The Exchange of Letters at the End of Megillat Esther

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

Megillat Esther and the festival of Purim presented a major challenge for the Men of the Great Assembly. The debate over the megilla and over the festival is documented, in part, at the end of the megilla itself.

 

The story of the Megilla ends in chapter 9, verse 18. From verse 19 onwards, the text records Purim customs and the acceptance and observance of the festival via an exchange of letters between Shushan and Eretz Yisrael (apparently), sent over a considerable period of time (one or two generations). My intention here is to describe this process, on the basis of my understanding of the closing verses of the megilla.

 

1. The record of the popular custom of the observance of Purim is recorded in the context of a letter that was sent from Eretz Yisrael:

 

Therefore the outlying Jews (ha-perazim) who dwelled in the outlying towns observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar with joy and feasting and a holiday, and the sending of portions from one person to another. (9:19)

 

“(The) outlying Jews who dwelled in the outlying towns” is an unfamiliar expression that is in no way connected with the story of the megilla. It would seem to originate in Eretz Yisrael, where this distinction between “outlying towns” and towns surrounded by walls had both halakhic significance (see mishna Arakhin, end of chapter 9, and Bavli 32-34)[1] and implications pertaining to socio-economic life. Had this final unit been a natural continuation of the story in the megilla, it would have referred instead to “the Jews who dwell throughout the provinces of King Achashverosh.” We cannot interpret the term “ha-perazim” to mean “dwelling securely, following the victory,” since the term is immediately followed by its definition, to avoid any mistake: “who dwell in the outlying towns.”

 

The text here tells us nothing about the custom of the Jews who were living in walled cities. Perhaps the letter here was shortened. However, it is also possible that the Jews living in the walled cities had not sensed any particular danger; they had regarded themselves as suitably protected, and did not feel any need to celebrate at all.[2]

2. Mordekhai’s reaction to the popular custom: Mordekhai requests a two-day festival instead of a single day, adding emphases on “the month that was turned over” and on “gifts to the poor:”

 

And Mordekhai wrote these things and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Achashverosh, both near and far, to accept upon themselves to observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and the fifteenth day of it, each and every year, commemorating the days on which the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was overturned for them from anguish to joy and from mourning to a holiday, to observe them as days of feasting and joy and the sending of portions to one another, and gifts to the poor. (9:20-22)

 

3. The reaction of the Jewish world: Acceptance of the popular custom together with Mordekhai’s suggestion perhaps came from Eretz Yisrael. It is formulated in the letter that addresses Jews everywhere and explains briefly the background to the establishment of the festival and its name:

 

And the Jews confirmed that which they had begun to do and that which Mordekhai had written to them. For Haman, son of Hamedata the Agagite, adversary of all Jews, had schemed against the Jews to annihilate them, and he had cast a “pur” – a lot – to confound them and to annihilate them. But when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the evil scheme that he had schemed against the Jews should come back onto his own head, and they hanged him and his sons on the gallows. Therefore these days were called “Purim,” commemorating the “pur:” hence all the words of this letter, and what they had seen in this regard, and what had happened to them. (9:23-26)

 

The abbreviated description here is different from the account of the story recorded earlier in the megilla. In the story, the king claims that it is impossible to retract the letters that Haman sent; he merely permits the Jews to defend themselves by dispatching new letters. Likewise, in the megilla, Haman is hanged because he is suspected of having assaulted Esther, and his sons are hanged eleven months later.

 

In the abbreviated description in the letters, no mention is made of Mordekhai or Esther, the festival is not named after them, and the main message of the name “Purim” given to the two days is that it recalls the “pur,” the lot that was cast by Haman and which ultimately turned against him. Similarly, there is no mention of a “yom tov,” a holiday accepted by the Jews; there are only “these days” which are called “Purim.”

 

This represents clear evidence of the controversy between Shushan and Eretz Yisrael concerning the very idea of adding a new “yom tov[3] into the calendar, since the festivals represent a fundamental body of laws in the Divinely-given Torah.

