe to “adhere” to, or to post on his bulletin board by any means, “if the scribe omitted words…” no, not for me, never! Perhaps, this is an appropriate halacha for the Megillah reader to know and implement at a time or place where there are no other Megillot available. Certainly, not for the scribe who’s essential mission is to write correctly transmitted, sacred texts.
Rabbi Tabasky advised me to correct the first and last verses of this Megillah and somewhere random in the middle and… ישראל על שלום, (peace upon Israel), the Megillah is kosher and worthy of a blessing.
Now, I was enriched with good, effective and wise council from my Rabbi. I was contemplating implementation of a law that I never understood and there is something to be said about just that, however, I had to return and re-evaluate my original mission. Once I did that, I realized that if I were to follow this advice, I would only fulfill one third of my declared mission, and for me that would not suffice.
In order to approach the task of fixing this old Megillah from Persia, I had to consult with experts in the other related categories, namely, restorers and conservators.
Shlomo Zucker (L), Timna Elper (R)
The National Library of Israel has a rare book library with a conservation and restoration department. I brought this Megillah to Timna Elper, head of Restoration and to Shlomo Zucker of rare books. Shlomo Zucker is a world-renowned expert in the field of Hebrew Manuscripts. Professor Zucker estimated the age of this Megillah to be at least 200 years old.
I know that if Shlomo Zucker tagged a time to this Megillah, carbon dating would be pointless. Now I know what I am dealing with here; a real old Megillah scroll that comes from the same land where the story of Esther originates and it is older than we all thought. This is getting quite exiting! Questions are buzzing in my mind: who wrote this Megillah? What was his lineage? What was it like to be a Hebrew scribe in early 1800’s Persia, let alone a Jew? Fascinating!
The basic rule of conservation is to preserve and prevent further decay… and of course, in the most natural way. If a conservator must perform restoration techniques then it is only done so in order to execute this mission of conservation. Conservators would never, Heaven forbid, add pigment to the manuscript nor a to scroll, even if someone like myself would call it “writing,” “re-writing,” or “touching up.”
Since the intention behind this Megillah is personal use and will not sit in a museum or a rare book library and since my client preferred to read from his “whole,” ancestral scroll rather from an incomplete, yet “kosher” one, then it was clear to me that I had to go beyond the letter of Jewish law, break the fundamental dictum of conservators and find a restorer to give me some sound advice and mental support.
Mark Twain is alleged to have said it well:
The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.
The “man who cannot read them” is generally meant to refer to the illiterate, however, with this Megillah, it refers to the “illegible.”
an illegible Megillah
The advice of Rabbi Tabasky to minimally retouch this Megillah would have faired far superior to a conservator than my quest to go ahead and rewrite the gansen scroll, so, I aimed towards full restoration of this Megillah through the mindset of a conservator. In 200 years from now, I would like this Megillah to be legible and I would not want someone to point out the stratum of penmanship, nor to ridicule the scribe of the early 21st century who restored it – me!
I aimed to re-write the vanished letters and add ink where letters were cracked. I had to search for the right ink, not too shiny, not too dull, but one that matches the existing one and I aimed to avoid eyesores due variant coloration.
Rabbi Yitzchak Goldshtein
After laying down a plan of action with some testing, I brought the Megillah to Machon Ot, a Jerusalem institution specializing in Torah scroll restoration and identification. Rabbi Steiner and Rabbi Goldshtein have restored thousands of Torah scrolls. They endorsed my methods of restoration. Encouraged!
Just across the hall from Machon Ot resides the studio of a world renown bookbinder of the most traditional order and awesome talent. I am proud to say that I am a student of Yehudah Miklaf. I showed the Megillah to Yehudah and although he has restored many and much older rare books, he could not offer advice due to the par of perspective with regard to ritual vs. non-ritual use. Graciously, Yehudah empathized with my tension and cheered my mission.
Before and After
As I got into flow of repair work, not only did I find uniformity in ink tone, but I also noticed that the faint ink residue from the vanished lettering served as a guide for the new lettering. This helped me write seamlessly with the existing script as the original Persian scribe wrote to whom I felt in collaboration with.
Once I completed the restoration work on this Megillah, I brought it to Lishkat Hasofer, an institute specializing in text accuracy using computer software. Due to the weak contrast of color between the ink and the parchment, they were unable to perform the magic of the digital era. I resolved to manually check the Megillah for spelling, word against word using a tikun, a printed Book-of-Esther guide.
I found 2 mistakes. Again, tension sprung due to the par between the worlds of conservation, restoration and Halacha. Perhaps the Persian scribe had a different, yet legitimate tradition of text than ours today? Perhaps I should only touch up minimally and avoid major textual correction where some of my colleagues and teachers might regard as manuscript assault?
There was one letter that was hanging above a word either because it was originally omitted or perhaps because it is uncommon spelling in this particular verse. Perhaps the scribe mistakenly omitted the letter, but felt that removing ink to include it would harm the parchment and resolved to hang the letter on top? Who am I to come and do just that?
hanging yud in the word lekaym – לקים
Book of Esther Tikun
corrected word – lekaym, לקים
Well, considering all this, I did just that; I “corrected” the text entirely in order to assimilate that with which we hold true today. I subtly removed the 200 year-old ink and re-wrote our version of the text. I was however true to the philosophy of conservation with regards to the staining of the gevil; I left all the staining. Being true to restoration, I patched up some areas seamlessly to prevent further tearing.
“correct” text – after
inscription on wooden handle
Once I got to the end of the Megillah, where it was attached to the wooden rod, I noticed some Hebrew script written right on the wood: a name! This Megillah bares an inscription! It reads, “ Ani hatzair, Shalom Yosef Ben Avraham” I, the young, Shalom Joseph, son of Abraham. Then there is an acronym, which could be a year. Looking closely, it appears to be the Hebrew letters, tav, kuf, peh, tet, which could be the Hebrew year of 5589 which corresponds to the Gregorian year of 1829.
Last week, I delivered the Megillah to the home of this gentleman, my client. He was overjoyed to receive his Megillah looking so sharp and seamless. His is looking forward to reading it in Beit Kenesset, (Synagogue). He was happy to hear the story of the process. It appears that the names on the rod are those of ancestry. With regards to what I thought was a year mark has yet to be confirmed.
With great hospitality, being the heart of Israel, he welcomed my wife and I in his home serving us a platter of delicacies from Israel and tea from Persia.
Story and images by Jamie Shear.