Esther 8:16, Question 2. What do these different expressions signify?

  • According to Malbim, since the previous verse (Esther 8:15) testifies to the fact that everybody was happy, the various expressions in this verse underscore the fact that the Jews were especially joyous.
  • Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Collected Writings, Volume III, 405) writes that this verse demonstrates that the Jews could now survive any difficulty in history because they “preserved their own light and joy.”
  • The Rambam (Perakim Hatzlacha, Chapter 2) emphasizes that all of the good that the Jews received was due to their return to Torah. Based on this, the Binyan Shlomo points out that it is a very praiseworthy custom to learn Torah on the holiday of Purim (see Rema, Orach Chaim 695:2).
  • The Sharis Yosef teaches that objects going from darkness to light is yet another source for the custom to wear costumes on Purim.
  • The Talmud Yerushalmi (Brachos 1:1) writes that this description mirrors how the Jews will be redeemed with the coming of Moshiach.
  • The Talmud (Megillah 16b) interprets this verse’s expressions thus: light is Torah; happiness is Yom Tov; joy is circumcision; and glory is tefillin.
  • Rashi comments on the Talmud that Haman made decrees forbidding Jews from fulfilling these mitzvos. The Yad HaMelech points out that Jews may have neglected circumcision at that time, as they sometimes have done on times of persecution to pass as non-Jews.
  • The Megillas Sesarim writes that Mordechai’s wearing tefillin earlier (Esther 8:15) put that mitzva back in vogue.
  • Rav Shimon Schwab finds it impossible for the Jews to have been successfully banned from these mitzvos, en masse. Rather, he explains that the Jews at that time studied Torah, but without light; they commemorated holidays, but without happiness; they performed circumcisions, but without joy; they wore tefillin, but without glory. Without caring, without thinking, and without these precious mitzvos affecting their souls.
  • Rav Yehonason Eibshutz points out that it is a natural, human reaction for the emotional impact of an event to fade in subsequent anniversaries of that event. For instance, as happy as a child’s birthday celebration may be, it pales in comparison to the happiness felt at the actual successful birth. However, when that event is attached to a mitzva that is repeated every year, the original happiness felt at the event is retained (and perhaps enhanced) with the performance of the mitzva. This is the reason for the Talmud to equate happiness with Yom Tov; with each occurrence of Purim, its mitzvos reignite its accompanying joy.
  • The Sfas Emes asks a fundamental question: why does the verse uses metaphors instead of explicitly writing that the Jews garnered Torah, Yom Tov, circumcision, and tefillin? He answers that, with the miracle of Purim, the Jews recognized the real nature of light, happiness, joy, and glory; light comes from Torah, happiness comes from Yom Tov, joy comes from circumcision, and glory comes from tefillin.
  • The Ohr Gedalyahu adds that all of these misapplied emotions point to the Jews’ ancient battle against Amalek, a nation described (Devarim 25:17) as having cooled us. Amalek wins when Jews perform mitzvos without an accompanying fire of emotion. He quotes the Sefer Yetzira that the month of Adar is represented by the letter kuf, meaning kedusha (“holiness”), which he defines as keeping something special and invigorating.
  • The Ohel Moshe similarly writes that simcha (“happiness”) is the antidote to Amalek’s cooling effect. The Vilna Gaon notes that all four of these mitzvos – Torah, Yom Tov, circumcision, and tefillin – are regularly called osos (“signs”) and eidus (“testimonies”). He explains that these all testify that there is one G-d, and that the Jewish people are uniquely His people. He adds that taking the first letters (roshei teivos) of the words ora (“light”), simcha (“happiness”), sasson (“joy”), and yikar (“glory”) – aleph, sin, sin, and yud respectively – produces a gematria (1+300+300+10=611) equal to that of Torah (400+6+200+5=611). He continues by quoting a cryptic Talmudic tale (Sukkah 48b) about a character named Sasson speaking with another named Simcha. In this piece of Aggadeta, the two are trying to outdo each other by quoting verses throughout TaNaCh in which one or the other appears first. When Sasson and Simcha finally consult with Rebbe Abahu, he tells them that if a person has a water flask but never fills it, but merely keeps it next to him, he will die of thirst.
  • The Vilna Gaon’s explanation is beyond the author’s erudition and the scope of this work, but the Shem M’Shmuel explains that conversation by distinguishing between the exact spiritual nature of these two almost synonymous emotions, happiness and joy. He writes that happiness is the emotion felt after careful planning yields a successful result, whereas joy is the emotion felt when one experiences an unexpected windfall. The debate between Sasson and Simcha, then, is whether success is better felt in the former type of situation, or the latter. For instance, should an organization carefully plan its charitable giving, or bypass the planning and initiate the giving as quickly and haphazardly as possible? Having one necessarily means lacking the other. Rebbe Abahu’s allegoric answer, then, is that there needs to be spiritual content (water) inside the emotion (water flask) to gain anything beyond failure (thirst). Therefore, in our verse, the Jews had both emotions – happiness from the prearranged success, and joy from the unexpected success.
  • The Ginzei HaMelech wonders why the great mitzvah of teshuva (“repentance”) seems missing in this list of mitzvos the Jews are performing. After all, the Talmud (Megillah 14a) says that Achashverosh giving his signet ring to Haman created the greatest wave of teshuva in history. He answers that exactly these mitzvos are actual teshuva! Sitting around feeling sorry is not genuine repentance; improving our performance of H-Shem’s service is how we return to Him.
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Esther 8:5, Question 1. Why does Esther use so many conditions?

