- The Vilna Gaon points out that Mordechai provided these animals to the couriers because he wanted them to hurry. This, despite the fact that they were exhausted from having just traversed the largest nation in the world to deliver Haman’s original decree. Seeing that they were tired, he gave them the fastest possible horses.
- The Malbim writes that Mordechai sent the messengers on horses in contrast with Haman. In explanation, R’ Chaim Kanievsky writes that Haman had plenty of time – he had eleven months. Mordechai is in a hurry to save lives.
- Interestingly, the Talmud (Megillah 18a) writes that the sages were unsure as to the translation of the couriers’ transportation.
- Rashi translates achashtirans as swift camels.
- The Ibn Ezra writes that these are a species of mule. After all, the verse says they are bred from ramachs, and the Mishnah (Kilayim 8:5) considers a ramach a mare, mother of a mule. Also, the Arabic word, ramach means mare.
- R’ Yosef Kimchi concurs and he adds that achash in Median means large and tiran (misrain) means two. Therefore, the combination of the two words means the mating of two large animals: the horse and the donkey.
- R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (Collected Writings, Volume IV, 286) translates rachash as a draft horse. Parenthetically, he adds that the symbolic meaning of these in TaNaCh indicates a reluctance to listening to one’s master.
- R’ Yehoshua Leib Diskin writes that these untranslatable words answer another question from the Talmud (Megillah 3b), which says one must interrupt Torah learning to hear the public reading of Megillas Esther on Purim. This is also brought down as the Halacha (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 687:2). The Halacha (Mishnah Berurah Orach Chaim 690:26) further states from this verse that one fulfills one’s obligation in Hebrew despite not knowing the meaning. But is not Megillas Esther also Torah?! Rav Diskin explains that it is not considered Torah study if one does not understand it. Understanding is an essential component of Torah study. Hearing the reading is still an obligation because persumei nisa (publicizing a miracle) is even greater than Torah study.
- The Vilna Gaon writes that the verse emphasizes Mordechai’s telling Esther about the destruction of the Jews to clarify that the public documents vaguely informing Shushan to be ready actually intended the annihilation of the Jews.
- R’ Yehonason Eibshutz breaks apart the word “li’avdam” (“to destroy”) into the words “lo badam” (“not with blood”). In explanation, he cites the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:14) that relates the following allegorical anecdote:
[After the Satan convinced H-Shem to agree that Yisroel deserved destruction, and various levels of H-Shem’s servants respond,] Eliyahu (of Blessed Memory) ran in terror to the Patriarchs and Moshe son of Amram. And he said to them, “How long will the Patriarchs of old remain asleep? Are you not paying attention to the evils in which your children find themselves? The ministering angels, the sun, the moon, the stars and constellations, Heaven and Earth, and all the Heavenly servants are bitterly crying. And you are standing by, not paying attention?!” They said to him, “Why [were they found worthy of destruction]?” He said to them, “Because Yisroel enjoyed themselves at the feast of Achashverosh. Because of this, H-Shem decreed upon them a decree to annihilate them from the world, and to destroy their memory.” Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov said to him, “If they transgressed the Will of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and this decree is sealed, what are we able to do?” Eliyahu returned, and said to Moshe, “Trustworthy shepherd! How often have you stood in the breach for the sake of Yisroel, and nullified the decree against them to avoid their annihilation? As it is written, ‘Did not Moshe, His chosen, stand in the breach before Him to turn back His anger from destroying’ (Tehillim 106:23). How do you answer this evil?” […] Moshe said to him, “Is there anyone good in this generation?” [Eliyahu] said, “There is, and his name is Mordechai.” [Moshe] said to him, “Go and tell him that when he stands there to pray, and I from here, and he seeks mercy for them before the Holy One, Blessed is He…” [Eliyahu] said to him, “Trustworthy shepherd! It is already written, this letter of destruction of Yisroel!” Moshe said to him, “If it is written in clay, our prayers will be heard. And if it is written in blood, it is already done.” [Eliyahu] said, “It is written in clay.” Moshe our Teacher said to him, “Go and tell Mordechai.”
R’ Eibshutz asks on this this story: What is the symbolic significance of the document being written in blood or clay? Why would a decree written in blood be irreversible? He explains that Adam was created from earth and soul (Bireishis 2:7). Clay is made from earth and the Torah testifies that blood is the essence of the nefesh, soul (Vayikra 17:14, see Ramban to Vayikra 17:11). Thus, clay represents the physical and blood represents the spiritual. In the Midrash, then, Moshe was asking Eliyahu if the decree against the Jews was written for physical reasons (i.e. their enjoying Achashverosh’s feast) or spiritual reasons (i.e. bowing to an idol of Nevuchadnetzer). Had it been for their spiritual rejection of H-Shem (G-d forbid!), the decree would stand. In our verse, Mordechai was telling Esther that the decree was “lo b’dam,” not written in blood, and thus had a physical root that could be reversed with the power of prayer1.
