The Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Purim
Siyum on the Completion of Tractate Megillah
May 23, 2010
My journey into Talmud began with a business trip to New York several years ago. On my way in from the airport, I stopped in Flatbush at the home of a friend, Joseph Weiss. Joe showed me around his home library and took down a volume of the 73-volume ArtScroll translation of the Babylonian Talmud. To pique my interest, Joe asked: “what was the relationship between Mordechai and Esther?” Confident, I answered: “uncle and niece.” “Wrong,” he said: “husband and wife. It’s in Tractate Megillah.” Then off we went to eat corned beef (not lean).
Later that night in my hotel room, I hooked up my computer and IM’ed Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman. Me: “What was the relationship between Mordechai and Esther?” Him: “Husband and wife.”
I was hooked.
Some months later, Rabbi Feldman suggested that we learn Talmud together. Still skeptical about the whole Mordechai/Esther thing, I agreed. Thus began a journey that I wish had begun decades before.
Our first stop was Tractate Megillah: the laws and customs of Purim. In the classic Vilna edition of the Talmud, 59 pages. In the ArtScroll translation, 525 pages, including priceless commentaries and explanations.
Our gathering today to mark my completion of the tractate is known as a “siyum,” or celebration. Since most of us have a base of knowledge about the Purim story, I thought you might enjoy learning the top ten things you didn’t know about Purim.
Number 1, as you might guess from my introduction to Tractate Megillah, is the relationship between Mordechai and Esther. Most of us learned that Mordechai was Esther’s uncle, adopting her after the death of her parents. It is true that they were related by blood. But what the Megillah (and your Sunday School teacher) did not say is that they had become husband and wife. The Talmud is clear beyond peradventure on this, in Megillah 13a. So is one of the preeminent commentators, Rashi. Indeed, much of the later structure of the Megillah only makes sense in light of the marital relationship between the two.
Why doesn’t the Megillah say explicitly that Mordechai and Esther were married? One theory is as follows: the Megillah was written while Achashverosh was still alive. Had it disclosed openly that Esther had been married to Mordechai, Achashverosh would have been been disgraced and might have turned against the Jews again.
Number 2, why such a big banquet? The Megillah opens with a detailed recitation of the extent and duration of Achashverosh’s drunken festivities. What was the reason for this party? The answer is that Achashverosh was celebrating the failure of the prophet Jeremiah’s prophecy that the Jews would be returned from the Babylonian exile after 70 years. As a lawyer might put it, the question was when the statute of limitations began to run.
Achashverosh’s predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar (actually, Vashti’s grandfather), had destroyed King Solomon’s Temple and sent the Jews into exile in the year 3338. Jeremiah had prophesied that the Jews would return from exile after 70 years. Notwithstanding their overwhelming military prowess, the Persians were worried about this prophecy, and they kept close watch over the dates.
Achashverosh’s predecessor, Belshazzar, had thought that the 70 years had run in the year 3389. To celebrate, he threw his own bash, using the silver goblets from the Temple to serve the libations. Turns out he counted wrong: he dated the 70 years from Nebuchadnezzar’s accession to the throne, not from the exile. He was killed within days.
Achashverosh thought that he was a better counter than Belshazzar. He calculated the 70-year period from the exile of the leading scholars from Judea. Thus, when the year 3394 rolled around, Achashverosh thought that the coast was clear. He held his drunken feast to celebrate the failure of the Jews to be restored to Jerusalem. Like his role model, Belshazzar, Achashverosh profaned the vessels looted from the Temple to serve his guests.
By the way, Achashverosh got the date wrong, too. He was off by three years.
Number 3: Vashti is not a feminist role model. It pains me each year, during the reading of the Megillah, when congregants respond to Vashti’s refusal to appear before the King’s drinking buddies with a sotto voce “you go, girl.” Many of you know that, when Achashverosh summoned her to appear “wearing her crown,” he was being quite the literalist: i.e., wearing only her crown. (This followed a lengthy debate among the drunken courtiers about which women were hotter, Persians or Medes.) Contrary to popular misconception, it was neither Vashti’s modesty nor her proto-feminism that led her to ignore the royal summons. Rather, it was her skin. At the time Achashverosh summoned her in the nude, Vashti was stricken with a divine illness known as “tzaaras,” often loosely translated as leprosy. She was unwilling to appear before the King and his cohort looking so vile.
The reason for the outbreak may help further dispel the myth of Vashti the Good. Vashti was, in her own right, a great hater of the Jews. Whereas a previous king, Cyrus, had allowed the Jews to return to rebuild the Temple, Vashti harangued Achashverosh until he halted the incipient construction. Moreover, Vashti chose as her maids young Jewish women. She forced them to work on the Sabbath cleaning her quarters. To increase their misery, Vashti forced them to do so in the nude. Thus, when she herself was summoned by Achashverosh to appear naked, the divine retribution was a severe skin condition that marred her legendary beauty.
