1. On that night, the sleep of the king was shaken. And he said to bring the book of records, the chronicles. And they were read before the king.
According to M’nos HaLevi, there was a miracle that occurred that night. After all the king, had just enjoyed food and drink at Esther’s feast, and he nevertheless strangely had trouble sleeping.
Yalkut Shimoni (1057) writes that many people had trouble sleeping that same night: Esther was up preparing the next meal, Haman was up building the gallows, and Mordechai was up learning with children.
Chiddushei HaRim notes that Esther was preparing the second meal instead of her servants because that second meal was to be the second seder, and her servants did not know how to prepare that.
The Talmud Yerushalmi writes that the verse’s use of the word “halayla,” (“the night”) alludes to the fact that this was the anniversary of the night on which Sarah was abducted by Avimelech (Bireishis 20:2-3), which the Torah describes also using the word, “halayla.” It also alludes to the idea that this was the same historic date on which H-Shem killed all of the firstborn of Egypt, since the verse that describes this (Shemos 21:29) also utilizes the word “halayla.” This was also the very night on which all the Jews – old and young – gathered together to repent.
R’ Dovid Feinstein writes that this was specifically the second night of Pesach because the very reason behind our celebrating the second day of Pesach as a Holy Day in the diaspora is due to our being in exile. Similarly, the situation in which Esther found herself was a function of exile, as well.
In his commentary on Megillas Esther, Rambam writes (in an uncharacteristic mystical fashion) that this particular night was the night anger was turned into mercy.
The Midrash (Esther Rabba 9:2) writes that Zeresh and Haman’s other advisers recommended that Haman hang Mordechai because this is a form of death from which H-Shem had never previously saved the Jews miraculously.
Seeing that they were, however, saved from every other type of death, it seems strange that Zeresh could so grossly misunderstand history. Aruchas Tamid explains that Zeresh thought that the Jews had previously been rescued by using magic. Therefore, Mordechai would be unable to escape hanging since the Talmud (Sanhedrin 44b, Rashi) teaches that magicians need to be standing on the ground to perform their magic. In fact, this is one of the reasons Pharoah’s magicians could not replicate the plague of lice (Shemos 8:14, Da’as Zekeinim Baalei Tosfos), since the lice covered the ground and the magicians could not stand on it. For this reason, in the famous aggadic story in the Talmud when Shimon ben Shetach killed eight magicians (Sanhedrin 45b), he first lifted them from the ground.
M’nos HaLevi says that they wanted Mordechai hanged in order to avenge the hanging deaths of Bigsan and Seresh (Esther 2:23), Haman’s friends and possibly co-conspirators. R’ Yehonasan Eibshutz reiterates that killing Mordechai was Haman’s first step in killing Achashverosh and Esther, and becoming king through his friendship with the Greeks, rivals of Persia.
The Ma’amar Mordechai writes that the tree was supposed to be 50 amos tall to enable Haman to see Mordechai hanging while still at Esther’s party. The reason we can be certain that Mordechai would be more visible under that condition is that the Talmud (Eruvin 2b) teaches that the windows in kings’ palaces are no higher than 50 amos.
The Vilna Gaon teaches that the gallows certainly needed to be tall enough for Harbona to point to it (Esther 7:9). This is because of the Talmudic principle (Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 26a) that hearing is not comparable to seeing.
According to the Ben Ish Chai, Zeresh is advising Haman that if he gets irritated, he can simply look up and get in a good mood because Mordechai will hang from the tree seen everywhere.
According to Yalkut Shimoni (1054), besides throwing lots (purim) to decide on the best date to kill all of the Jews (Esther 3:7), Haman also threw lots to decide on the best species of tree to use in making this gallows. However, throughout TaNaCh, the Jews are compared to many different kinds of trees, so he decided on a cedar because Jews are not compared to it. The reason for this is that the cedar can be shattered by the wind.
Both the Yalkut Shimoni and the Midrash Abba Gorion continue that Haman could not find such a tall beam, so his son Parshandasa, governor of the area of Mt. Ararat, the area where Noach’s ark landed (Bireishis 8:4), gave him beam of Noach’s teivah, which would have been 50 amos long (Bireishis 6:15).
Rabbi Dovid Feinstein explains that the wood was from Noach’s teivah to show that killing Mordechai was important for humanity, as his refusal to bow down to Haman disturbed the “Great Chain of Being,” society’s understanding of the social hierarchy.
However, the Binyan Shlomo quotes the Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer (Chap. 50) that the wood taken from Holy of Holies1.
The Maharal notes that the teiva and the Beis HaMikdash both represent Olam HaZeh, the terrestrial world. Essentially, the idea of the Beis HaMikdash is that items of this world can be taken and elevated to greatness. Similarly, the teiva saved this physical world from destruction during the Deluge. Haman was attempting to conquer that mystical power that holds control over this world. This is what it means that Haman made of himself an object of worship, which is one of the reasons Mordechai had refused to bow to him. It is interesting to note that another connection between the teivah and the Beis HaMikdash is hidden in gematria. The gematria of ararat (1+200+200+9=410) is the same as the amount of years the first Temple stood.
