Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lessons of Purim


Below is the text of a dvar Torah I gave to day in my Synagogue.


Shabbat Shalom

Today’s Parsha is Tetzaveh which deals with details of the Tabernacle, the priests clothing and some very specific sacrifices. But I won’t be talking about Tezaveh today: other than to note that it starts with laws relating to oil for lamps – oil lamps that brings to mind Hannukah, a holiday I hope to touch on at the end of this dvar.

In addition to being Parshat Tetzaveh, today is also Shabbat Zachor. And it is my Bar-Mitzvah portion. Today is the 46th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, by the Hebrew calendar.

Shabbat Zachor is one of the five special Shabbatot that come before Passover, where we read special maftir and haftarah readings.

On this Shabbat, our maftir reading is taken from Deuteronomy Chapter 25, and it commands us to simultaneously remember and to blot out the memory of Amalek: Amalek, the embodiment of evil in the Biblical imagination: Amalek, who attacked our ancestors on their way out of Egypt.

The Haftarah reading for Shabat Zechor is taken from the book of Samuel, and it tells us about King Saul’s war against Amalek, where he is commanded to literally wipe out the Amalekites, and where he fails to do so – leaving alive, only temporarily it turns out, the Amelikite King, Agag.

Parshat Zechor always falls on the Shabbat before Purim – and indeed this year Purim will start tonight. Parshat Zechor falls just before Purim, because in the Megillah (the Book of Esther), Haman is said to be an “Agaggi”, a descendant of the Amalekite King Agag. The very same king not killed by King Saul in today’s haftarah. Moreover, Mordecai is said to be a descendant of King Saul. Thus Mordecai fulfills Saul’s obligation to physically wipe out the Ameliktes. And we, when we celebrate Purim, get to fulfill our obligation to simultaneously remember what Amalek did to us, (the Bible’s quintessential act of evil – attempted genocide), and to wipe out their memory, by reading the Megillah but at the very same time drowning out the name of Haman, the last of the evil line of Amalek.

That is a current popular explanation of why we celebrate Purim and read the megillah.

But was this always so? Was Purim always understood this way? In fact, the answer is, “No.”

Purim was not formally adopted as an official holiday, and the Book of Esther was not formally accepted as sacred scripture, until the 2nd century AD: That is, at least 400 years after the events the Megillah purports to describe. And even later than the 2nd century, there was a vocal minority that questioned the Megillah’s status.

The only holiday with a later origin than Purim is Hannukah. And its official record – the Book of Maccabees – was rejected from inclusion the Hebrew cannon.

What I want to explore today, is why Purim became an officially sanctioned holiday, and why its official record – the Megillah – was accepted into the Tanach, despite its late and Diasporic origin. I want to base our exploration on a record of the debate over the canonization of the Megillah that is recorded in the Talmud. I also want to contrast the fate of the Megillah with that of the Book of Maccabees, which was not canonized.

I should add at this point that I first discovered these Talmud passages, and got the idea for this dvar Torah, from an essay by the French Jewish Philosopher and Talmud commentator, Emmanuel Levinas.

I should also preface our study of Talmud text with two important points.

First, that there is a strict hierarchy of authority in the Talmud. Quotes from scripture are the highest authority – though these can be, and often are, fancily interpreted. Opinions of Mishna era Rabbis – called Tannaim – are next in line, and have authority over the later Gemara era Rabbis – who are called Amoraim.

Tannaim lived roughly between the year 30 BCE and 220 CE. They usually have the title Rabbi. Amoraim lived roughly between 220 and 550 CE. They usually have the title Rav. The entire Talmud was finally edited and sealed between the years 550 to 600 CE, and the editor used his role to create anonymous commentary, and to weave together dialogues between sages who lived century’s apart.

Second, the Talmudic sages spoke in a short and cryptic style. Their sayings are full of hints and allusions, and assume an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and the rest of the Talmud in order to fully grasp these sayings’ often multiple and multilayered meanings. Though their arguments often appear to be narrow legalistic ones, or to be based on seemingly silly references to Biblical
proof-texts, there is often a deeper meaning, and an important point of principal that the Rabbis are trying to make.

With that in mind, if you could look at your hand outs [The hand out is reproduced at the end of this blog posting], lets study the texts and see the arguments that lead to Purim’s formal inclusion in our ritual life, and to the canonization of the Book of Esther.

