BS”D KNOW YOUR BIBLE: Esther 7-8
Study Notes by Avraham ben Yaakov
NOTE: This email contains commentary on FOUR chapters, Esther 7-10. No study emails will be sent tomorrow (March 1, Purim). The next email is scheduled for Friday, March 2 when we will G-d willing resume our studies of the prophets with Tzephaniah chapters 2-3.
ESTHER CHAPTER 7
Seeing Esther invite Haman to her feast with the king had brought the Jews of Shushan to the highest peak of Teshuvah. Previously they believed that in the Jewish queen they had a strong ally in the royal household who might yet save them by asking the king to kill Haman, but here she was inviting their worst enemy to her feast! “At that moment the entire house of Jacob poured out their hearts and trusted only in their Father in Heaven” (Targum Yonasan on Esther 5:14).
Vv 1-2: “So the king and Haman came to drink with Queen Esther. And the king said again to Esther on the second day at the feast of wine, What is your petition… even to half the kingdom?” Targum Yonasan explains here as on Esther 5:6 that when Ahashverosh offered Esther up to half the kingdom, he was explicitly refusing to allow the rebuilding of the Temple, except that in his explanation of the present verse, Yonasan adds that the king said to Esther, “Wait until your son Darius will grow up and inherit the kingdom and that too will be done”.
Vv 3-4: The directness, simplicity and heart-rending pathos of Esther’s plea to the king to save herself and her people from destruction makes this a model that all of us can follow in our prayers to God to redeem Israel.
“…for the oppressor is not concerned about the damage to the king” – “Esther was saying to Ahashverosh, This oppressor [Haman] does not care about any loss to the king! He was jealous of Vashti and killed her, and now he has become jealous of me and wants to kill me!” (Megillah 16a).
By openly identifying with the Jews, Esther finally revealed her origins and people to Ahashverosh for the first time since Mordechai had instructed her not to do so (see Esther 2:20).
V 5: “And the king Ahashverosh said, and he said to Esther the queen…” In this verse the word VAYOMER, “he said” is repeated twice. While the second VAYOMER is directed to Esther, the first VAYOMER is not directed to anyone and is apparently redundant. Thus Rashi (ad loc.) states: “In every place where a verse reads VAYOMER… VAYOMER twice, this is can only be explained through Midrash. The Midrashic teaching that comes out from this verse is that previously Ahashverosh had spoken to her through an intermediary, but now that he knew that she was from a family of kings [Saul] he spoke to her himself directly (see Megillah 16a).
Vv 6-8: With Haman now falling faster and faster, his every move just made things worse. He tried to appeal to Esther, but when the king saw him falling over Esther’s couch he was all the more convinced that Haman was up to no good.
V 9: “And Harvonah, one of the chamberlains, said before the king, Also see the gallows fifty cubits high that Haman made for Mordechai who spoke well for the king…” Harvonah’s timely intervention settled Haman’s fate. Some rabbis said that it was Elijah the prophet who appeared to the king in the guise of one of his chamberlains (see Ibn Ezra on this verse). However the opinion of Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud is that Harvonah had in fact been in on Haman’s conspiracy to have Mordechai hanged but that when he saw that Haman was obviously going down fast he quickly abandoned the sinking ship and changed his colors (Megillah 16a; cf. Targum Sheni on Esther 7:9).
V 10: “And they hanged Haman on the gallows that he prepared for Mordechai…” – “He hewed out a pit and dug it out, and he fell into the ditch which he made” (Psalms 7:16). Similarly, Jethro saw the hand of God’s justice in the way that the Egyptians were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea after having plotted to drown the Hebrew babies in the waters of the river (Exodus 18:11, see Rashi ad loc.)
Verses 3-6: “And Esther spoke once more before the king…” The death of Haman had removed the Jews’ worst persecutor but it did not undo the fact that a few days earlier messengers had been dispatched at top speed to all the provinces of the empire telling all the gentiles to mobilize for the 13th of Adar to exterminate, kill and destroy all the Jews, young and old (Esther 3:12-15). This was why Esther now asked Ahashverosh to revoke the letters Haman had sent out in the name of the king.