In his usual, mysterious style, Rav Moshe David Valle writes that the 50 amos refer to the 50 gevuros (powers) of the yad hachazaka (“the strong Hand”), all of them combining against Haman. Perhaps this is a reference to the Haggadah in which Rabbi Yosi haGelili asks, “How do we know the Egyptians were struck with ten plagues in Mitzrayim and 50 at the sea?” In reply, he contrasts the verse (Shemos 8:15) in which Pharaoh’s magicians recognized the plagues as “the finger of G-d” with the verse (Shemos 14:31) describing Israel’s recognizing G-d’s might after drowning the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds, “and Israel saw the great Hand.” If one finger represents the plagues, of which there where ten, then a hand with its five fingers would be five times greater, or 50. Therefore, the 50 amos of the gallows demonstrate H-Shem’s anger with Haman.
According to the Sfas Emes, when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Bireishis 3:6), good and evil became confused. Kabbalistically, this resulted in 49 gates of tumah (impurity) which parallel 49 gates of kedusha (holiness). When the Talmud (Chulin 139b) states that Adam’s eating from the tree (Bireishis 3:11) is an allusion to Haman, it is because Amalek (represented by Haman), is the force that causes this confusion (the Hebrew word for confusion, safek (60+80+100=240) has the same gematria as Amalek (70+40+30+100=240). To know clearly what is right, and have not doubts at all, one needs to be above one’s area of control by leaping above to the 50th gate, a place Amalek cannot exist. Moshe’s raising his hands during the Jews’ war with Amalek (Shemos 17:11) hints to the idea of rising above one’s vantage point. Chiddushei HaRim brings this idea of confusing good with evil as another reason for the custom to drink wine on Purim ad d’lo yada.
1 Most commentators give the source for this measurement as Yechezkel 40:15, which describes the length of the boards used in the Third Temple. Being that this Temple has unfortunately not been built yet (unless this was attempted before, as Rabbi Ken Spiro suggests in his “Crash Course in Jewish History”), perhaps the intended source is Shemos 27:12-13, which describes the Mishkan’s width rather than length.
Maamar Mordechai points out that, when the Jews were in Egypt, the ten plagues occurred for one month each. That being the case, the second to last plague, that of darkness, happened one month before Passover, which would mean it fell in Adar. Haman assumed the darkness was a plague that hurt the Jews since so many of them died then (see Rashi to Shemos 10:22 and 13:18). After all, four fifths of the Jews died in Egypt because they did not believe in their upcoming rescue. H-Shem killed these unfortunates during the plague of darkness to avoid the Egyptians seeing this, and assuming the Jews’ G-d is no longer with them.1 The Jews in Persia, by attending Achashverosh’s party, indicated that they, too, lost faith in their redemption, and this is why the lots falling on Adar so pleased Haman.
Adar is also the month when Moshe died. According to the Talmud (Megillah 13b), Haman knew this because it is so written in the end of Devarim (34:8) and can be calculated from the book of Yehoshua. According to our tradition, the seventh of Adar, his date of death, is also his date of birth. Rabbi Mendel Weinbach writes that Haman did not know this because, as opposed to his date of birth, his date of death is only found in the Oral Torah.
The Abudraham calculates that Adar 13 would mark the end of the seven-day mourning period (shiva) for Moshe. According to the Maharsha, that seven-day period of mourning continues in some mystical way the merits of the mourned. After that point, the dead only receive merit of others step up to take over their spiritual roles. Interestingly, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein notes that, Moshe having been born on 7 Adar, his bris (circumcision) would have been on 14 Adar, Purim!2
1It bespeaks a certain callousness that the Egyptians seemed not to notice the sudden disappearance of several million people.
2However, since Moshe was born complete and circumcised (Talmud, Sotah 12a), his bris would only require a symbolic pin-prick of blood called “hatafas dam bris” (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 262:1 and 264:1), and this procedure would not be help on a Shabbos (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 260:2 and 263:1). Therefore, Moshe’s symbolic bris was held on the following day, Shushan Purim.
The Megillas Sesarim’s opinion is that these maidservants were Jewish. After all, the previous queen had Jewish maidservants (as we saw before), as well, so there would be little suspicion. This was “fitting for” Esther because she was surrounded by people with whom she could relate and whom she could trust. Rabbi Mendel Weinbach adds that they could even share food with her. Perhaps it was also fitting for her because she could fulfill the mitzvah of “ve’ahavta larey’acha kamocha” (“loving your fellow as yourself”) (Vayikra 19:18) by treating them well.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) tells us that Esther requested Heigai to give her seven maidservants to help her count the days of the week for her to know which day was Shabbos.1
Rabbi Yehonasan Eibshutz asks why a person would need other people to count the days. He answers that Esther, although she was hiding her Jewish identity, was still practicing Jewish law. Therefore, if all of her maidservants saw her every day, they would see that she was behaving differently on the Sabbath, and that would give away her secret. On the other hand, she could not treat every day as a rest day, but had to stay active to keep from going crazy.