Passage A:
R. Samuel b. Judah said: Esther sent to the Sages saying, “Commemorate me for future generations.” They replied, “You will incite the ill will of the nations against us.” She sent back a reply: “Am I not already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Persia and Media?”
The Rabbis writing circa 400 CE imagine a time when the feast of Purim has not been officially sanctioned. Esther wants to obtain a permanent place in our liturgy. She pleads her case to the sages. But she is told that her request is inopportune.

Do the rabbis already fear anti-Semitism? Commenting on this passage Levinas writes:
“Do the Rabbis already think that the Purim affair, in which the Jews had no choice but to fight to avoid extermination, will saddle the Jewish people with the reputation of being imperialists, and ruthless conquerors if the memory of the failed genocide and our resistance to it is perpetuated…? Or do they, perhaps, foresee the future indignation of sensitive souls, who in our time are wearied of our commemoration of the Shoah?”

Or perhaps the Rabbis doubt the universal significance of the events of Purim. Is it not merely a chapter in a single nation’s history? By claiming Holy significance for the particular are we not perhaps undermining the universal that is, after all, supposed to be the true realm of the Holy? The sages are, perhaps, of the opinion that national history alone, even Jewish national history, does not, in and of itself, give an event religious significance.

Thus Esther’s reply: This story already belongs to universal history, as it is written in the chronicles of a Great Power. And is not universal history just a collection of many small narratives? Can there be a Grand Narrative without its instantiations in particular incidents.

We are not told if Esther’s reply convinced the sages. At this point, the future status of Purim is still in doubt.

Passage B
Rab and R. Hanina and R. Johanan and R. Habiba said [some say R Jonathan and not R Johanan] … Esther sent to the Sages saying, “Write an account of me for posterity.” They sent back an answer, “ ‘I have given you three writings’ [Proverbs 22:20 ] — three writings and not four?”

So, perhaps having been rebuffed the first time Esther tries again. Or perhaps this passage records another tradition regarding her first try.

Levinas, commenting in this passage writes:
“The first part of the passage is concerned with establishing the names of those who transmit the account of Esther’s appeal to the religious authorities of her time. I have often insisted … on the importance given in the Talmud to knowing who taught, who stated and who transmitted such and such a truth. I have spoken of the importance … of the person of the author in relation to the words. This is not only to stress the … subjective character of all truth, but also to avoid losing, in the universal, the marvel … of the personal [of the particular]: to avoid transforming the domain of truth into the realm of [objective] anonymity.”
And what does Esther ask for this time? Not a sanctified holiday, but a sanctified book: a new piece of Holy Scripture. Isn't this a more chutzpahdik request than her first one?

And let us look at the text, from Proverbs 22, which is quoted by the sages to rebuff Esther. You can see its full context in the footnote on page 1 of the handout. You can see that the translation of Sheleshim as three is a stretch. Sheleshim sounds like Shalosh (the Hebrew word for Three), but that is clearly not its plain meaning. And so the Sages’ response - “Three writings and not four” - would appear to be a mere word game.

But would the Rabbis really have rebuffed Esther based only on clever punning? Perhaps there is something more serious here. The plain meaning of Sheleshim is “sovereign” or “governing” or “superior” – or only slightly less literally “archetypal.” What the sages mean to say, therefore, is that God has decreed that three archetypal recounting of our encounter with ultimate evil is enough.

Beyond that we risk adding nothing new – just piling on more and more examples. If we allow four, tales of encounters with evil, why not five, six, seven, … one hundred. Jewish history, they seem to sense, will not be lacking for terrible tragedies and national survival against all odds. Perhaps the sages are worried about setting a precedent. If we canonize the Megillah, why not a new holy book and new holy day for the destruction of the Second Temple and the revival at Yavneh, the massacres of the middle ages and its great rabbinic commentaries, the expulsion from Spain and the creative explosion that was Tsfat. Why not a new holiday and a new scripture for the Holocaust and the Birth of the State of Israel? If we allow more than the mandated three, there will be no end to this! We will soon be in danger of losing the forest for the trees!

So - no! Only archetypical stories should be privileged with Holy books, and only three are required. And in passage “B” the Rabbis are sure that these three already exist in our scripture.

