The joy of Purim demonstrates Israel’s eternal holiness. Even though this holiness is sometimes hidden, due to our sins, it never disappears. Even when the Jewish people sin, they are still called God’s children, and He directs the world and arranges events for the benefit of His people, in order to save and redeem them.
At the time of the Purim story, the Jews were in dire straits. The First Temple was destroyed and Israel was exiled from its Land. True, Cyrus had already declared that the Jews could return home, but only a small minority heeded his call. The Persian Empire ruled the world, and the large Jewish population living throughout the Empire tried to assimilate and act as the Gentiles do, to the point where many were willing to bow down to an idol. In the capital city of Shushan, many Jews partook in Achashveirosh’s feast and looked on as the Persians took out the Temple vessels, which our enemies had pillaged at the time of the destruction, and used them for mundane purposes. They nevertheless took pleasure from this wicked man’s feast. It seemed as though the great vision for which the Jewish nation was chosen was steadily vanishing; there would no longer be hope for a return to Zion; the Jewish people would no longer bring the word of God to the world.
Then, a great accusation arose in heaven against Israel. Despite the fact that HaShem chose the Jews from among all the other nations, gave them His Torah, and planted His Shechinah (Divine Presence) in their midst, they act like the Gentiles, bow to an idol, and refuse to ascend to their Land in order to build the Holy Temple! Therefore, the wicked Haman, a descendant of Amalek, rose up and drove the Persian Empire to enact a frightful decree against the Jews, the likes of which had never been seen before: To destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all the Jews, from young to old, children and women, in one day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their spoils (Esther 3:13).
Incidentally, there were Jews who contended with Mordechai, claiming that he was the cause of the evil decree: by refusing to bow to the wicked Haman, he stirred his wrath against all the Jews (ibid. 3:2-6).
In the end, it became clear that the Holy One, blessed be He, is the One Who arranges everything; He had already prepared the cure for the ailment, by having Achashveirosh take Esther as his wife. This way, Mordechai and Esther were able to thwart Haman’s plan, and turn everything around. Instead of Israel’s enemies carrying out their evil scheme, the Jews killed their enemies, even hanging Haman and his sons on the tree that he had prepared for Mordechai. The Jews experienced a great salvation; their pride flourished among the nations; and they mustered the strength to ascend to Eretz Yisrael and settle it, eventually rebuilding the Holy Temple.
Accepting the Torah Anew
If we delve deeper, we will see that Haman’s decree actually awakened Israel’s unique inner quality (segulah). The decree made it clear that the Jews were willing to make great sacrifices in order to hold onto their faith. After all, they could have assimilated into the gentile culture and save themselves from annihilation. Nevertheless, they did not try to escape their Jewish destiny. On the contrary, the decree stirred them to repent and strengthen their faith and commitment to Torah and mitzvot.
So great was that moment that our Sages state that Israel re-accepted the Torah at the time of Achashveirosh. In a certain sense, their renewed commitment at that time was greater than their original acceptance of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. When the Torah was first given, the Jews accepted it forcibly, as it says, They stood at the bottom of the mountain (Shemot 19:17). Our Sages comment:
“This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over them like a pail, and said, “If you accept the Torah – good; and if not – here will be your burial place.” R. Acha son of Ya’akov said, “This is a great declaration regarding the Torah” (i.e., a declaration of annulment, for since they accepted the Torah under duress, they are not obligated to keep it). Rava said, “Even so, they re-accepted it at the time of Achashveirosh, as it says, The Jews confirmed and accepted (Esther 9:27) – that is, they confirmed what they had previously accepted” (Shabbat 88a).
Many commentators explain that HaShem “held the mountain over them like a pail” in a spiritual sense. After all the great miracles of the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and the awesome revelations at Mt. Sinai, it was impossible for the Jews not to accept the Torah. However, the question still remained: will the Jews stay connected to HaShem and His Torah even afterwards, when they are detached from the miracles and wonders? Indeed, there were ups and downs, until the days of Purim arrived. That is when it became clear that Am Yisrael’s connection to its faith and Torah were absolute. The fearful decree made it clear that the price of belief might be too heavy to bear. Nevertheless, the Jews chose to adhere to their faith, repent, and pray to God, without any coercion. Not only did they return to observe the 613 mitzvot, they even instituted additional mitzvot after they were saved – the mitzvot of Purim.
This way, we were privileged to build the Second Temple, and a door was opened for the advancement of the learning of the Oral Law, which was the main spiritual enterprise of the Second Temple era.