Vv 7-8: Ahashverosh replied that this was impossible because “writing that is already written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked”. This was in accordance with a law in the empire of the Medes and Persians that once promulgated, no governmental decree could ever be changed, as we find in Daniel 6:16, where even Darius king of Medea was unable to intervene to save his favorite Daniel from the decree made by his ministers’ to kill anyone found worshipping any other god besides the king. Our present text also alludes to the impossibility of changing even a single word or letter of the Torah.
Nevertheless, Ahashverosh now gave Mordechai and Esther permission to promulgate a new decree in the name of the king that would not revoke the previous decree but would allow the Jews to stand up against their enemies on D-Day, the 13th of Adar, and do to them exactly what they sought to do to the Jews.
V 10: “…and he sent letters in the hand of couriers on horseback riding on the swift horses used in the royal service bred from the stud mares.” The phrase “used in the royal service bred from the stud mares” is a translator’s device to find an intelligible rendering for the Hebrew/Persian words HA-AHASHTRANIM B’NEY HARAMACHIM, whose exact meaning is not known. Targum renders HA-AHAHSTRANIM as ARTOULYONEY, which has the connotation of “naked” and apparently refers to the riders, who were stripped to the minimum gear necessary in order to be able to travel at top speed. Targum explains that the runners had their spleens removed and that the soles of their feet were arched so that only their toes touched the ground. Using couriers of this kind was the only way to communicate at high speed across a vast empire in the days before phones, faxes, Internet and satellite technology.
V 11: The king permitted the Jews not only to defend themselves and kill and destroy their enemies [which the United Nations and Israel’s “allies” still do not allow until today] but also authorized them “…to plunder their goods”. The last provision was exactly parallel to the provision made in Haman’s letters that the enemies were to plunder the Jews (Esther 3:13). However, when it came to it, the Jews did NOT plunder their enemies (Esther 9:10), thereby showing everyone that they did not do what they did for monetary gain (Rashi on Esther 8:11).
Vv 15-16 are two of the four “Verses of Redemption” (together with Esther 2:5 and 10:3) that are read out aloud, each in its proper place, by all the congregation during the public reading of the Megillah prior to their being read out of the scroll by the BAAL KOREI (“reader”; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 690:17).
“The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor.” – “Light” is Torah; “Gladness” is YOM TOV, festive celebration; “Joy” refers to circumcision, while “honor” refers to Tefilin (Megillah 16b).
V 17: “And many of the people of the land became Jews…” Seeing the hand of God in the miracle performed for the Jews convinced them to become converts.
ESTHER CHAPTER 9
Verse 1: “…and it was turned to the contrary…” Through the grace of Heaven and in the merit of the patriarchs (Targum), in the Purim miracle, everything was turned around diametrically opposite to the way it all seemed at first. For this reason, the celebration of Purim every year on the anniversary of the miracle is also characterized by turning everything around, such as by wearing disguises, joking and upsetting many of the social conventions that govern normal everyday life (as long as this does not turn nasty in any way).
Vv 2: On the very day that had been designated by Haman’s lot for the destruction of the Jews and what he hoped would be the death of their faith, they suddenly staged a one-day national Intifada against their enemies throughout the Persian empire, with complete success. Not only was this Jewish Intifada accomplished without the international chorus of condemnations, UN resolutions, sanctions etc. etc. that follow any genuine act of Jewish self-defense today; it was actually carried out with the full support of the Persian imperial governmental apparatus.
V 4: “For Mordechai was great in the king’s house…” This depiction of Mordechai’s greatness is reminiscent of the description of Moses’ greatness in Egypt, “for the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people” (Exodus 11:3).
Vv 5-18: Following the general account of the Purim miracle in the previous verses, the text now details (1) how the Jews rose up and killed their enemies throughout the Persian empire on the 13th Adar and rested and celebrated on the 14th;(2) what they did in Shushan the capital, where they needed a second day to complete the work and only rested on the 15th Adar. This narrative completes the story of the Purim miracle and also explains the reason why Purim is celebrated throughout the world on 14th Adar except in Shushan and certain other ancient walled cities, where it is celebrated on the 15th, as we read below in vv 19ff.
V 6: “And in Shushan, the capital the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men…” Targum adds that these were all high ranking members of the house of Amalek.