Passage C.
[They refused] until they found a verse written in the Torah, “Write this, a memorial, in a book” [Exodus 17:14] [which they expounded as follows]: ‘Write this’, namely, what is written [in Deut 25:17] … ‘for a memorial’, namely, what is written in the Prophets [1 Samuel, 15]; ‘in a book’, namely, what is written in the Megillah.
Ah! But now the Rabbis discover that they are not so sure that the three required telling are in the Tanach without the addition of the Megillah. It seems the three telling must be distinct types, namely: the story itself, the memory or echo of it, and “a book” – a full length analysis of a similar event but in a different context. Do these three types in fact exist in the Tanach without the story of Purim? We certainly have three sections about Amalek: In Exodus (the original incident), in Deuteronomy (today’s maftir portion), and in Samuel (today’s haftarah). But isn’t the story in the book of Samuel not merely an echo of the original story of Amalek’s threat to the Jewish people. No new threat is presented in Samuel, and no new salvation. It is just a failed attempt to follow up on the commandment to blot out Amalek, which was given in the original Torah story.

So it seems that the Book of Esther is indeed required to fulfill the obligation of analyzing evil and the victory against it, in a separate book length analysis and in separate and new circumstances.

Passage D.
[But others said, we already have three.] ‘Write this’, what is written here. [Exodus 17:14] ‘For a memorial’, namely, what is written in Deuteronomy. ‘In a book’, namely, what is written in the Prophets. So says Rabbi Joshua. [who argues against the canonization of the Book of Esther] But Rabbi Eliezer of Modi'in countered, says: Write this’, namely, what is written in Deuteronomy; for a memorial’, namely, what is written in the Prophets; ‘in a book’, namely, what is written in the Megillah.

So we see, as is often the case, that not all Rabbis agree. Here we have Rabbi Joshua, teacher of Rabbi Akiva, in the late first or early second century AD, arguing that the account of Amelek in First Samuel is not merely an echo. It is a new and significant telling of our encounter with Amalek/evil. It counts as the “book” called for in Exodus. Therefore, everything we need to know is already in the Scripture we have. There is no need for any additions.

And who do we have countering Rabbi Joshua? Who is arguing that the Book of Esther does bring a new and important perspective, and therefore belongs in the Tanach? It is Rabbi Eliezer of Modi'in.

Is it a coincidence that he is from Mod’in, the hometown of the Maccabees, whose own book is ultimately rejected from inclusion in our holy texts? Let’s leave that as an open question for now?

Passage E.
Rab Judah said in the name of [the Amorah] Shmuel; [The scroll] of Esther does not make the hands unclean. [as do other books of holy scripture.] Are we to infer from this that Samuel was of opinion that Esther was not composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit? How can this be, seeing that [elsewhere] Samuel has said that Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit? — Rather the Holy Spirit recommended that it be told, but did not consecrate its writing.
First we need to understand the phrase “makes the hand impure”. Without going into details of why, let me just say that touching a holy scroll – hand written by a scribe on parchment – causes the hand to be unclean. This is why we use a “yad” – a pointer – when we read from the Torah scroll. So asking if the Scroll of Esther makes the hands unclean, is tantamount to asking if it is a canonized text. We learn from this passage, that Shmuel, a leading scholar of third century Babylonia is not convinced. He accepts Purim as a holiday, and accepts that we should recount the story of Esther and Mordecai and the Jews endangerment and their salvation in the days of Shushan. But he thinks we should do it in an informal way: perhaps as we recount Hannukah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, or Israel Independence Day – with no fixed texts, and no guidance re the lessons to be learned. Shmuel denies the holiness of the Megillah, and rejects its inclusion in the Tanach.

Passage F.
The following objection was raised: ‘Rabbi Meir says that [the scroll of] Koheleth does not render the hands unclean, and that about the Song of Songs there is a debate. Rabbi Jose says that the Song of Songs renders the hands unclean, and about Koheleth there is a debate. Rabbi. Simeon says that Koheleth is one of those matters in regard to which Beth Shammai were more lenient and Beth Hillel more stringent, but [we rule that] Ruth and the Song of Songs and Esther do make the hands unclean’! — Shmeul [in the previous passage] concurred with Rabbi Joshua [who was in the minority in ruling that the Megillah was not meant to be written.]

