The Historical Framework of Megillat Esther
Based on a shiur delivered in Adar 5752 .
Translated by David Silverberg
A grave injustice is done to Megillat Esther when it is portrayed as one big satire. An in-depth analysis of the Megilla reveals its profundity as well as many practical ramifications. As humorous as some of its images may be, the latent messages are rich in meaning and significance.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND TO THE MEGILLA
Identifying the historical context of Megillat Esther will help us better understand the flow of events. Towards the beginning of the Megilla, we encounter a well-known verse that makes reference to the exile of King Yehoyachin at the hands of the Bablylonians: "There lived a Jew… who had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with Yechonya [an alternate name for Yehoyachin], the king of Judah" (Esther 2:5-6). This is the earliest date mentioned throughout the Megilla. It seems that the one exiled along with Yehoyachin was not Mordechai himself, but rather his great-grandfather, Kish: "There lived a Jew… by the name of Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish the Benjaminite, who had been exiled…"
This exile of Yehoyachin occurred eleven years prior to the destruction of the first Temple, whereupon Benei Yisrael were driven to Babylonia. With the declaration of the Persian king Koresh (Cyrus) allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile could have effectively ended. As we know, however, only a minority of the nation - and not necessarily those of the upper classes - heeded the call to return. The number of returnees was small, and, correspondingly, so was the level of activity in Eretz Yisrael upon their arrival. For good reason, the halakha requires that cities fortified specifically from the time of Yehoshua (the original conquest of Eretz Yisrael) read the Megilla on the fifteenth, and not those fortified since the early Second Temple era, when the story of Esther actually took place. The situation of the Land of Israel at that time was woeful. As we know from Ezra and Nechemia, even the wall fortifying the city of Jerusalem hardly served as a sturdy fortress.
As detailed in the books of Ezra and Nechemia, four waves of Jews returned from Babylonia after Koresh's proclamation, under the leadership of: Sheshbatzar; Yehoshua the High Priest and Zerubavel; Ezra; and Nechemia. The book of Ezra (chapter 4) also delineates the dynasty of the Persian monarchy, mentioning four kings: Koresh, Daryavesh, Achashverosh and Artachshasta. The text provides no information at all regarding the relevant dates or chronology of Koresh's reign, but it does tell us that the Jews dedicated the Second Temple in the sixth of year of Daryavesh's reign.
As the books of Ezra and Nechemia describe, during the period of Achashverosh's reign the situation in Eretz Yisrael was grim. The small handful of Jews that populated the Land faced many different types of problems - spiritual, security-related, economic and social. Intermarriage became rampant and the people sensed an apparent lack of religious leadership. Ezra, who migrated to Eretz Yisrael towards the beginning of Artachshasta's reign, offered suggestions and attempted to ameliorate the situation, meeting with only limited success.
This is the historical framework of the period. During the reign of Achashverosh, the vast majority of the Jewish people still lived in exile. The hopes for the complete redemption of Israel, as prophesied by Yirmiyahu, Yeshayahu, Hoshea, Amos, Yechezkel, Mikha, Chagai and Zekharya, were to have been realized through the Second Temple. Primarily because of the fact that most of the nation simply did not return to Jerusalem, this did not occur. The prophecies were not fulfilled during the Second Temple period; the house spoken of by Yechezkel remained far from reality.
In the second section of Sefer HaKuzari, the Chaver (Jewish sage) tells the Khazar king:
Alas, you have discovered my shame, King of the Khazars! Indeed, this was a sin on account of which the destiny that God had planned for the Second Temple - "Shout for joy, fair Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst, declares God" - was not fulfilled. Godliness was to have rested upon the people as it had originally, had they answered the call and willingly returned to the Land of Israel. But only a small portion answered, while the majority - and the distinguished among them! - remained in Babylonia, preferring to remain in exile under foreign rule rather than take leave of their residences and businesses...
In the end, only a portion of the nation answered [the call to return], and not even wholeheartedly. God therefore repaid them in accordance with the thoughts of their hearts, and the divine promises were fulfilled for them in limited measure, in proportion to their minimal level of awakening. For Godliness rests upon an individual only in proportion to his preparation…
Officially, if you will, Jewish history places the Babylonian exile in between the destruction of the First Temple and Cyrus' proclamation - a period of seventy years. In actuality, however, the exile continued much longer, as the majority of the nation remained in the Diaspora. From the listings recorded in Ezra (chapter 2) and Nechemia (chapter 9), it emerges that only 42,500 Jews returned to Eretz Yisrael. The vast majority of the nation, including the wealthy and prominent, remained behind in exile. The returnees resettled Jerusalem, built an altar and thereafter a Temple, and served God by offering sacrifices. Cyrus and subsequent Persian rulers allowed any Jew emigration rights to Eretz Yisrael and other privileges. Yet, Am Yisrael remained in exile!
This is the overall framework within which the story of the Megilla unfolds.
The question arises: Why do the books of Ezra/Nechemia and Megillat Esther seem to completely ignore one another? Why does Megillat Esther speak not a word of what went on in Eretz Yisrael at the same time, as described by Ezra and Nechemia? And conversely, why do the books of Ezra and Nechemia mention nothing of the remarkable incidents recorded in Megillat Esther, which occurred concurrently?