ה וַתֹּאמֶר אִםעַלהַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב וְאִםמָצָאתִי חֵן לְפָנָיו וְכָשֵׁר הַדָּבָר לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְטוֹבָה אֲנִי בְּעֵינָיו יִכָּתֵב לְהָשִׁיב אֶתהַסְּפָרִים מַֽחֲשֶׁבֶת הָמָן בֶּן הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב לְאַבֵּד אֶתהַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָלמְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ

5. And she said, “If it is good for the king, and if I found favor before him, and the thing is proper before the king, and I am good in your eyes, have written to return the writings thought up by Haman son of Hemdasa the Aggagite that he wrote to destroy the Yehudim who are in all of the states of the king.

  • It is important to recall that Esther’s attempt to convince Achashverosh to rescind the decree is expected to be an uphill battle. After all, It is a decree with which he agrees, and the Talmud (Megillah 14a) considers that, like a landowner with too much dirt, he would have actually instigated the genocide of all the Jews himself had it not been for Haman approaching him first.
  • The Vilna Gaon sees in Esther’s use of this many conditions three major methods to motivate somebody: the message must be pleasing to the hearer, the speaker must be likable, and the idea itself must be sensible.
  • He continues that, including the fourth condition in the next verse (Esther 8:6), these four qualifiers relate to the four letters of H-Shem’s Name. In addition to this, the verse also uses the word melech (“king”) twice, indicating that Esther was pleading before the earthly king and Heavenly King simultaneously.
  • The Ben Ish Chai writes that there are four conditions to change Achashverosh’s perspective because four is the number for changing something. This is why the Torah has four levels: pshat (“simple”), remez (“allusion”), drash (“homelies”), sod (“secret”). The Torah itself was received in 40 (4×10) days. Similarly, Noach’s Flood lasted 40 days. Also, the Jews required 40 years in the desert to be prepared to enter Eretz Yisroel. To be defined as sinful, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuva 3:5) writes that a congregation has to sin four times. Furthermore, a human fetus requires 40 days to develop to the point of having a gender, among other things. All of these are acts of change and development.

Esther 3:10, Question 4. What is the significance of the Talmud’s pit analogy?

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) compares Achashverosh and Haman to two land owners. One has a giant mound of excess land. The other has a ditch in his field. The person who has a ditch wants land to fill in the field. The person with the dirt is looking for a ditch to dump his dirt. Simply put, this analogy indicates a symbiotic relationship between Achashverosh and Haman; the two need each other. Achashverosh has too many Jews, while Haman is looking for Jews to kill.

