Esther 9:20, Question 2. Why does the verse specify that the books are sent near and far?

  • In his introductory comments on the Talmudic tractate Megillah, the Ramban explains that the idea behind sending the books near and far means that they were sent through the entire expanse – from Hodu to Cush (Esther 1:1) – of Achashverosh’s kingdom.
  • Me’am Loez suggests that they were even sent to other countries.
  • The Dena Pishra explains that since Mordechai’s goal was to create a feeling of achdus (“unity”), he even wanted to reach those Jews whose lack of faith and subsequent fear motivated them to flea battle.
  • Rav Schwab, however, understands “close” as those Jews who were living in Shushan and celebrating on the 14th of Adar, whereas “far” refers to those Jews who returned to Eretz Yisroel and celebrated Shushan Purim on the 15th of Adar in the only place where one must certainly do so – the holy city of Yerushalayim.
  • The Sha’ar Yissachar writes that the books were sent near and far so no Jew could ever devise the excuse that they are too far from holiness. Rather, the near and far have equal access to the holiness that emanates from Purim.
  • Keser Shem Tov quotes that Talmudic (Megillah 17a) rule that Megillas Esther on Purim must be read as written, and not backwards. The Keser Shem Tov then wonders why anybody would think to read it backwards. He posits that the Talmud means that nobody should ever consider the Purim story as some ancient, historic event without real relevance to our lives.
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Esther 2:5, Question 4. Why does the verse mention Mordechai’s lineage?

  • In the Talmud’s lengthy exposition on this verse (Megillah 12b-13a), the Rabbis note that the verse seemingly mentions these ancestors of Mordechai out of order, skipping around generations. For example, Shimi was a distant descendant of Kish (Targum Sheini to Esther 2:5), not his son. The Rabbis therefore expound on these names as indicating Mordechai’s characteristics. He was the “son of Yair” in that he brightened (“hey’ir”) the eyes of the Jews to prayer; he was the “son of Shimi” in that his prayers were listened to (“shema”) by H-Shem; he was the “son of Kish” in that he knocked (“hikish”) at the Gates of Mercy. The Ohel Moshe asks the question: should not the fact that his prayers were listened to be more important – thus listed before – than his act of “brightening the eyes” of others to pray? After all, his prayers being answered saved the Jews! He answers that, indeed, as powerful as Mordechai’s prayers were, the combined power of the Jews he roused with his “great cry” (Esther 4:1) led to an unprecedented era of teshuva, return, whose cornerstone is prayer.
  • But like every great man, he was not without his detractors and controversy. Another opinion in the Talmud there (Rava) states that the tribes would deflect from themselves responsibility for Mordechai’s seemingly causing Jewish existence to be threatened in the Purim story, as we will discuss (iy”H) when we get to it (in Esther 3:6). The Jews blamed Yehudah for King David’s (a member of Yehudah) not killing Shimi ben Geira (Shmuel 2 16:7-13 and Melachim 1 2:9), and they blamed Benyamin for King Shaul’s (a member of Benyamin) not killing Agag, ancestor of Haman. Interestingly, Rav Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz notes that Shaul is noticeably missing in this list of ancestors (see Shmuel 1 9:1). Possibly, this could be a way to avoid embarrassing Mordechai for this relation, especially in light of Shaul’s embarrassing failure to wipe out Amalek leading to the Purim story. Otherwise, Rav Alkabetz ventures to opine that Mordechai could be a “gilgul,” (“reincarnation”) of King Shaul.

Esther 1:1, Question 4. Where are Hodu and Cush, and why does it matter?

