Written and Submitted by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.
HOW JEWISH IS THE MEGILLAH?
God is not mentioned anywhere in the M’gillah. Jerusalem is only mentioned once. There are hints of prayer and spirituality, but they are only hints. There is no direct reference to the Temple, Shabbat or the festivals. Esther seems to keep her Jewishness to herself, not even making it known to her husband. The only individual who is clearly identified as a Jew is Mordechai. So how can the M’gillah be considered a Jewish book?
Only because it centers upon the Jewish people, albeit in the Diaspora, relates the irrationality of Jew-hatred and shows that an unseen hand is working behind the scenes to save the Jews. Why then isn’t the book frank and open enough to name the unseen hand as God? The commentators all have their theories, and OzTorah has explored them more than once over the years. One thing is certain – even in His apparent absence, God is always present.
It is fully appropriate that the Talmudic rabbis decided that the book was written under the inspiration and influence of the Holy Spirit.
MALBIM & THE MEGILLAH
In the late 19th century Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael (“Malbim”) was chief rabbi of Bucharest. His Biblical commentaries are full of stimulating ideas. He sometimes discovers aspects of the M’gillah which many others never noticed.
For instance, why is Ahasuerus named in verse 1 without the title “king”? Because he was not of royal birth. Why does the text say that “he sat on his throne”? Because a commoner who becomes king normally makes a point of occupying the traditional throne, whereas Ahasuerus was such an egotist that he had his own throne specially constructed.
Why is Vashti sometimes “Vashti the Queen” (e.g. 1:9) and at other times “Queen Vashti” (e.g. 1:12)? It depends on how and when she became queen. She was of royal blood, the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, whilst Ahasuerus was a commoner who usurped the Persian throne. To Vashti, her status was always inherently queenly (“Vashti the queen”); to the king she was queen (“Queen Vashti”) only by reason of having become his wife. Her yichus made no difference to him: he was the king, and his word was law.
(One is reminded of the rebbetzin who said to her husband, “You think I’m the rebbetzin because you’re the rabbi? The opposite is true – you’re the rabbi because I’m the rebbetzin!”)
THE HIDDEN HEROES
Everybody knows that the main characters in the Purim story are the two queens Vashti and Esther, the wicked vizier Haman, Mordechai the Jew and Ahasuerus the king. We expect to see God playing a decisive role, but He doesn’t get a mention, even though it is obvious that His hand is at work.
There is another hidden player – the Jews of Persia. They live in the shadows of the story. There are very few references to the community organising itself and taking any strong initiatives. It is likely that a handful of Jews are present at the royal banquet with which the story opens, but we search the text in vain for information as to where they were sitting, what they ate and drank, and what they thought of Vashti’s refusal to parade herself in public.
Are they an orthodox observant community? Do they have any moral fibre? Does anyone know or worry about their views on matters of state? We are left wondering.
We don’t even know their names apart from Mordechai, and when Mordechai gets criticised by the sages of Persia for mixing into politics too much we learn, perhaps for first time, that there actually were froom Jews and rabbinic scholars in the country. It is possible that some of the Jews were assimilated, preferring to be unnoticed and unheard. In the end, though, their non-distinctiveness doesn’t help. Once Haman gets it into his mind that he wants all Jews out, they are shocked that their quiet life as good Persians counts for nothing and can’t save them from the pogrom.
Maybe some of the gentile inhabitants supported the Jews against Haman, but the Book doesn’t say other than to remark that many of the local people “mityahadim” – acted like Jews, which might mean a form of conversion.
PURIM IN DUNEDIN
The southernmost Jewish community in the world is in Dunedin, New Zealand. The community possesses a M’gillah that was actually written in Dunedin in the 1860s by Rabbi Jacob Levi Saphir of Jerusalem.
The Ashkenazi community of Eretz Yisra’el had sent Saphir abroad to raise funds for a synagogue. He made contact with Jews in many lands and wrote a travel book called “Even Saphir”. His adventures are exciting, and in Australia and New Zealand he describes the Aborigines and the Maoris. He writes about the Jews he met and their position in local society.
He was in Dunedin at Purim time but found that the community had no M’gillah. Using parchment purchased in Yemen for the purpose of writing a Sefer Torah, he started on Wednesday on writing a M’gillah which he finished by Shabbat in time for Purim on the Saturday night. Local folklore claims that he wrote the M’gillah by heart, but it is likely that he had a Tanach with him. 40 people attended the service on Saturday night (Saphir himself chanted the scroll), and there was a minyan the next morning.
They all appreciated his efforts, though Saphir could not stop them eating non-kosher meat.
THE NIGHT OF SOTS
Making a noise when Haman’s name is read out is an old custom that goes back almost to Talmudic times. In some places, however, people did not just “beat” Haman but burnt him in the form of effigies. This custom was known in Egypt, Iraq, Provence, Italy and the Caucasus.
From the Middle Ages onwards, wearing costumes and disguises has been a popular Purim custom. This may be because the hanging of Haman was brought about by the intervention of the chamberlain Harbonah, who, according to tradition, was Elijah in disguise.
Literary disguise was also popular in many places parodies of the Haggadah and even the Yom Kippur piyyutim. In the 14th century Kalonymos ben Kalonymos compiled a parody of the Mishnah and Gemara, called “Massechet Purim L’Layl Shikkurim”. The latter phrase is a play on the words “Layl Shimmurim” – “A Night of Watching” with which the Torah describes the Exodus (Ex. 12:42). Jacob Israelstam, an Anglo-Jewish writer, translated Kalonymos’ title as “The Tractate of Lots for the Night of Sots”.
Everybody knows about Purim foods such as Hamantaschen (and all the arguments about whether to fill them with “mohn”, jam or nuts), but there was a piece de resistance in the home of the Rabbi of Amsterdam in 1778 a model of a royal court with figures of Mordechai, Esther and Haman, all in sugar.
Back to Jacob Israelstam, whose advice is,
“If a Jew is in the dumps, the way to cure ‘im
Is to get him to take part in the celebration of Purim”.
Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple Blogs at http://www.oztorah.com
Read about the Megillah at Chabad.org.
Megillat Esther, “The Scroll of Esther,” is a firsthand account of the events of Purim, written by the heroes themselves—Esther and Mordechai.
The megillah is read twice in the course of the festival: on the eve of Purim, and during Purim day. It is read in the original Hebrew from a parchment scroll.