Perhaps another reason why Esther felt she had to maintain an active lifestyle during the week is based on Rav Elie Munk’s interpretation in Call of the Torah on the verse (Shemos 20:9) that tells us “to work” during the six days preceding Shabbos. Rav Munk says that, just as there is a law forbidding work on Shabbos, we have a similar responsibility to work when it is not Shabbos. Therefore, having one maidservant per day, her maids every week from Sunday through Friday saw her active, and must have figured she was some sort of activist queen. Her weekly Shabbos maid saw her lazing about, and probably figured that she was as idle as most normal members of the noble class.
Parenthetically, the Rokeach points out that the last letter of “v’eis” (suf) and the first two letters of “sheva” (shin and beiz) spell the letters of Shabbos. Also, the gematria of “hana’aros hari’uyos” (“fitting maidservants”) is the same as “zu haysa moneh bahen Shabbos” (“this is she counted Shabbos using them”).
Another interpretation of the Talmud is that she used these maidservant to keep track of each of the days of the Shabbos, the week. After all, every day is special. As we say in the morning prayer service before the weekday psalm of Sunday, “today is the first day of the Shabbos,” and on Monday, “today is the second day of the Shabbos,” etc. We make the most out of every day.
1Presumably the Persian calendar did not have seven-day weeks, or Esther would not have needed this kind of help. There are various calendars, like the Celts, the Igbo, and the Akan, that had weeks composed of various amounts of days. Ancient Egypt even had a ten-day week.
13. And the king said to the wise men who know the times – since such is the way of the king before all those who know knowledge and justice.
According to the Talmud (Megillah 12b), the wise men whom the king approached after being insulted by his wife were none other than the Jewish Sages. The idea that they “know the times” means that our Sages are in control of the times and can have a hand in the calendar by, for instance, adding a thirteenth month (Adar Sheini) by declaring a leap year when necessary to balance the lunar months with the solar seasons (see Talmud, Sanhedrin 11b). Relevant to Tu B’Shvat this week, in the laws of orlah, a tree’s fruit cannot be eaten during the first three years of its life (Vayikra 19:23). The Sages’ ability to mandate a thirteenth month forces a farmer to wait an entire month longer for a tree to turn three years-old. We allude to this rabbinic power in our prayers. In the Musaf prayer of Shabbos (a day which cannot be set by the Sages) we say, “Blessed are You, H-Shem, Who sanctified the Shabbos,” whereas in the Musaf prayer of a Yom Tov (a day which can be set by the Sages) we say “Blessed are You, H-Shem, Who sanctified Israel and the times,” alluding to the fact that Israel can affect the calendar. Both the Ibn Ezra and Rav Dovid Feinstein add that, on a more mystical plane, the Sages were equally aware of astrology and which times have which spiritual energies (and how best to use these) as learned from Sefer Yetzira (Chapter 5).1
Rav Yehonoson Eibshutz writes that Achashverosh was hoping that the Sages, knowing these spiritual times as they do, would find that Vashti’s mazal (cosmic, spiritual influence) would allow her to live.
On a practical level, the Ben Ish Chai writes that the Sages could find ways to excuse any crime. For reasons too complex to explain here2, they were trained to do so because a unanimous decision would expatiate a perpetrator. In order to find a way to discredit a given exhibit of evidence, the Sages needed to then be completely aware of situations to best judge them.
As the Malbim writes, the Sages knew best how to apply laws to situations. The Maharal adds that a Sage, a righteous person by definition, always knows how to act under a given situation.
According to the Talmud (ibid.) the Sages found a way to not give advice because they realized that they were in a bind, a Catch-22. On the one hand, telling him to kill her as is expected of an insulted monarch may backfire and cause more Jew-hatred. On the other hand, sparing her meant subjecting Jewish women to untold humiliation under Vashti’s evil hands. To get out of having to give advice in this matter, the Sages simply pointed out that they could not judge capital cases ever since the Temple was destroyed. Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss reminds us that one of the recurring themes of Megillas Esther is mida kineged mida, measure for measure. Here, Vashti’s halting the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash effectively ended her own life. Had there been a Temple, and it accompanying Sanhedrin, the Sages would have been able to pardon her.
1 My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yisroel Simcha Schorr, shlita, would often remind us that Pesach came before the exodus from Egypt. The time, itself, had the strength needed for an exodus. This is why Lot offered matzos to his visiting angels in Nisan (Bireishis 19:3, see Rashi there) before there was even an exodus to obligate the eating of matza. From the time of Creation, that time had the spiritual energy to be a vehicle for the Egyptian exodus.
2See Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) for the details of this rule.