Esther, chapter 7: What Charvonah teaches about the nature of good and evil

After reading the Megillah, many of us recite a short prayer that concludes “וגם חרבונה זכור לטוב, and also Charvonah, who should be remembered for the good.”  Granted that the Megillah tells us he was the crucial catalyst in the king’s having Haman put to death, why is that one act so worthy of good mention?

The sources behind that tradition point us to realizing that we are supposed to hear the Megillah as a reminder to take sides in the eternal war between good and evil, and that Charvonah who most enhances our understanding of where we should be drawing the line between the two.

Can’t Just Listen

The Yerushalmi Megillah 3;7 quotes Rav as saying that after hearing the Megillah, we are required to say ארור המן וכל בניו, cursed should be Haman and all his sons.”

Tosafot to Megillah 7b had a version of that Yerushalmi that said we should curse Haman, bless Mordechai, curse Zeresh, bless Ester (as we do), but then added a phrase we do not have: ארורים כל הרשעים ברוכים כל הצדיקים, cursed are all the evildoers, blessed are all the righteous. Tur Orach Chayyim 390 and then Aruch haShulchan have this as well.

I think Rav was telling us that our first reaction to the Megillah has to be that we accurately identify the heroes and villains of the story, wishing well to the former, ill to the latter.  That is not obvious today, where we have become drunk on the rhetoric that it can be enough to emphasize the good, focus on the positive. Rav is telling us that we have to see both sides, to wish well to those who are good and righteous and heroic, but equally to hope for the perdition of evildoers (unless they find a way to change).

The phrase that we no longer says tells us we are supposed to learn that lesson broadly. We are supposed to generally hope and pray for the success of the righteous and the downfall of evildoers (as we pray three times a day, as it happens).  The annual Purim experience serves as a reminder to be aware of who qualifies as evil and who as righteous, and to have the appropriate reactions towards each. There aren’t supposed to be bystanders to the war between good and evil; there are more and less active supporters, fellow-travelers, or admirers of either side. But not bystanders.

Mentioning the Righteous, Then Blessing Them

Aruch haShulchan likens this requirement to Mishlei 10;7, “זכר צדיק לברכה ושם רשעים ירקב”, which many of us assume means “the name of the righteous is a blessing, but the memory of evildoers will rot.”

Rashi offers the more traditional reading, “the name of the righteous should be a blessing.” Meiri, Yoma 38b, sees this as the source of an obligation to speak well of any righteous person we mention, so that listeners will be drawn to imitate them (notably, he only permits, but does not require, recounting evildoers deeds, to discourage adopting their ways).   Meiri doesn’t address the question, but I wonder what he would recommend when people are unclear as to who is righteous.  Would he still say identifying evil is not obligatory?

Either way, Aruch haShulchan’s comment draws our attention to Mishnayot in the third chapter of Yoma, which mention several people for the good and upbraids others for their misdeeds. The Mishnah notes that Ben Gamla made golden versions of the lots for the Yom Kippur service, that Ben Ketin made two improvements to the container of water from which the priests’ washed their hands and feet, and Munbaz and his mother Hilni added much gold to the Temple items.

On the other hand, the family of Garmu was criticized for refusing to teach the best way to make the showbread, the family of Avtinas their way of making incense, Hagrus b. Levi his singing skills, and Ben Kamtsar his skills at writing.

That Mishnah closes by saying “about the first ones, it says, “the memory of the righteous should lead to a blessing,” and about the later ones, “the names of evildoers should rot.” The easiest reading is that the “first ones” are the people whom the Mishnah itself were mentioned for good, and the reverse for the others.

Tosafot Rid (early 13th century Italy) notes indications in the Gemara that some in the last Mishnah offered an explanation for their refusal to teach and sees that as sufficient to justify blessing them when mentioned as well.

What Does It Take to Be Good?

That an action that was deemed bad at the time could later turn out to be good (as Rid has it) brings us back to Charvonah.  The Megillah itself tells us he mentioned the gallows prepared for Mordechai, spurring the king to have Haman hanged on it.  R. Elazar, Megillah 16a, claims that Charvonah was actually one of Haman’s co-conspirators, who turned Haman in when the saw that the jig was up. (He might have inferred this from Charvonah’s knowing of the gallows at all, although Maharsha suggests that it was his knowing the exact height that gives it away.)

R. Elazar’s view of Charvonah and R. Pinchas’ view that we should “mention him for the good,” combine to teach us that even a last-minute conversion, done to avoid defeat or death, is still good enough to be “mentioned for the good.”

A seemingly simple song, Shoshanat Ya’akov, the result of two small comments by Rav and R. Pinchas, thus transmits several important messages about our Purim experience: 1) That we cannot be passive in our recall of the events, we are to be spurred to wish well or evil on the characters populating the story. 2) That we have to generalize that lesson to the righteous and the evil in other contexts, wishing the first group well and the second group curses. 3) (Perhaps most important) That even a last-minute change of heart, for less than pure reasons, is enough to take one out of the evil camp and put him in the good camp; not fully, since we only “mention him for the good,” but enough to not be cursed.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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