Esther, Chapter nine and ten: Purim, holiday of the book

Because I miscalculated, I didn’t get to all the chapters of Ester, and here I am, Purim day, trying to get this out before the end of the holiday (if you were waiting breathlessly for the conclusion to the story).

What They Saw, and What It Led To

Megillah 19a records a debate about how much of the Megillah we have to read on Purim. R. Huna suggested the various views disagreeing about whom 9;26 was referencing when it said, ומה ראו על ככה ומה הגיע עליהם, what they saw (that fueled their actions) and what resulted. For one view, the question was what led Achashverosh to use items from the Temple at his feast; the answer was that he came to believe Yirmiyahu’s prophecy that the Temple would be rebuilt in seventy years had proven untrue.  For his “seeing” that, Vashti was killed.

Other possibilities are that Mordechai saw the need to resist Haman’s setting himself up as a form of alien worship) and a miracle came of it, Haman saw Mordechai wouldn’t bow to him and decided to take on the Jews, leading to him and his sons being hanged, and Achashverosh bringing the Book of Memories to be read, and the miracle that came of it.

This is all brought up to explain various answers to an halachic question, how much of the Megillah to read. R. Huna is suggesting that we choose how much of the Megillah to read based on whose vision we are interested in remembering. Especially since we read the whole Megillah, we end up seeing all the possibilities, being shown that what we do or don’t see, and the results we get, is a central question of Purim.

Making a Book and a Holiday

It’s not only complicated to see ahead of time how our actions will turn out, the Gemara gives us ample reason to see that it’s also not easy to see in retrospect. When Ester asks to be included in Tanach, the Bavli, 7a, has the Sages first protest that it will cause tension with the non-Jews around them, but Ester points out that she’s made it into the Persian history books. Then they argue that a verse in Mishlei implies that the Jewish battle with Amalek is only supposed to be written three times (twice in the Torah, once in I Shmuel), not four.

They eventually find a source to expand that to include a mention in Ketuvim as well, and the book is included. But the Gemara’s presentation of the back and forth reminds us both that Purim is seen as a flareup of the ongoing battle with Amalek, and that the leaders of the Jewish people  weren’t immediately certain of how to respond to this event.

Putting it in a book, for Rava, then shaped much of our experience of the Megillah. First, in Megillah 18a, he notes that the Megillah refers to remembering these days (והימים האלה נזכרים), using the same verb as for our need to remember the wiping out of Amalek. Just as Hashem tells Moshe to write that in the Book, the memory of these days also has to be taken from a book.

That book also has to be read in the right order, according to Rava, because the Megillah says these days are “נזכרים ונעשים, remembered and done.” Just as “doing” happens in order (time’s arrow only goes one way, in our experience), so “remembering” has to be in order.

It seems to me that Rava is telling us that it’s not enough to know what happened on Purim, not enough to remember the story, not even enough to remember the whole story. One of the points of putting it in a book, included in Tanach, was to show us that we need to remember the story in a particular way, reading it from a text that gives it a permanence oral transmission can never match, and reading it as given, not shaping our memory of it to our own purposes.

If I can go out on a limb, that might connect to Rava’s view, on 19a, that we read Megillah in an open or walled city based on where we are for Purim. While we usually define residence by where a person generally resides, for Purim purposes, all that matters is where we spend that holiday. Since Rava holds that our Purim experience is shaped by the reading of the Megillah, it makes sense that wherever we are for that reading is where we reside for that holiday’s purposes.

The Whiff of the Redemption

The distinction between cities that do or don’t have walls is oddly timed to the era of Yehoshua, despite the miracle having happened in Shushan. In the Yerushalmi, R. Yehoshua b. Levi says that it was dated to then to give honor to the desolate Land of Israel. Torah Temimah adds that Yehoshua was the first to battle Amalek, and was also the one who set the borders of Israel (establishing which cities had walls for other purposes as well, such how long a homeowner has to buy back a house sold within a walled city).

To me, that implies that Chazal set the definition of walled cities to place this event in the larger picture of Jewish history, which started with Yehoshua. Our national experience of Purim is structured to remember this event and relate it to Yehoshua’s original battle with Amalek, which then led to the conquest and settling of the Land of Israel, including dividing cities between those that are like fields and those that are walled.

This linking of this event to our other redemptions comes up again in 6b’s discussion of when we should read the Megillah in years (like this one) where there’s a second Adar. We follow the opinion of R. Shimon b. Gamliel, whom R. Yochanan sees as having read the Megillah’s words “in every year” to mean that we should always read the Megillah in the Adar closest to Pesach, to link the two redemptions to each other.  We should always experience Purim in the context of Pesach, a smaller redemption in the light of the larger one, a reminder that redemption isn’t complete until we get to what Pesach was about, bringing us to Israel and the full restoration of our national life, on the Land, in observance of the Torah and service to Hashem.

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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