Establishing Purim as an Everlasting Holiday
Even though the joy over the salvation was great, it was initially unclear how we were to mark the event. Esther sent a request to the Sages, “Write me down for posterity,” meaning, write down the Purim story and include it in the Holy Scriptures (Tanach). Esther further requested, “Establish me for posterity,” meaning, establish the days of Purim as days of joy and reading the Megillah for future generations. At first, the Rabbis had doubts about this, both because it might arouse feelings of vengeance among the gentile nations when they see Israel rejoicing over their downfall, and also because they were unsure whether it was appropriate to add to the Bible another description of Israel’s war against Amalek. In the end, they found scriptural allusions that indicate that there is room to write about the battle of Amalek once again. So, the Men of the Great Assembly composed Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) with Ruach HaKodesh (Divine Inspiration) and established Purim as an eternal holiday (Megillah 2a, 7a; Bava Batra 15a).
The Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset HaGedolah) constituted the Supreme Rabbinic Court that functioned at the beginning of the Second Commonwealth, and it consisted of 120 elders, including prophets and sages. Among them were Chaggai, Zecharyah, Malachi, Daniel, Chananyah, Mishael, Azaryah, Ezra the Scribe, Nechemyah son of Chachalyah, Mordechai the Jew of the Megillah, and Zerubavel son of She’altiel. Ezra the Scribe was the most prominent of all, so much so that the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah is sometimes called Ezra’s Beit Din. They comprised the Supreme Rabbinic Court that established the first major enactments that are considered Rabbinic mitzvot, and they were the impetus for the continued activity of the Sages of the Oral Law.
The Purim miracle is considered the last miracle that was allowed to be recorded in the Tanach, as our Sages state, “Esther is the end of all the miracles.” Thus, in effect, the writing of Megillat Esther sealed the Tanach.
Purim is the link between the Written and Oral Laws. This is reflected in the status of its mitzvot, which are mi’divrei kabbalah, a category between Torah commandments and Rabbinic ones. On the one hand, they are not as exalted as mitzvot that are written in the Pentateuch. On the other hand, they are not considered Rabbinic mitzvot, seeing that Megillat Esther is included in Scriptures. The Rishonim dispute how one should act if a doubt arises regarding the laws of Purim: does the halakha demand that one act strictly, as in cases of Torah precepts, or leniently, as in cases of Rabbinic mitzvot.
One must perform seven mitzvot on Purim. Four of them are unique to Purim: 1) reading the Megillah, 2) sending portions of food to one another, 3) giving gifts to the poor, and 4) participating in a festive meal. The remaining three are Rabbinic precepts that pertain to other holidays, as well: 1) reading the Torah (for men), 2) mentioning [the uniqueness of] the day by reciting Al HaNissim in our prayers and in Birkat HaMazone (Grace After Meals), and 3) refraining from fasting and delivering eulogies.
Women and Megillah Reading
According to Rashi and the Rambam, women are obligated to read or hear the Megillah the same way men are, and a woman may therefore read the Megillah for her family. In contrast, the Behag and Rabbeinu Chananel hold that a woman’s obligation is different from that of a man. Men are obligated in reading the Megillah, while women are only obligated in hearing it. According to this opinion, a woman cannot absolve her husband of his obligation. The author of responsa Avnei Neizer (O.C. 511) explains that the difference stems from the fact that women need to hear the Megillah solely in order to publicize the miracle; therefore, they are obligated only to hear it, not read it. Men, on the other hand, are commanded not only to publicize the miracle but also to remember Amalek in order to inspire themselves to eradicate this evil nation. Therefore, men are also obligated to read the Megillah.
Since this halakha is under dispute, with an equal number of Rishonim on each side, most Acharonim have determined that a woman should not absolve a man of his obligation to read/hear the Megillah. Only under extenuating circumstances, when a man cannot read for himself or hear it from another man, may a woman read the Megillah for him. This way he will at least fulfill the mitzvah according to those who hold that a woman can read on behalf of a man.
A woman may absolve other women of their obligation. However, some say that a woman may not read on behalf of many women, because the law of reading the Megillah for the many is like that of reading the Torah, and just as women do not read the Torah, they should also not read the Megillah for many women. Some say that when the Megillah is read for women no blessing is recited (Ben Ish Chai, Shannah Alef, TeTzaveh 1; K.H.C.689:19). However, the halakha follows the vast majority of poskim who maintain that a woman may read the Megillah on behalf of other women, reciting the same blessing a man recites. And if ten women are present, she also recites the blessing of HaRav et Riveinu after the reading. Ideally, though, it is preferable for women to hear the Megillah from a man, in order to fulfill their obligation according to all opinions. Even better is for a woman to hear the Megillah in the synagogue along with the men, for the more people there are the more the miracle is publicized.
When a man reads the Megillah for women, the prevalent custom is for the reader to recite the blessing for everyone; and if ten are present, he recites the blessing of HaRav et Riveinu after the reading. Others follow a custom in which one woman recites the blessing for the rest. Both customs are valid.
This article is taken from Rabbi Melamed’s series on Jewish Law “Peninei Halaka”, and was translated from Hebrew by Rabbi Moshe Lichtman.