Here we learn that, as late as the end of the second century AD, there were still many books whose inclusion in the Tanach was in debate. We learn that this debate had been going on since the days of Hillel and Shammai – perhaps 200 years at that point. We learn that Shmuel – of the previous passage – is not totally out on a limb in his denial of the Megillah’s holiness. He bases himself on at least one authoritative Mishna Rabbi.

Passage G.
It has been taught: Rabbi. Simeon b. Menasha said: “Koheleth does not render the hands unclean because it contains merely the wisdom of Solomon [and was not divinely inspired.” They said to him] “Was this then all that he composed?” Is it not stated elsewhere, And he spoke three thousand proverbs [1 Kings 5:12] ...

In this passage we learn that at least some things – that are ‘merely’ the wisdom of human beings – can be divinely inspired. We also learn that not everything said– by even the wisest among us – is divinely inspired. Obviously it takes some human discernment to decide what is, and what is not, “Torah MiSinai” – God given insight.

And what clues might give us guidance in discerning the holy from profane? We are not told that here. But the next passage will help us in this regard.

Passage H.
It has been taught: Rabbi. Eleazar said: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “And Haman said in his heart.” [Est 6:6] Rabbi Akiba says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “And Esther obtained favour in the eyes of all that looked upon her.” [Est 2:15] Rabbi Meir says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “And the plot became known to Mordecai.” [Est 2:22] Rabbi .Jose … said: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “But on the spoil they laid not their hands.” [Est 9:27]
Here we come to the heart of the matter, as I see it. Four Mishna era Rabbis – all major figures – give their reasons for the inclusion of the Book of Esther in the Tanach. But what exactly are they saying? Is it trivial or is it profound?

On the one hand, they are all saying the same thing: that God’s hand is seen in the book of Esther because both the narrator and the characters know things that cannot be known except from an omnipresent omniscient point of view – a divine standing point. Thus, who but God can know what’s really in Haman’s, or any human being’s, heart? How can the narrator know if every single person who looked on Esther thought of her favourably? Only God could have that breadth of vision? How could Mordecai have learnt of the plot against Ahashveirosh if not by a divine vision? And how could a human narrator be certain that in all 127 provinces not a single Jews took spoils after they overcame their anti-Semitic neighbours? Surely only God, or one divinely inspired, could know all this.

But is that what these four famous Mishna Rabbis are really saying? That seems to be the understanding of some later Amorahim, as we shall soon see. But are these four, no Talmudic slouches, not perhaps saying something more profound. Is not Rabbi Eliezer saying that human sensitivity – the ability to understand another human’s heart – is a divine gift, one that make humans Godly. Is not Rabbi Akiva saying that the fact that the Jewish Queen Esther found favour in the eyes of all the residence of the vast multi-ethnic Persian empire, a sign of a universal trans-national harmony – surely demonstrating the Godly potential in all people, even in the midst of a tale of ultimate evil: attempted genocide. Is not Rabbi Meir saying that Mordecai’s natural curiosity, intuition and political intelligence, which allowed him to uncover the plot and act on it: Are these not Godly gifts, and ones we wish that all our leaders possessed, even if only a very few do. And finally, is not Rabbi Jose marvelling at a people, who having fought a battle of self defence against an enemy bent on their murder, takes not a scrap of the spoils. Violence is strictly limited to that which is necessary. Property is left to the rightful heirs: the innocent children, siblings, spouses, parents of our foes. No land is taken, no water diverted, no one driven from their home, no houses are demolished, no collateral damage is sanctioned. Is this not a miracle of the human spirit, more so because of the very real danger: A model for the generations!

Passage I
Shmuel said: Had I been there, [among the Tannai Rabbis discussing the matter] I would have given a proof superior to all, namely, that it says, “They fulfilled and they accepted” [Est 9:27] [This means] they [God] fulfilled above what they [the Jews] took upon themselves below.”
Here we have Shmuel again – the die-hard Amorah who still argues for only the acceptance of the Purim holiday, but not the canonization of its book – making light of the earlier Rabbis arguments. This is a bold move within the Talmudic tradition. Interestingly he chooses to defend Purim, not based on value propositions of the Mishna Rabbis, but on a sort of proto-Reconstructionist quasi-sociological argument. He bases his comments on the seeming difficult of a verse in the Megilah telling us that the Jews of Shushan “fulfilled and accepted” the precepts of Purim. How, he asks, can one fulfill a mitzvah before having accepted it? The verse should read “they accepted and they fulfilled.” But it doesn’t. Therefore, Shmuel argues, the verse must be talking about two different parties – God and the Jews. God confirms above - what the Jews have done below. In other words, the obligatory nature of Purim flows not from Heavenly commandment to Jewish practice, but from Jewish practice to Heavenly commandment - and then back again to future Jewish practice.