There is an argument in the Talmud (Megillah 11a) regarding whether Hodu and Cush are near each other or far apart. Either way, the Talmud concludes, Achashverosh’s conquest of them was indicative of his great power. If they were far apart, the phrase “from Hodu and until Cush” shows that his kingdom was large geographically. If they were close, “from Hodu and until Cush” shows that his powerful influence was just as strong in Hodu and Cush as it was in the more far-flung provinces of his kingdom. This is unlike even more recent dictatorships like the Soviet Union, where the government’s anti-religious laws were far more influential in the capital, Moscow, than far-away Tashkent. Whereas Moscow Jews did not by and large get circumcisions, did not eat kosher, and could not learn basic Jewish traditions, the situation was markedly different for the Jews of Tashkent and its surrounding environs. The Rema famously writes that the two opinions in the Talmud are not necessarily contradictory. He writes that the distance from Point A to Point B on a sphere depends largely on which direction the line is going. If two people are next-door neighbors, and one takes the long route around the globe to reach the other, that person traveled an unnecessarily circuitous path, covering far more ground. This, according to the Rema, is indicative of the sheer size of Achashverosh’s kingdom – it covered all the the known world.

Esther 1:1, Question 3. Why does the verse utilize the present tense of the verb “hamolech” (“he rules”) instead of the past tense?

The Talmud (Megillah 11a) teaches that the word “hamolech” indicates that Achashverosh was a self-made king. There is discussion as to whether or not this can be seen as a positive or negative indicator of his character. In other words, he is either a “rags to riches” hero or an upstart who didn’t deserve his position. The question remains: why does the present tense indicate that Achashverosh was self-made? Malbim writes that the use of present tense is due to Achashverosh’s rule occuring so fast, starting from when he was a mere commoner. It happened so fast, that nobody remembered which land he conquered first – they only knew that he rules now.

I would like to dedicate this blog today to the memory of Avraham Baruch ben Mordechai (Abe Sonabend) on his yahrzeit today (5 Kislev). He was a great man, a Holocaust survivor, and the memory of his firm handshake reminds me to never give up, and to dream big.

Esther 1:1, Question 2. Why does the verse say “hu Achashverosh” (“he was the Achashverosh”) as if we know him already?

  • According to the Vilna Gaon in his Peshat (literal) explanation, the verse emphasizes that he was a different Achashverosh from one noted elsewhere in TaNaCh, the father of Darius (Daniel 9:1).
  • According to the Talmud (Megillah 11a), the word “hu” is used regarding people who do not change, as we see regarding Eisav (Bereishis 36:43), Dasan and Aviram (Bamidbar 26:9) and King Ahaz (Divrei HaYamim 1 28:22). Some people never change. Achashverosh, as the Midrash points out, didn’t kill Haman in the end because he saw the error of his ways. Rather, he was motivated by the exact same (self-) love that motivated his earlier execution of Vashti.

Esther 1:1, Question 1. Why does the Talmud (Megillah 10b-11a) assume that “vayihee” (“and it was”) has negative connotations?

פרק א

א וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הַמֹּלֵךְ מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד-כּוּשׁ שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה

Chapter 1
1. And it was in the days of Achashverosh – he was the Achashverosh who rules from Hodu and until Cush, seven and twenty and a hundred state.

The Talmud (Megillah 11a) teaches that “vayihee” is an amalgamation of “vay” and “hee,” words that connote sadness and mourning even onomatopoetically, as they sound like cries. The reason for this is because people who are past focused instead of future focused are naturally unhappy. Like a housewife who is constantly doting over her wedding album as if no new memories are worthy of attention, people who are constantly singing “Those Were the Days” are not focusing on positive moments in the present like those who sing “These Are the Days.”

Introduction

The Scroll of Esther is a book in the Torah, but it can be difficult for many to see it as such. Firstly, the holiday of Purim can get in the way. It is a fun day, and at its most sober, Purim morphs into an almost totally child-focused holiday in most communities. The observant Jew hears the Megillah read twice on this annual day, but is more than likely too busy preparing the other mitzvahs of the day to pay much attention to the actual words within the folds of this scroll. Sure, they know the basics of the story, but they cannot be expected to wonder why it says Achashverosh’s name two times in the first verse, neither of which time identifies him as a king.

    But Esther is much more than the holiday of Purim, as great a day as it is. Being a Torah text, it contains unfathomable wisdom and depth. The greatest of scholars can plumb through it, and there will still be new insights to add. The holy Alshich says as much in the introduction to his commentary to Megillas Esther. He adds that we could all benefit from continued review of this shining example of H-Shem’s love for us and clear example of His contant supervision of our lives.