  • The Ben Ish Chai on the Talmud (in Sefer Benayahu) writes that this analogy means to indicate that, like the dirt-owner, Achashverosh did not accept Haman’s financial offer because he was doing him a favor ridding the nation of Jews.
  • R’ Meir Shapiro and the Chasam Sofer say that Achashverosh and Haman had different theories as to how to defeat the Jews. Achashverosh thought the best method for this was to invite them to his feast, elevate them, and watch as assimilation destroyed the Jews from within. Therefore, he built them up, like a mound. Haman, however, considered the best method degradation, making them low as if they were lower than a ditch1.
  • Similarly, R’ Mendel Weinbach writes that Achashverosh considered the Jews a threat to his power. After all, if the Jews were to rebuild their Temple, Achashverosh would lose some of his esteem. Therefore, to him, the Jews were respected, like a mound. In contrast, Haman considered the Jews disgusting and lowly, like a ditch. Rabbi Weinbach also writes that the mound and the ditch metaphors can be different ways for Jews to view assimilation. One way to avoid assimilation is to build up Jews like a mound, placing them on a pedestal by pointing out Jewish accomplishments to build up Jewish pride. Another way to avoid assimilation is to paint Jews as so different, so “uncool,” as to belong on a completely separate level, like a ditch.
  • In answering the question of why Achashverosh does not seem to be punished in the end of Megillas Esther, the Ben Ish Chai tells the following parable: two hooligans kidnap the king’s son. When the king refuses to pay their ransom, Hooligan A becomes incensed, and wants to kill the prince. Hooligan B feels this to be unnecessarily cruel, and they begin to argue. As they do, they are both captured. The king pardons Hooligan B for being kind to the prince, but Hooligan A is summarily burned for his evil intentions. Similarly, both Achashverosh and Haman are, indeed, evil. However, due to the respect Achashverosh will show the Jews (see 6:10 and 8:1-2 below), he will be treated in a kinder fashion.

1It is amazing how Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as dirty rodents on the one hand, and over-intellectual snobs on the other, ignoring the inherent contradiction in these estimations.

Esther 3:10, Question 1. What is the significance of Achashverosh giving Haman his ring?

י וַיָּסַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶתטַבַּעְתּוֹ מֵעַל יָדוֹ וַיִּתְּנָהּ לְהָמָן בֶּןהַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי צֹרֵר הַיְּהוּדִים

10. And the king removed his ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hamdasa the Aggagite, enemy of the Yehudim.

  • According to M’nos HaLevi, the significance of Achashverosh giving Haman his ring is a sign that he consents to an agreement with Haman.
  • The Midrash here (Esther Rabbah 7:20) that Achashverosh hates the Jews more than Haman. After all, “the custom of the world is for the buyer to give a pledge to the seller. But here, the seller [Achashverosh] is giving the pledge [the ring].”
  • The Alshich writes therefore, that this giving of the ring is a legal transaction indicating an acceptance of Haman’s offer, an amount Haman is not likely to be carrying with him.
  • The Megillas Sesarim writes the ring means Achashverosh is giving Haman full authority to do anything he likes.
  • The Talmud (Megillah 14a) writes that the removal of the ring was stronger than forty prophets and seven prophetesses. None of them could encourage the Jews to repent as much as this one act. The Jews seemingly do not repent en mass until their very survival is threatened. R’ Mendel Weinbach says that this act is particularly frightening for the Jews because they know Achashverosh is capricious, and is famous for changing his mind. Once he gives authority to Haman, though, the Jews realize that they are in serious danger.
  • The Bircas Chaim asks why, when Mordechai is elevated to Haman’s position (Esther 8:2), does Achashverosh immediately give Mordechai his ring? In contrast with Mordechai at that point, Achashverosh does not trust Haman. However, now that Haman is willing to give this great amount of silver to the government, Achashverosh is under the mistaken impression that he is patriotic.
  • In Pachad Yitzchak, Rav Yitzchak Hutner wonders why the Talmud calls this incident the “removal of the ring” when it is Haman’s desire to kill the Jews which should be the focus. In response, he writes that whenever the descendants of Eisav or Yaakov prosper, the descendants of the other fall (see Rashi to Bereishis 25:23). Therefore, Achashverosh’s raising up of Haman necessitates a corresponding lessening of the Jews in the esteem of the king.

Esther 2:7, Question 2. Which is her real name, Hadassah or Esther?