According to Shmuel, Purim is commanded because the Jews of Shushan practiced it.

Passage J
Raba said: All the proofs [offered above] can be refuted except that of Shmuel, which cannot be refuted. [Thus,] against Rabbi Eleazar it may be objected that it is reasonable to suppose that Haman would think so, … . Against the proof of Rabbi Akiba it may be objected that perhaps … to every man she appeared to belong to his own nation. Against Rabbi Meir it may be objected that perhaps … Bigthan and Teresh were both from Tarsis [and spoke Aramaic between themselves, thinking no one in Shushan would understand.] Against the proof of R. Jose … it may be objected that perhaps they sent messengers [to observe.] But against the proof of Shmuel certainly no objection can be brought. Said Rabina: This bears out the popular saying, Better is one grain of sharp pepper than a basket full of pumpkins.

Here we see an unusual arrogance of later Amorahim towards earlier Tannaim. Raba either really doesn’t get the deeper meaning of the Mishna Rabbis justifications for canonization of the Megillah, - or he is deliberately setting up a straw man, so as to knock it down.

In any case, he assumes that all four Tanaim are making the same point, that mere mortals could not have known what the Megillah purports they knew, and he then proceeds to shows that this is not necessarily the case. But his larger point, as is that of Rabina, is to support Shmuel – both in his proto-Reconstructions argument for Purim, and, by extension, in his denial of the holiness of the Megillah itself. Raba and Rabina lived very late in the Talmudic era, and so we see that Megillah’s intrinsic worth and official sanctification were still in some dispute as late at the 6th century AD.

Passage K
Rabbi Joseph said: [That the Book of Esther is divinely inspired] can be proved from here: “And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews.” [Est 9,28] R. Nahman b. Isaac said, “[We learn it] from here: “nor the memorial of [Esther and Mordecai] perish from their descendants.” [ibid]
The editor of the Talmud chooses to end this discussion of the status of the Megillah by quoting Rabbi Joseph, a Tanna of the Mishnah era, and Rav Nachman, an Amorah of the Gemara era. Both make essentially the same point: That both the holiness of the day and of the text can be proved from fact that the Megillah predicts that the Jews will never stop celebrating Purim, and in fact that has been the case. This is a justification based on a bit of prophecy and a lot of empirical sociology. In effect, it is another proto Reconstructionist argument. – Judaism is whatever the Jews do, or at least whatever they sanctify.

* * *

At this point the Talmud’s discussion of the topic seems to end. Purim is sanctified, and the Megillah is sanctified. But the final reasoning presented to us seems vaguely dissatisfying.

Is Purim, and by extension all of Judaism, merely whatever Jews practice? That is no doubt true. But it is also a tautology, that doesn’t really explain anything. It doesn’t explain why the Jews of old started this celebration or why we should continue it. It gives us no central lessons to take from the holiday, other than the preservation of tradition. For me, personally, that is unsatisfying.

Perhaps the Talmudic editors had the same qualms. Because 9 pages later they return to the issue of the holiness of the Megillah.

Passage L
“Words of peace and truth.” [Est 9:30] R. Tanhum said: … “This shows that the Megillah requires to be written on ruled lines, like the true essence of the Torah.”
The end of this passage makes a remarkable claim: That not only is the Megillah canonized scripture – but it is on par with the Torah itself, which is the only part of our scripture which must be written neatly and on ruled lines. One letter out of place invalidates the entire document.