    But what makes this book a Torah book? It is a fair question since even the Sages of the Talmud note that the unique absense of H-Shem’s name in the body of this work certainly should make us suspicious of its holy origin. Other books, like Maccabees, were relegated to the Apocrypha (great ancient books not in the Torah cannon, but sometimes quoted in the Talmud and other later works) despite the fact that they may recall equally great miraculous rescues, and may even contain the added bonus of naming H-Shem as the Performer of these miracles. Even The Wisdom of Ben Sira, a book quoted often in the Talmud, and filled with wisdom not unlike Mishlei and Koheles, was for some reason not included in the cannon of Tanach.

    Answers abound, but what seems most clear is that it has to do with two interrelated factors – ruach hakodesh and language. Ruach hakodesh is the Divine, prophetic influence of a work. It is simultaneously a testament to a work’s holy root, and its universal, forever-relevant objective. Ruach hakodesh is the reason people who learns Tehillim in their times of worry, joy, and pain can feel as though Dovid HaMelech custom-tailored Tehillim for their very own situation.

    According to the Talmud (Megillah 7a), when Esther approached the Sages about writing this book, they were originally reluctant. Besides the concern about the number of times we may make mention of our defeating Amalek (or their descendants) due to a verse in Mishlei (22:20) and fear of anti-Semitic reprisals for the publishing of a Jewish victory, there is much discussion there as to whether or not the book was written with ruach hakodesh. For instance, Rabbi Akiva there uses the verse that says Esther “found favor in all who saw her” (Esther 2:15) as a proof that the Megillah was written through ruach hakodesh. Logically, a human author could not presume (in non-fiction) to know how other people feel, and would not then know how people felt about Esther. The proof is nevertheless rejected because the actions of people can often reveal their true feelings.

    Finally, a proof against which nobody could argue was the verse towards the end of Megillas Esther (9:27) “they accepted and committed themselves to the Torah.” The Talmud (Makkos 23b) teaches that, due to its grammatical structure, this verse is applying to two distinct groups. It means, then, that what was accepted on earth was also accepted in Heaven. No human author could know that without Divine inspiration. And it was Esther’s Divine inspiration, prompting the Sages to not only accept this work as a part of Tanach – but to also call it after her name. As mentioned earlier, she was the one, after all, who approached the Sages in the first place, and advocated successfully to be written “for generations” (Talmud, Megillah 7a). According to Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss, one of the reasons for this out-of-character, seemingly haughty request was that Esther’s prophecy allowed her to see that  Megillas Esther would contain valuable lessons for future generations. Like what, you ask?

    An oft-repeated Midrash (Bireishis Rabba 58:3 and Esther Rabba 1:8) relates that Rabbi Akiva once reenergized some slumbering students with the revelation that Esther earned the position of being queen of 127 states in the merit of being the descendant of the matriarch, Sarah, who lived 127 years. What does the one have to do with the other? Besides, why does the Midrash inform of of Rabbi Akiva’s students’ state of rest? Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter, the Chiddushei HaRim, explains that each country is made up by states, cities, neighborhoods, streets, homes, and rooms. A year, too, is made up of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and even seconds. Rabbi Akiva is pointing out to the value of time. Had Sarah not behaved in perfection for each moment of her 127 years of life, Esther’s kingdom would be missing some part. Rabbi Akiva, being the master educator, realized that his sleeping students needed to understand the long-term value of their actions. The Megillah is “for generations” because it is meant to wake us up from the droll of exile. This is not wasted time. On the contrary, this is the time for us to build our palaces of Truth through the Torah we learn.

    In preparing for the classes, I was struck by the sheer amount of learning surrounding Megillas Esther. Numerous commentaries are available in Hebrew and English, and I have attempted in this work to bring as many works as possible together in a sort of fluid collage of Torah scholarship. As most of the chiddushim below are not my own, in many ways I feel more like an editor than writer. As such, whatever errors and faults you find below may be placed squarely on my shoulders. On the other hand, any ideas in these pages which inspire you and in some way reveal the hidden the hidden mask of your Creator in your life and history should be credited to the Sages, living or departed, who have successfully led our nation through these difficult millenia of concealment.