1It is unclear to the author why the cause should be unclear; the above-cited Midrash explicitly stated that the decree was written and sealed due to the Jews’ enjoying Achashverosh’s feast. Perhaps the question was regarding the Jews’ motivation in attending the feast, and is not related to the seeming worship of Nevuchadnetzer’s statue. Tzarich iyun.
- The Talmud (Megillah 15a) records an argument about what, exactly, Mordechai was calling out as he went through Shushan. One opinion there has it that he yelled out, “Haman is greater than Achashverosh” in order to arouse the king’s jealousy. The other opinion is that Mordechai yelled out, “The King above is greater than the king below” in a euphemistic fashion to imply that Achashverosh was attempting to usurp H-Shem’s Power.
- Yalkut Shimoni writes that there is generally a difference between Jewish prayer and idolatrous prayer; whereas Chana’s prayer was quiet (Shmuel 1 1:13), Eisav’s prayer was a “great and bitter cry” (Bireishis 27:38). Like dogs that bark loudest when they have the least bite with which to threaten, an idol-worshiper’s prayer needs to be loud since it has the least spiritual power behind it.
- Furthermore, Rav Eliyah Lopian suggests that, whereas physical people cry over physical phenomena, spiritual people cry about spiritual matters. Here, however, to counteract the possible spiritual effectiveness of Haman’s ancestor’s (Eisav) “great and bitter cry,” caused by the actions of Mordechai’s ancestor (Yaakov).
- According to Yosek Lekach and the Vilna Gaon, Mordechai’s cry was inspired by his feeling responsible for the decree against the Jews. After all, his decision to refuse to bow to Haman, regardless of the logic, is what led directly to Haman’s anger with the Jews of Persia and beyond.
- R’ Henach Leibowitz points out in his characteristic way that this should be a powerful lesson to us about how careful we must be to avoid hurting someone, even when we are in the right!
- Taken as a unit, some commentators find great significance in the combination of these three motifs of the sackcloth, the city, and the crying. According to the Ginzei HaMelech, the loud voice represents Avraham because he spoke out powerfully against idolatry in a world filled with idols (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avoda Zara 1:3). The ash represents Yitzchak who allowed his father to symbolically sacrifice him. The sackcloth represents Yaakov, who mourned in sack upon being told of his son’s untimely death (Bireishis 37:33). Therefore, in a thoughtful, calculated action of spiritual symbolism, Mordechai used these to recall the merits of the forefathers, whose merits always protect their descendants.
Many commentators, the Rambam included, believe that numbers have no significance in the Torah. According to them, the main purpose served by numerology and gematria is pedagogic; they can serve as mnemonic learning tools to help students better remember key information. In the philosophy of the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46), a particular number of sacrifices is mentioned in reference to one sacrifice over another only to emphasize its seriousness. If we were to ask why a particular number is used rather than another number, we could never be satisfied. In our case here, had Haman offered 9,000 loaves of silver, would we not ask why that number? Moreover, would we not be able to think of a great many powerful reasons? Despite this, the vast majority of opinions accord with the idea that numbers do have symbolic significance throughout the Written and Oral Torahs. Especially in a book like Megillat Esther, which we have seen is densely coded to add levels of meaning, numbers seem to play a significant role in understanding the text1.
- The Vilna Gaon says here that the significance of this number of Haman’s offer is that it is a monstrously huge amount. A shekel is 0.8 ounces of silver. A loaf (or bar) of silver is 30,000 shekels, or 24,000 ounces of silver. Therefore, Haman’s 10,000 loaves of silver are equal to 24,000,000 ounces, or 750 tons, of silver. Class participant JS calculated that such an amount would be equivalent to $941,280,000 in 2012 standards.
- According to Ibn Ezra, this is amplified. He considers this an abbreviated phrase, and that the money offered by Haman is 100,000 loaves of silver.
- Rav Dovid Feinstein says Haman offered this particular amount because he projected this to be the cost of killing off the Jews.
- The Targum translates this verse as “100 times their amount.” What is meant is probably related to the Talmud (Megillah 13b) that states that H-Shem, for Whom time does not exist, gave the Jews the law of giving the half-shekel (Mishnah, Shekalim 1:1) to counteract the effect of Haman’s offer.