  • The Rabbis of the Talmud (Megillah 13a) heavily debate whether the title character’s real name was Hadassah or Esther. One opinion (R’ Meir) was that her name was Esther, but she was righteous, and the righteous are compared to myrtles (“hadas”) in beauty based on a verse in Zecharya (1:8). Why is the myrtle an appropriate plant to which to compare a tzaddik? Alshich says a myrtle is as successful in the summer as it is in winter. A Tzaddik is righteous all the time, consistently, and not different at home than outside. Avraham who was 75 when he left Haran (Bireishis 12:4). The Midrash (Bireishis Rabbah 39:13) says H-Shem told Avraham that in the merit of his leaving everything he knows and loves at the age of 75, the rescuer of the Jews (presumably in the Purim story) will also be 75 years old. Hadassah (5+4+60+5) is the gematria of 74, and with the principle of im hakollel, the numbers can be equal. Rabbi Shaul of Amsterdam points out another proof to Hadassah’s age being 75. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) calls her one of the seven prophetesses of Israel. According to the Talmud (Moed Katan 25a), prophecy can only occur in Israel (which is the reason Yonah tried to flee). Esther was then born in Israel, which occurred at least seventy years before, since that was when the Temple was destroyed and Mordechai was exiled, and she would have needed to be at least at an age of some consciousness (presumably, 5) to experience prophecy.
  • The second opinion in the Talmud (R’ Yehudah) is that her name was Hadassah, but she kept the secret (“hester”) of her nationality. Maharal points out that this secrecy is also indicative of tznius, modesty, the stamp of a Jewess. The idea of modesty is not the hiding of something evil, but rather the protecting of that thing to keep it special. It is the defining characteristic of a Jew, contrasting sharply against the characteristic of Eisav and his spiritual/ philosophical descendants. This is seen in the verse (Bireishis 27:22) “the voice is the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Eisav.” In other words, the primary actions of the spiritual Jew is non-physical, represented by the invisible, ephemeral voice. The primary world-view of Eisav’s heirs is rooted in the visible, represented by the creative, physical hand. Rav Hutner similarly adds that Purim is an example of H-Shem’s modesty in that the miracles in Megillas Esther, as we have seen, are hidden behind the political, natural events of the written story. According to the Zohar (Devarim 226a), H-Shem kept Hadassah hidden by allowing her to utilize mystical powers to create a “sheid,” or demon, to get out of having relations with Achashverosh.
  • A third Talmudic opinion (R’ Nechemya) states that her name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther because the nations of the world call her Sahara, which means moon in Aramaic. The moon represents beauty as in Shir HaShirim 6:10), and the nations of the world thus compliment Hadassah’s appearance. Another possibility is that the nations of the world call her Ashtahar, which Yalkut Shimoni informs us is Estera, the Greek name for the planet Venus. Class participant CL informs us that this is the brightest planet from Earth’s perspective.
  • A fourth opinion in the Talmud (Ben Azzai) says that she was called Esther because she was neither tall nor short, but medium height. In Chana’s prayer for a child, she asks for “zerah anashim” (“male seed”) (Shmuel 1 1:11). Rav Dimi’s interpretation of this phrase (Talmud, Brachos 31b) is that she wants a son “like other men,” of average height, so that he would not stand out. In Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, we find a model of the tallest person and the shortest person, but no average-est. Being “normal” according to the standards of the time and location is what makes people attractive, but one should not use that line on a first date!
  • A final opinion (Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha) says her name was Esther, but she was called Hadassah because she was as green as a myrtle. This either means that she was beautiful, with an olive-green complexion popular in the Middle East and elsewhere. Otherwise, it is indeed not easy being green, and this pale, unseemly color made her ordinarily unattractive. She thus had to attract the king miraculously through a “string of kindness,” as we shall see, with H-Shem’s help when we study 5:2 below. Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg teaches that Esther smelled as sweet as hadassim, and notes an interesting point regarding the custom to use myrtles for Havdalah. The sweet smell of myrtles, he says, is only harvested when the myrtles are crushed. So, too, Esther’s greatness became manifest through her difficult life. Taken together in the final analysis, this debate in the Talmud whether Esther/Hadassah was righteous, secret, beautiful, average, or green indicates an amazing idea – our title character is so hidden, we do not even know her name!