 

4. Acceptance of the days of Purim for future generations:

 

The Jews confirmed and accepted upon themselves and upon their descendants, and all those who were joined to them, that they would not cease to observe these two days, as written and at their appointed time, each and every year. And these days were remembered and observed in every generation, in every family, in every province, and in every city. And these days of Purim will not case from among the Jews, nor will their memory leave their descendants. (9:27-28)

 

This letter speaks about future generations; it reinforces the status of the days of Purim and establishes them for all future generations, obligating the Jews of future generations, as well as future converts (“those who were joined to them”), by virtue of the “acceptance by the Jews,” forever (“would not cease”) as a remembrance for all future generations (“nor will their memory leave their descendants”).

 

It is possible – even probable – that such a letter was written after the passage of some time, perhaps even a generation later. Here again, no mention is made of Mordekhai and Esther. The expression “as written and at their appointed time” (or “at their time”) may be a first hint a different time period, as discussed in the sugya at the beginning of Massekhet Megilla.

 

Once again, no mention is made of “yom tov;” there is only a reference to “these days” – evidence of intensified opposition to the idea of adding a “yom tov” to the festivals listed by the Torah.

 

5. The second letter of Esther (and Mordekhai) seems to have been written by Esther with Mordekhai’s authorization. The description “second” apparently means the second letter to be sent from Shushan, that is, subsequent to the dispatch of Mordekhai’s letter recorded previously. The letters from Eretz Yisrael, or from elsewhere in the Jewish world, do not feature in the Shushan count.

 

This letter has a dual nature: it is directed externally, as an official royal document (dispatched by Queen Esther), and also internally, to the Jews. The internal content speaks of Mordekhai and Esther in the third person, and it may have been written by whoever succeeded Mordekhai in his position as “Minister of Jewish Affairs.” The letter testifies to continued controversy surrounding the festival (“words of peace and truth” are obviously meant to calm the opposition):

 

And Queen Esther, daughter of Avihayil, and (by authority of) Mordekhai the Jew, wrote with full authority to fulfill this second letter of Purim. (9:29)

 

And they sent letters to all of the Jews – to the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Achashverosh – [with] words of peace and truth, to fulfill these days of Purim at their appointed times, as Mordekhai the Jew and Queen Esther had established for them, and as they had accepted upon themselves and upon their descendants – the matter of the fasts and the crying out. (9:30-31)

 

And Esther’s word established these matters of Purim, and it was written in the book. (9:32)

 

Esther’s letter appears to have been written while she was still able to authorize, with a royal stamp of approval, an internal letter sent to the Jews to give royal validity to the days of Purim.

 

The internal letter (verses 30-31) makes mention of Mordekhai and Esther as figures of status, whose introduction of the festival is binding, and it also mentions the establishment of Purim that is binding on their descendants and on future generations. The “words of peace and truth” testify to opposition and controversy, as recorded in rabbinical tradition (Yerushalmi Megilla chapter 1, 3d; Bavli Megilla 14a, 7a). Here, the parties in Shushan agree to define the festival as “these days of Purim,” acceding to the demands emanating from Eretz Yisrael, and finally relinquishing the campaign to define them as “yom tov.” “At their appointed times” hints at the possibility, perhaps born out of the controversy, that everyone would commemorate the festival at his own time; the time for some (those living in the outlying towns) would not be the same as the time for others (those living in walled cities), as reflected in the midrash and in the Talmudic discussion in Megilla.[4]

 

This final letter also introduces a new element by establishing for future generations the “matters of the fasts and their crying out” in memory of the mortal threat and the anguish, along with the commemoration of the salvation and the joy. This was formalized by the Halakha as the Fast of Esther after the destruction of the Second Temple.[5]

 

6. Official reference: Mention is made of Mordekhai the Jew in proximity to the description of the king’s “power and might,” and following the verse, “King Achashverosh placed a tax on the land and on the isles of the sea” (10:1), as being recorded in the royal chronicles of Persia and Media. The brief and sole[6] mention of Mordekhai to appear in the royal chronicle is the final verse of the megilla (recording the official recognition of his status and the validity of his decisions on behalf of the king):

 

For Mordekhai the Jew was second-in-command to King Achashverosh, and great among the Jews, and accepted by his many brethren (rov ehav),[7] seeking the welfare of his people and speaking peace to all of his descendants. (10:3)

 

The citation of this verse from the Persian royal book of chronicles at the end of the megilla is intended to lend added validity to the megilla and to the days of Purim. Hence, it is an integral part of the exchange of letters at the end of the megilla. Indeed, this is how the Sages of Eretz Yisrael understood the process according to the Yerushalmi (Megilla 1:5, 70d), as well as in more general terms in the Bavli (Megilla 7a):

 

Yerushalmi Megilla

Bavli Megilla

Rabbi Simon in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi [said]: It is written, “To fulfill this [second] letter of Purim;” what do we learn from [the word] “second?”