By the way, it was Vashti who was of royal blood, not Achashverosh. She was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar. Achashverosh, as Vashti never tired of reminding him, was “the stable boy of my father.” [Megillah, 12b]
Number 4: drunken, stupid Achashverosh was goaded into executing Vashti for being a no-show. Who could have persuaded him to do so? None other than our boy Haman. The Megillah recounts that it was Memuchan who persuaded the king that great punishment was required, or else order would break down throughout the Empire. Memuchan persuaded the King not only to execute Vashti, but also to issue a proclamation ordering all Persian women to obey their men. The Talmud informs us that this Memuchan was none other than Haman -- at the time, relatively low in the ranks of courtiers. Haman used these events to catapult himself into a position of political power on the back of Vashti.
As an aside, Achashverosh’s absurd proclamation on marital submissiveness -- like much else in the Purim narrative -- ultimately redounded to the benefit of the Jews. The proclamation was so foolish on its face that when the next proclamation came thundering into town -- the one about killing all the Jews in one year -- subjects throughout the Kingdom took it with a grain of salt, instead of jumping the gun and launching the pogrom at once.
Number 5: Achashverosh did not need to be bribed to exterminate the Jews; he was happy to do it for free. The Megillah mentions that Haman offered to pay Achashverosh 10,000 talents of silver in exchange for allowing him to exterminate the Jews. The Talmud amplifies on this, in a lengthy dialogue that captures the rationale for anti-Semitism throughout the ages. “Their laws are different from all the other nations. For they do not eat from our food and they do not marry our women and they do not marry their women to us. And they do not observe the king’s law, for they waste the whole year, avoiding the king’s work, with the excuse: Today is the Sabbath or today is Passover.” [Megillah 13b] To seal the deal, Haman offers to make up for the economic loss that would be caused by destroying the Jews. In response, Achashverosh says: “keep the money.” He is content to sanction the genocide on its own merit, without need of a gratuity.
Number 6: By consenting to approach Achashverosh without a royal invitation, Esther was ending her marital relationship with Mordechai. You are familiar with the passage in the Megillah in which Mordechai implores Esther to approach the King for help, to which she responds that doing so without being summoned will result in her death. But the Talmud elucidates an even sadder consequence of this action: she could no longer be Mordechai’s wife. Although Esther had previously had relations with the King, those were coerced: she had been seized from her home and imprisoned in the harem; each intimate interlude was forced. Now, for the first time, she was going to him of her own volition. Both Esther and Mordechai realized that this would end their marriage. As Esther says to Mordechai: “And if I am lost, I am lost. This means: Just as I am lost from my father’s house, so too shall I be lost from you.” [Megillah 15a]
Number 7: Purim is remarkable because it marks the Jewish people’s second -- and arguably greater -- acceptance of Torah. We all know that the Jews accepted the Torah and the covenant from Moses at Mount Sinai. The commentators note that this initial acceptance was not entirely free of doubt: Mount Sinai was suspended above them at the time, and could come crashing down on the Israelites if they demurred. At the time of the Megillah, the Jews again embraced the Torah. When Esther agreed to approach the King, she asked that the Jews fast and pray for three days. It was during this time that the Jewish community in exile -- which had strayed from its religious heritage -- returned to it and re-embraced the covenant and Torah.
Number 8: You can’t please everyone. After Esther intervened with Achashverosh, and the whole couch scene with Haman, the Jews were saved, and Mordechai became prime minister. Happy ending, right? Curiously, the Megillah says: “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Achashverosh; he was a great man among the Jews, and popular with the multitude of his brethren.” [Esther X:3] The Talmud expounds on this, saying that the leaders of the Jewish Community -- the Sanhedrin -- were displeased with Mordechai’s new role, because it took him away from the study of Torah. As the Gemara says: “The study of Torah is greater than saving lives.” [Megillah 16b] But it goes on to qualify that statement: Mordechai was justified in diverting his attention from Torah to avert Haman’s massacre. But after the events of Purim, he was not justified in accepting a high government position to protect the Jews against future threats.
Number 9: We owe the existence of the Book of Esther to: Esther. She submitted the following request to the Sages in the second year following the miracle: “Establish me for all generations. [Megillah 7a] The Rabbis objected, saying “You will incite the wrath of the nations against us, for they will say that we rejoice at the remembrance of their downfall.” She responded: “I am already written in the chronicles of the Kings of Persia and Media.” She prevailed.
Number 10: As is often the case in Jewish history, bad leads to good. We cannot understate the horror of Esther’s captivity, rape, and separation from her husband and her community. Fortunately, it was not for naught. Apart from preventing Haman’s genocide, Esther also conceived a son from Achashverosh, named Darius. It was he who in 3408 allowed the Jews to leave Persia and return to Israel. The parallel in our own time is to the State of Israel arising out of the ashes of the Holocaust.
So, as Paul Harvey would say, now you know “the rest of the story.” A cynic might close by pointing to the final chapter of the Megillah, which recites all the taxes that Achashverosh imposed on his subjects, and concluding that, indeed, you can avoid death but not taxes.
I prefer, however, to end on a more personal note. I wish to extend deep thanks to the following people: to Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, who with his partner, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, has enabled Hebrew illiterates like me to study Talmud, Rashi, and much more with the ArtScroll library; to Joe Weiss, for showing off to me his Bibloteca Judaica; and to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, for becoming my Talmud guide and chaver.