Vv 7-9: In the handwritten parchment scroll of Megillath Esther it is obligatory to write the Hebrew word ISH at the end of verse 6 and the names of the ten sons of Haman who were killed one under the other, each at the beginning of a new line, while the ten occurrences of VE-ETH are written one under the other at the end of each line. Each name is thus separated by a wide space from the VE-ETH that follows it at the end of the line. This way of writing the names is identical to the way the names of the 31 defeated kings of Canaan are written in the parchment scroll in Joshua 12:9-24. Separating the words with wide spaces is also how SHIRAH, “song”, is written, as in the case of Israel’s song after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus ch 15) and the Song of Deborah (Judges ch 5). However in SHIRAH, the first, third and fifth lines etc. are written with one word at the beginning, middle and end of each line, while the second, fourth and sixth lines etc. have only two words each of which is positioned where the spaces between the words appear in the lines above and below them. This arrangement of the text of SHIRAH has the appearance of a solid brick wall. However, in the case of the names of the kings of Canaan and the sons of Haman, nothing is written in the middle of each line. This signifies that there is nothing to support the entire structure from collapsing and that once it has collapsed it can never stand up again (Megillah 16b).
Vv 11-15: King Ahashverosh appears to have been anxious to monitor what was going on in his kingdom, but through the hand of Heaven he did not try to interfere, and when Esther explained that in Shushan more time was needed to complete the work, he gave the green light to go ahead. In verses 6ff the text only said that the sons of Haman were killed. Now in verse 13 Esther requested that their corpses should be strung up on the tree-gallows Haman had made. This was doubtless in order to strike fear into the hearts of the Jews’ enemies. Targum Sheni on Esther 9:23 explains what made Esther violate the Torah prohibition against leaving the corpse of an executed criminal hanging from the tree for more than a few moments before nightfall (Deut. 21:23). “Esther answered and said to them, Because King Saul killed the Gibeonite converts, his sons were hanged for six months (II Samuel 21:8ff). If this was done because their father killed Gibeonite converts, how much more should Haman and his sons, who wanted to destroy the entire House of Israel, be left hanging forever.”
Targum Yonasan and Targum Sheni on verse 15 both give detailed though slightly different mathematical explanations of exactly how Haman and his ten sons were hung on the fifty cubit tree, one underneath the other, with equal spaces between them. Haman (disunity, separation) had wanted to extirpate Mordechai to the point that he and his people and everything they represented would be completely forgotten. On the other hand, Mordechai and Esther specifically wanted to have Haman and his sons “hung from the tree” – the tree of the Torah – to show that even evil has a place in the creation of the One God and that the ultimate destiny of evil is to hang there dead and completely defeated, to show that God rules over all.
Verse 19ff. Having completed the story of the Purim miracle, the Megillah now explains how Mordechai and Esther instituted the celebration of the festival of Purim the following year and every year forever afterward in order to remember the miracle and give thanks and praise to God for it. The Torah forbids adding to the 613 commandments given in the Five Books of Moses, but the miracle of Purim was outstanding because, without it, there would have been no Jews left in the world to keep the Torah. For this reason, the sages of the generation agreed with Mordechai and Esther in establishing the celebration of Purim not as a new commandment MI-D’ORAISA but as an institution MI-DIVREY SOFRIM. Their initiative in writing and disseminating the Megillah as part of the KESUBIM, “holy writings” in order to explain the reasons for their institution has its foundation in God’s words to Moses after the battle against Amalek: “Write this for a memorial in a book” (Exodus 17:14). The annual Purim exercise in heightening our consciousness of God’s eternal war against Amalek is also an aspect of the Torah commandment, “Remember what Amalek did to you…” (Deuteronomy 25:17ff).
V 20: “And Mordechai wrote these things…” – “This refers to this very Megillah just as we have it” (Rashi). After the Purim miracle, the first step in the institution of the festival was its celebration for the first time one year after the actual miracle.
V 22 refers to the three main Mitzvoth of Purim besides the reading of the Megillah: (1) feasting; (2) sending of two portions of ready-to-eat food to at least one friend and if possible to many more; (3) giving gifts of charity to at least two poor people and preferably to many more.