… “As it is written: “To fulfill this second letter of Purim.”

… Rabbi Shmuel bar Yehuda said: At first, they established it in Shushan, and then eventually throughout the world.

 

Rabbi Yirmiyah said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak: What did Mordekhai and Esther do? They wrote a letter and sent it to the Sages, saying to them: Do you accept these two days upon yourselves every year?

They said to them: Do we not have sufficient troubles of our own? You want to add further trouble, relating to Haman, for us, too?!

They wrote them a second letter, concerning which it is written, “To fulfill this second letter of Purim.”

What was written in it? They said to them: If you are fearful of doing this, behold – it is already written and recorded: “Are they not written in the Book of Chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia.”

Rabbi Shmuel bar Yehuda said: Esther sent [messengers] to the Sages, [saying]: Establish me [i.e., the festival] for all generations.

 

 

They sent to her: You are arousing the hatred of the nations against us.

 

 

 

 

She sent to them: I am already written in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Eighty-five elders, among them more than thirty prophets, were anguished over this matter. They said: It is written, “These are the commandments which God commanded Moshe” – these are the commandments that we were commanded by Moshe. Moshe told us: No other prophet in the future can come and tell you new things from now on. And yet Mordekhai and Esther seek to introduce something new for us?

 

Esther sent to the Sages: Write me for future generations. They sent [back] to her: “Have I not written for you, ‘three’ (Mishlei 22:20) – ‘three’ and not ‘four’.”[8]

They did not move from there, continuing to argue the matter until the Holy One, blessed be He, illuminated their eyes and they found [allusions to] it written in the Torah and in the Prophets and in the Writings. As it is written, “God said to Moshe: Write this as a remembrance in a book… [for I shall surely wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens].” “This” – [hints to] Torah, as it is written, “And this is the Torah which Moshe placed before Bnei Yisrael.” “Remembrance” – [hints to] the Prophets [as it is written,]: “And a book of remembrance was written before him, for those who fear God…” “In a book” – this hints to the Writings: “And Esther’s word confirmed these matters of Purim, and it was written in a book.”

Until they found a textual allusion to it in the Torah: “Write it as a remembrance in a book.” “Write it” – that which is written here [concerning the war against Amalek, in Sefer Shemot] and in Sefer Devarim [parashat Zakhor]. “Remembrance” refers to that which is written in the Prophets. “In a book” – refers to that which is written in the megilla.

 

Clearly, according to the Yerushalmi, the “second” letter is the second one to have been written and dispatched from Shushan; we must therefore conclude that the end of the megilla describes at least four letters. It is likewise clear that the end of the megilla is the quotation from the “Chronicles of the Kings of Medea and Persia,” and it is connected to the exchange of letters and the controversy over the acceptance of the festival. Clearly, too, the acceptance of the festival – “the Jews enjoined and accepted…” – came from Eretz Yisrael and from the signatories of the Covenant (the 85 elders) in the generation of Ezra and Nechemia. It was they who willingly accepted the Torah of Moshe, in all situations and in all senses, with absolute commitment.

 

We can therefore understand the assertion of the midrash that what the Jews “enjoined and accepted” refers to the entire Torah,[9] and not just to the megilla and Purim, as a literal reading of the verse. They first accepted upon themselves the Torah, with its renewed endowment of sanctity, and thereafter argued over the megilla until it was accepted.

 

Finally, the Sages emphasize that the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed with the Sages of Eretz Yisrael,[10] and they express this in various ways (as reflected in the above-mentioned parallels in the Yerushalmi); for example, we find in Midrash Ruth Rabba, parasha 4:

 

Three things were decreed by the earthly court, and the heavenly court agreed to them. They are: Asking after someone’s welfare using the Name of God, and Megillat Esther, and the tithes. The tithes – once they were exiled, they were exempt, but they assumed the obligation of their own initiative. What did the Men of the Great Assembly do? They wrote a book and placed it in the courtyard [of the Temple], and they found it signed in the morning, as it is written: “Nevertheless, we forge a Covenant and write, and signed… and those signed…” In one place it says, “signed by” – in the singular, while afterwards it says, “signed by” – in the plural. The singular refers to the heavenly court, while the plural refers to the earthly court.[11]  