- According to Ben Ish Chai, this ratio is alluded to in a blessing for the Jews (Vayikra 26:8) that “one hundred of you will pursue ten thousand.”
- According to the Rambam, such is the power of a mitzvah that each Jew’s individual half-shekel is enough to outweigh the worth of any number of loaves of silver, or anything else.
- According to the Talmud (Megillah 16a), upon confronting Mordechai before leading him though the city on the king’s horse (6:11 below), Haman himself acknowledges to Mordechai that the half-shekel given by the Jews overpowered his offer to the king.
- According to Tosvos on that page (d.h. “Vidachei”), the half-shekel given by the Jews leaving Egypt equaled exactly the 10,000 loaves of silver. Tosvos, however, note there is a difficulty with the math. Otherwise, why would the half-shekel of 600,000 men aged 20-70 leaving Egypt, which should equal 300,000 shekels, be comparable to 10,000 loaves of silver, or 30,000 shekels?
- Rav Yaakov Emden’s solution to this problem is to point out that in earlier manuscripts of Tosvos, it does not say “chetzi shekel” (“half-shekel”), but the acronym “Ch’Sh,” which could mean “chamishim shekel” (“fifty shekel”). When fifty shekel are multiplied by 600,000, the result is 30,000,000 shekel, the value of Haman’s offer.
- The Bach answers Tosvos’s math problem by explaining that in an average lifetime of seventy years (see Tehillim 90:10), a man will give a half-shekel fifty times between the ages of twenty and seventy, or twenty-five shekels. 600,000 men giving twenty-five shekels would be 15,000,000 shekels. These 15,000,000 shekels divided by 1500 shekalim (the value of a Beis HaMikdash loaf) would be exactly 10,000 loaves.
- Rabbeinu Bachya (on Shemos 38:25) and the Torah Temimah answer Tosvos’s math problem differently. According to them, the half-shekel given by the Jews in the desert was a dedication of money representing the valuation of their own worth. According to the Torah (Vayikra 27:2), each man is worth 50 shekels. All 600,000 men donating their own worth of 50 shekels each would be worth 30,000,000 shekels. These 30,000,000 divided by the 3000 totals 10,000. When they actually gave this half-shekel, the Torah testifies (Shemos 38:25) that this silver totaled one hundred loaves, plus one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels. Therefore, Haman’s loaves were one hundred times more than the hundred loaves of the Jews leaving Egypt. Furthermore, the number of Jews contributing is given in the next verse (ibid. 26) as 603,550. The additional 1755 shekels were given by the 3550 people.
- Rabbi Aryeh Naiman reminds us that the whole purpose of the half-shekel was to an indirect form of census-taking. The more direct form, actually counting individuals is a sure recipe for plague, as the Torah (Shemos 30:12) warns. Rashi there explains that because of “ayin hara” (“the evil eye”). The evil eye is caused by people being jealous of what others possess. When Person A becomes jealous, he begins to question why Person B deserves the luxury Person A desires. In Heaven, too, where the Heavenly angels mirror our behavior (see Nefesh HaChaim 1:7), they also begin to question why Person B deserved that object. After all, who is truly worthy of all the blessings bestowed upon us by H-Shem? It is only through the Chesed (kindness) of H-Shem that we are not judged more harshly. He, in His Mercy, over-values our merits, and temporarily overlooks our deficiencies to give us the opportunity to improve (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuva 3:5). When the Heavenly court focuses on one person due to our jealousy, that person’s good fortune will be restrained. Rashi (on Shemos 30:12) points out that this taking of a person out of the general populace and examining him or her with more scrutiny is the cause of plague. Incidentally, in the laws of kashrus, too, Rabbi Naiman points out, if a drop of milk falls into a pot of beef stew, the milk would probably be nullified in the majority. However, if that drop is recognizable still, even if the pot were the size of football stadium, the milk would not be nullified, since there is a rule (Talmud, Zevachim 73b) that one cannot nullify what is recognizable. Regarding people, too, without a community, one does not have the merits of the community with which to stand judgment. Regarding the half-shekel, everybody – rich and poor – gave the same amount (Shemos 30:15). Also, everybody gave one half of a shekel, rather than a complete amount. In a symbolic sense, Person A’s half-shekel was made “whole” only with Person B’s contribution. In the desert, the shekels were used to cast the sockets of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) (see Rashi to Shemos 30:16). Each individual socket was used as the base for the beam just like each individual in a community helps make a foundation for everyone else. When there were later censuses taken, the half-shekels were used to fund communal offerings (see Rashi to Shemos 30:15). Interestingly, Amalek first attacked the Jewish people (Shemos 17:8) when the Jews began to speak in first-person, individual language (ibid. 3). Amalek gains strength when Jews lose focus of their nationhood. Rabbi Naiman quotes R’ Yeshayahu Horowitz as saying that Haman’s claim to Achashverosh is that the Jewish people are vulnerable because they do not care about their national identity. Only then can Haman’s 10,000 loaves overpower their offerings. This is why it was so important for the Jews to unify in order to nullify Haman’s decree.