More remarkable than the exalted status proclaimed for the Megillah is the reasoning – as quoted at the beginning of the passage. “Words of truth and peace.” – This how the letters that precede the original Megillah are described. The full context of the verse can be found in the footnote 2 on page 2 of your handout. Let me read it:

Esther Chapter 9 ...
30 . And he [Mordecai] sent the letters to all the Jews, to the one hundred and twenty seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, in words of peace and truth,
31. To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, with regard to the fasting and their lamenting.
32. And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in this book.
Esther Chapter 10
1. And the king, Ahasuerus, laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the islands of the sea.
2. And all the acts of his power and of his might, and the declaration of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?
3. For Mordecai the Jew was next to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted by the multitude, seeking the good of his people, and speaking peace.
This is how the Megillah ends. With Mordecai the Jews accepted by all the peoples of the vast multi-ethnic Persian empire, ruling for good and pursing peace. Not seeking further redress or revenge. Not proselytizing to the Gentiles and not imposing his will on others: neither Jew nor gentile. Not seeking to expand Jewish privileged or influence, and not seeking sovereignty nor establishing a dynasty. Peace and prosperity are achieved primarily by political means. The violence of Purim, once used, and used only once, is put aside.

Compare the status of Purim with that of Hannukah. Hanukah is a holiday that the Talmudic Rabbis where very conflicted about - One which they ultimately sanction, perhaps, because like Purim, it was already a popular custom. But one whose book – the Book of Maccabees – they refused to canonize: which they pointedly reject from inclusion in the Tanach.

And what story does the Book of Maccabees tell? In addition to the perhaps necessary violence of the revolt against the Greeks – violence in defence of the cult, not of Jewish life itself, a fact that already makes it of a questionable status – it tells about violence against fellow Jews who were not deemed Jewish enough. It tells about the establishment of Jewish sovereignty under an ethnocentric and inward looking leadership. It tells of the expansion of that Jewish state by war. It tells of the forced conversions of the vanquished. It tells of the establishment of a dynasty and a leadership class that has questionable legitimacy, that quickly becomes corrupt, and which soon undermines the very Jewish values it originally fought to save.

Is it a wonder that the Rabbis suppressed this book and this story. This allowed them to make the holiday of Hannukah all about the miracle of the oil, and to ignore all that other nasty stuff.

And historically, Purim has been the more important of our two post Biblical holidays. It is Mardi Gras and Christmas rolled into one: Wild parties and gifts. It has a communal ritual – the reading of the Meggillah . And it has a holy sanctified text that we can study and try to learn from.

And what can we learn?

To recap from our Talmud text:
  • that quite often we sanctify what we ritualize, and not vice-versa;
  • that human sensitivity and insight into the hearts of our fellows is a Godly characteristic, one which is attainable by all of us;
  • that multi ethnic and multi religious tolerance and harmony are Godly blessings that are now, and have been in the past, achievable by humankind;
  • that curiosity, political intelligence and calm strategic thinking are Godly traits we should expect from our leaders – and that we are bless when, in fact, we have such leaders;
  • that even when fighting our most vicious enemies we can limit collateral damage and refrain from taking material advantage – and that we are blessed when we do so;
  • that we can achieve security and thrive without resort to ongoing violence or an ethnocentric polity;
  • and that all our struggles for survival must be motivated only by peace and truth, that we must avoid revenge and bitterness, and that the ends we seek be rooted in peace and in truth.
Shabbat Shalom & Chag Purim Sameach

* * *
below is the hand out that was distributed along with this dvar Torah



Tractate Megillah 7A


A

R. Samuel b. Judah said: Esther sent to the Sages saying, “Commemorate me for future generations.” They replied, “You will incite the ill will of the nations against us.” She sent back reply: “Am I not already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Persia and Media?”


B

Rab and R. Hanina and R. Johanan and R. Habiba said [some say R Jonathan and not Johanan] … Esther sent to the Sages saying, “Write an account of me for posterity.” They sent back answer, “ ‘I have given you three writings’ [Proverbs 22:20[1]] — three writings and not four?”


C

[They refused] until they found a verse written in the Torah, “Write this, a memorial, in a book” [Exodus 17:14] [which they expounded as follows]: ‘Write this’, namely, what is written [in Deut 25:17] … ‘for a memorial’, namely, what is written in the Prophets [1 Samuel, 15]; ‘in a book’, namely, what is written in the Megillah.


D

[But others said, we already have three.] ‘Write this’, what is written here. [Exodus 17:14] ‘For a memorial’, namely, what is written in Deuteronomy. ‘In a book’, namely, what is written in the Prophets. So says Rabbi Joshua. [who argues against the canonization of the Book of Esther] But Rabbi Eliezer of Modi'in countered, says: Write this’, namely, what is written in Deuteronomy; for a memorial’, namely, what is written in the Prophets; ‘in a book’, namely, what is written in the Megillah.