V 25 on the simple level refers to Ahashverosh’s having given permission in writing (IM HASEPHER) to the Jews to rise up against their enemies to thwart the earlier decree to exterminate them. The phrase IM HASEPHER, “with the book”, is also taken by Targum Sheni as an allusion to the Torah commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens” (Deut. 25:19).
V 26: The festival is called PURIM because everything started with Haman’s casting of the lot – PUR (Esther 3:7). He himself thereby predestined the day of his own destruction. We also see from this verse that Megillath Esther is called an IGERETH (“letter”), from the root AGAR, to “gather” (cf. Proverbs 6:8), since it gathers and puts together all the events that make up the story (Ibn Ezra). However in Esther 9:32 the Megillah is called SEPHER, a “book” or “scroll” from the root SAPER, to recount or relate. The word Megillah is from the root GALAH, “reveal”. As discussed in the commentary on Esther chs 1-2, the light that was revealed through the miracle of Purim derives from the Kabbalistic Partzuf of ABBA, and in this aspect, the Megillah is called SEPHER. However, this light had to spread and be revealed in all the worlds, and in this aspect, the Megillah is called IGERETH, which could loosely be translated as a “broadsheet”. For this reason, it is customary for the reader in the Synagogue to unroll and spread out the entire Megillah before reading it (somewhat as one spreads a newspaper over a table), alluding to the spread of the light of ABBA in all the worlds.
V 27: The acceptance by all the Jews of the injunction to celebrate Purim every year forever was a KABBALAH, an “undertaking” which under the laws of Nedarim (“vows”) applied not only to themselves but also to all their offspring to all the generations. The celebration of Purim is thus binding on every Jew until today.
V 28: “…and these days should be remembered and observed…” We REMEMBER them through the reading of the Megillah on Purim night and morning, and we OBSERVE them through the giving of charity to the poor, sending portions of foods to our friends, and feasting. The Hebrew phrase NIZKARIM VE-NA’ASIM also alludes to the fact that every year during this season the same light that shone in the time of Mordechai and Esther shines all over again and the same events are repeated cyclically though often in a new guise. “…and these days of Purim shall not pass from among the Jews and their memory shall not cease from their seed”. This teaches that Megillath Esther will never become defunct – not even at the end of days. Rabbi Nachman taught that originally all beginnings were traced to the Exodus from Egypt, but he hinted that now all beginnings come from the Purim miracle (Likutey Moharan II:74). As we today watch the rising power of Persia-Iran and her leader’s publicly stated desire to destroy Israel, we should ponder the miracles that God performed for our ancestors in that very country of Persia and trust that if we repent with the same fervor as our ancestors then, God will surely save us from all our enemies and everything will be turned to the contrary!!!
Vv 29ff: After the celebration of the first Purim one year after the actual miracle, Esther and Mordechai established Purim as an annual festival forever after. This is why they wrote “this SECOND letter of Purim”.
V 30: “…words of peace and truth”. Mordechai taught a lesson in effective outreach: start with PEACE and lead to TRUTH.
V 31: “as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed with regard to the fastings and the order of lamentation”. Ibn Ezra points out that after the destruction of the First Temple the Jews took upon themselves the four annual public fast days mourning the breach of the Jerusalem walls and the burning of the Sanctuary (17 Tammuz, 9 Av, 3 Tishri and 10 Tevet, cf. Zechariah 8:19). Having taken upon themselves fasts of mourning, they now took upon themselves to celebrate the great miracle of Purim with eating and drinking.
The Megillah started with Ahashverosh, and he is mentioned here at the end of the unpopular role of imposing taxes on his entire empire. However, Targum Sheni indicates that in recognition of the great miracle performed for them, the Jews were relieved of having to pay these taxes (HALEVAI!!!). However, the leading personality at the end of the Megillah is not Ahashverosh but rather the real hero of the whole story, Mordechai HaYehudi. He was beloved by “most” of his brothers but not all, because, as Ibn Ezra points out (on Esther 10:3), it is impossible for someone to please everyone owing to the natural jealousy that exists even between brothers. Notwithstanding this jealousy, Mordechai was always “seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed”, and thus the Megillah ends with what we all await daily: SHALOM.