- Another answer comes from Rabbi Mordechai Kornfeld who brings the Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu on the Talmud (Kiddushin 12a) that dates in Persia were once worth more than silver. If silver was so devalued, Haman’s 10,000 loaves were indeed equal to the Jews’ contribution in the desert.
- Rabbi Zev Reichman quotes Rabbi Moshe Wolfson with an interesting question; assuming the 600,000 people’s half-shekel pieces correspond with 10,000 loaves of silver, what does Haman make of the extra 1775 shekel pieces given by the extra 3550 people in the census? There were people of the tribe of Dan who walked through the desert worshiping idols, oblivious to the open miracles all around them. In fact, when Amalek attacked, their victims were these “nechshalim” (“stragglers”) (Devarim 25:18). According to the Maharal (Gevuras H-Shem), the 600,000 is a symbolic number. It represents perfection. The remaining 3550 represent the people lacking in their spiritual perfection. Amalek attacks those very people because they sense their weakness. Haman, too, ignores their contribution because, in his estimation, the G-d of the Jews should not care about them. Indeed, his silver loaves match the contributions of the 600,000. But it was the 1775 shekels of the Jews Haman thought G-d forgot that outmatched Haman’s offering, and effectively rescued the Jews. Incidentally, the gematria for the Hebrew word “kikar” (“loaf”) (20+20+200=240) equals exactly the gematria of Amalek (70+40+30+100).
- On another level, the Rabbeinu Bachya writes that Haman’s 10,000 loaves of silver were meant to counter the power of the Ten Commandments since Haman’s word “eshkol” (“will be weighed out”) can be broken up into “eish” (“fire”) and “kol” (“voice/sound”). Fire and sounds marked the giving of the Ten Commandments (Shemos 19:18-19).
- The Ben Ish Chai writes that the Jews of Achashverosh’s reign, confident that the Temple would be rebuilt, were accruing funds for that purpose. The money they gathered were called adrochanya, worth two shekel. 600,000 representative number of Jews gathering these 800 loaves for the twelve years of Achashverosh’s reign would be 9600 loaves of silver, 400 less than Haman’s. This is why the Jews needed from that Nisan to the next Adar to gather 800 more loaves. This totaled 10,400. The additional 400 represent the 400 men who came with Eisav when he met up with Yaakov (Bereishis 33:1). According to Kabbalistic literature, this number thus represents 400 forces of impurity. This extra number of loaves overpower Haman – descendant of Eisav.
- The Steipler Gaon asks why this number has to match at all. After all, Haman is evil, and the charity given by the Jews is pure. When Yaakov met up with Eisav, he told him he had lived with Lavan (Bereishis 32:5) as a sign of humility. He was saying that he lived with Lavan, but did not learn from him (see Rashi there). What could Yaakov learn from the evil Lavan? Enthusiasm. Yaakov should have learned to perform mitzvos with the same enthusiasm with which Lavan sinned. The Steipler says that the Jews’ gifts need to match up mathematically with Haman’s offer because the Jews, too, need to match his enthusiasm for hate in order to overpower it. In short, as is true in various areas of Jewish philosophy, R’ Gedalya Schorr brings up that there needs to be a certain amount of good to balance out the bad, a concept known as “zeh l’umas zeh” (“this instead of this”, a phrase borrowed from Koheles 7:14). One could imagine spirituality as a bottle. This bottle is always full. Like all other things in nature, spirituality abhors a vacuum. So, if there is less holiness in that bottle, evil will take up that space so that the bottle is complete. The same zeh l’umas zeh dichotomy exists in all areas of life – love and hate, beauty and ugliness, kindness and meanness, etc.2
1 Otherwise, why does the text mention Achashverosh’s party lasting for 180 days? Why does the text mention the day of the party on which Vashti was killed? Why does the text mention the number of Achashverosh’s officers? Why does the text name and number certain months? Why does the text mention the number of Haman’s sons)? Why does the text mention the number of Persians killed by the Yehudim?
2This idea helps explain why prophecy ended when H-Shem fulfilled the Rabbis’ prayer to remove the desire for idol worship from the world (Talmud, Yoma 69b). Prophecy and idol worship, after all, are just different sides of the same coin.