E

Rab Judah said in the name of [the Amorah] Shmuel; [The scroll] of Esther does not make the hands unclean. [as do other books of holy scripture.] Are we to infer from this that Samuel was of opinion that Esther was not composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit? How can this be, seeing that [elsewhere] Samuel has said that Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit? — Rather the Holy Spirit recommended that it be told, but did not consecrate its writing.


F

The following objection was raised: ‘Rabbi Meir says that [the scroll of] Koheleth does not render the hands unclean, and that about the Song of Songs there is a debate. Rabbi Jose says that the Song of Songs renders the hands unclean, and about Koheleth there is a debate. Rabbi. Simeon says that Koheleth is one of those matters in regard to which Beth Shammai were more lenient and Beth Hillel more stringent, but [we rule that] Ruth and the Song of Songs and Esther [certainly] make the hands unclean’! — Shmeul [in the previous passage] concurred with Rabbi Joshua [who was in the minority in ruling that the Megillah was not meant to be written.]


G

It has been taught: Rabbi. Simeon b. Menasha said: “Koheleth does not render the hands unclean because it contains merely the wisdom of Solomon [and was not divinely inspired.” They said to him] “Was this then all that he composed?” Is it not stated elsewhere, And he spoke three thousand proverbs [1 Kings 5:12] ...


H

It has been taught: Rabbi. Eleazar said: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “And Haman said in his heart.” [Est 6:6] Rabbi Akiba says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “And Esther obtained favour in the eyes of all that looked upon her.” [Est 2:15] Rabbi Meir says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “And the plot became known to Mordecai.” [Est 2:22] Rabbi .Jose … said: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, “But on the spoil they laid not their hands.” [Est 9:27]


I

Shmuel said: Had I been there, [among the Tannai Rabbis discussing the matter] I would have given a proof superior to all, namely, that it says, “They fulfilled and they accepted” [Est 9:27] [This means] they [God] fulfilled above what they [the Jews] took upon themselves below.”


J

Raba said: All the proofs can be refuted except that of Shmuel, which cannot be refuted. [Thus,] against Rabbi Eleazar it may be objected that it is reasonable to suppose that Haman would think so, … . Against the proof of Rabbi Akiba it may be objected that perhaps … to every man she appeared to belong to his own nation. Against Rabbi Meir it may be objected that perhaps … Bigthan and Teresh were two men from Tarsis [and spoke Aramaic between themselves, thinking no one in Shushan would understand.] Against the proof of R. Jose … it may be objected that perhaps they sent messengers [to observe.] But against the proof of Shmuel certainly no objection can be brought. Said Rabina: This bears out the popular saying, Better is one grain of sharp pepper than a basket full of pumpkins.


K

Rabbi Joseph said: [That the Book of Esther is divinely inspired] can be proved from here: “And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews.” [Est 9,28] R. Nahman b. Isaac said, “[We learn it] from here: “nor the memorial of [Esther and Mordecai] perish from their descendants.” [ibid]


Megilah 16b

L

“Words of peace and truth.” [Est 9:30[2]] R. Tanhum said: … “This shows that the Megillah requires to be written on ruled lines, like the true essence of the Torah.”



[1] Full text in Proverb reads:

CAP 22:

19. That your trust may be in the Lord, I have made known to you this day, even to you.

20. For your sake I have given to you sovereign, [Hebrew “Sheleshim” also superior, governing, or maybe three] writings as teachings and knowledge,

21. That I might make you know with certainty the words of truth; that you might answer words of truth to those who question [send] you?

[2] The full context in the Book of Esther reads:

30 . And he [Mordecai] sent the letters to all the Jews, to the one hundred and twenty seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, in words of peace and truth,

31. To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, with regard to the fasting and their lamenting.

32. And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in this book.

Chapter 10

1. (K) And the king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the islands of the sea.

2. And all the acts of his power and of his might, and the declaration of the greatness of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?

3. For Mordecai the Jew was next to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted by the multitude, seeking the good of his people, and speaking peace.


1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Syd -- this is beautiful.

Purim sameach!
Elaine

7:49 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home