 

And in the Bavli we find:

 

Rabbi Eliezer said: Esther was given over through Divine inspiration… Rabbi Akiva said: Esther was given over through Divine inspiration… Rabbi Meir said: Esther was given over through Divine inspiration…

 

Rabbi Yossi, son of Dormaskit, said: Esther was given over through Divine inspiration… Shmuel said: “… They confirmed and accepted” – they confirmed above that which had been accepted below. (Megilla 7a)

 

(Additional articles by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun can be found on his website, ybn.co.il.)

 

 

[1] See Tosafot on Arakhin 89b and the Rambam’s contrasting view in his Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel 12:15. In any event, it is clear from Hillel’s enactment that “outlying towns” and “walled cities” were part of the reality of life during the Second Temple Period (mishna, ibid. 32a), while the reading of the megilla was considered a controversial innovation.

[2] As suggested in Megilla 2b. This distinction, and a generally similar analysis of the end of the megilla is offered by R. Nachman Krochmal, Moreh Nevukhei Ha-Zeman, chapter 11, siman 7. I discovered his discussion on this subject only after formulating my own analysis.

According to the literal text, “the Jews accepted” the observance of Purim – but “accepted” is written in the singular form. We may interpret this to mean that “the Jewish nation accepted” or – as Ibn Ezra suggests – that each and every individual accepted. The midrash teaches that God accepted, on High, that which the Jews had accepted; see Megilla 7a.

[3] The gemara proves this (Megilla 5b) from close scrutiny of these verses, according to Rava’s view. At the same time, the discussion there provides no decisive conclusion as to whether the Jews accepted the “yom tov’ or not. Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, in Eretz Yisrael, planted a sapling on Purim (demonstrating that he did not consider the day a “yom tov”), while Rav, in Babylon, cursed someone who planted flax on Purim (since there it was a “yom tov”), and the plant did not grow. The tension is carried through into Halakha – see Rambam, Hilkhot Megilla 2:14. However, the main emphasis in the mishna and the gemara is placed on the reading of the megilla, rather than on the festival, and the spreading of the reading over a total of five days (starting on the 11th, 12th, and 13th of Adar for villages) in Eretz Yisrael contributed greatly towards this.

[4] Bavli and Yerushalmi, beginning of Massekhet Megilla.

[5] This took place after the annulment of the special status of dates listed in Megillat Ta’anit as days of celebration when fasting and eulogies were forbidden. One such date was the Day of Nikanor, which fell on the 13th of Adar (such that the Fast of Esther could not have been established for that date). See mishna Ta’anit, chapter 2; Yerushalmi Ta’anit chapter 2, halakha 13.

[6] This verse is crafted with great political caution: Mordekhai did not harm anyone, he did not endanger anyone, nor was he responsible for any intrigues. He simply “sought the welfare of his people” and worked for the benefit of the Jews. Therefore, he is suitable for inclusion in this royal book. It is difficult to accept the view of the commentators that such a provocative story – in its entirety or even in part – would have been recorded in some official chronicle; this would have been an even greater miracle than that of Purim!

[7] “Rabbi Yochanan taught: [‘Rov ehav’ – meaning ‘most of his brethren,’] but not all of his brethren, since some members of the Sanhedrin distanced themselves from him” (Bavli Megilla 16b).

[8] Krochmal, in his Moreh Nevukhei Ha-Zeman, chapter 11, interprets this expression in accordance with the decision of the Men of the Great Assembly that the Tanakh includes only three parts – Torah, Prophets, and Writings, and that there is no place for a fourth section including such texts as Megillat Esther, or perhaps even Kohelet (or Shir Ha-Shirim); therefore, some textual support must be found for the megilla in all three parts of the Tanakh.

[9] Shabbat 88a – “Rava said… the generation accepted it in the days of Achashverosh…”

[10] Heavenly approval was especially necessary since this was at a time when prophecy had already been withdrawn and the Tanakh was complete, so that everything depended on the willing earthly acceptance of the generation of the Covenant.

[11] See parallels in Bereishit Rabba, parashat 96, Midrash Tehillim 57:2; Tanchuma Bereishit, Va-Yehi siman 8; Makkot 23b.