The approach presented here will suggest an answer to this question, though many other possibilities, of course, can also be raised.
THE TIMEFRAME OF THE MEGILLA ITSELF
Let us first check what actually takes place in the Megilla itself, extracting the relevant information and then analyzing its significance.
Chapter 1 deals with the third year of Achashverosh's reign, specifically the six-month royal feast.
Chapter 2 opens, "It was after these things," an expression generally denoting the passage of a substantial period of time. This chapter describes the selection of Esther to replace Vashti, dating her ascent to royalty in the seventh year of Achashverosh's reign. Verse 12 tells us that she required a full year to prepare herself for the king. It stands to reason that in Achashverosh's sixth year, or perhaps even the fifth, Esther had already begun her preparations and no longer lived at home.
Chapter 3 also opens, "It was after these things" - again indicating the passage of a significant duration of time, and presents Haman's rise to power. Verse 7 records that in the twelfth year of Achashverosh's reign Haman planned to exterminate the Jewish community. In verse 12, the royal scribes are summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month (Nissan). The first messengers are dispatched that same day, to bring the news of the royal decree to the entire kingdom.
Chapter 4 reminds us that from the time Esther was taken from her home, Mordechai continued to guide and instruct her. This went on from the sixth year of Achashverosh's reign (when Esther left home) to at least the twelfth year (when Haman issued the extermination decree). Throughout this period, at Mordechai's behest, Esthconcealed her true nationality. Upon hearing Haman's edicts, Mordechai implores Esther to intercede on behalf of the Jewish community. When Esther refuses out of fear for her life, Mordechai insists that she act, for if not, "Relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father's house will perish" (Esther 4:14). This "other place" seems to be the Megilla's subtle allusion to the Jews' salvation by the Hand of God.
Suspecting that Esther is now turning her back on her nation, Mordechai chastises and pressures her, concluding, "And who knows, perhaps you have attained royalty for just such a crisis." Did six years of separation from a Jewish home do their job on the young, impressionable queen? In any event, at Esther's command the Jews of Shushan fast for three days - the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth of Nissan. As the Gemara (Megilla 15) comments, Mordechai instituted that the people fast even on the first day of Pesach, when fasting would normally be forbidden.
Chapter 5: Planning to ignite tension and conflict between the king and Haman, Esther invites the two to a private feast. The king becomes suspicious and arrives at the feast feeling tense and uneasy. So as to increase the tension, Esther invites the two to another banquet on the following day.
Chapter 6: "That night, sleep deserted the king." Unable to put his mind to rest, Achashverosh requests that the annals of the kingdom be read to him, specifically incidents involving attempted insurrection against the incumbent leadership. Clearly, he senses a threat to his kingdom. The historians tell him of various power struggles within the aristocracy, and the incident of Bigtan and Teresh catches his attention. Herein he finds the origins of the impending revolt. Putting the pieces together, the king surmises that Haman plans to take Esther for himself and thus establish control over the entire empire. (Jewish history itself has ample precedent for this tactic: Adonia, Avshalom, Ishboshet, Ritzpa, and others took the previous king's wives or concubines to themselves.) On the seventeenth of Nissan, Esther hears the parade outside, heralding the sudden about-face of royal policy. That night, at the second banquet, Esther reveals to the king the truth about Haman.
Chapter 7: Achashevrosh is stunned; Haman falls on Esther's couch to plead with her. All this occurs on the seventeenth of Nissan, and right then, on Chol Ha-moed Pesach, Haman is hanged.
Chapter 8: The king transfers Haman's authority to Mordechai, and Esther requests the annulment of Haman's decree. Recall that the handful of Jews living in Judea were also included in the Persian Empire. As such, the implementation of Haman's decree would involve their deaths, as well.
Not until the twenty-third of Sivan - over two months later - was the edict issued allowing the Jews to arm themselves. The original decree of Haman could not be revoked, "for an edict that has been written in the king's name and sealed with the king's signet may not be revoked." Apparently, this two-month period was required for the military organization effort. The Jews needed time to see how they would prepare themselves, and to identify Haman's cohorts who plan on carrying out his decree.
Chapter 9: The Jews defeat their enemies.
Chapter 10: Short conclusion.
THE BOOK OF EXILE
After reviewing the structure of the Megilla, one glaring question emerges: What is the purpose of the first two chapters? Chapters 3-10 clearly form the central body of the story. The background to the story - the unseating of Vashti and the ascent of Esther to the throne - could easily have been summarized in several verses. Why all the detail?
Chazal explain that these chapters inform us of the religious lifestyle of that generation. The Megilla wants us to see the wicked king's feast, in which the Jewish community participated and were therefore punished. They were capable of living comfortably among the gentiles, to the point where the empire could even have a Jewish queen! Rather than moving to Eretz Yisrael, the Jews sit content, preferring the good life in Persia.
The mutual silence between Ezra/Nechemia and Megillat Esther signifies the rift that had developed in that time between the two Jewish centers - Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. They have virtually nothing to do with one another; they maintain no contact whatsoever. A handful of committed Jews live in the land and work towards the actualization of the prophecies of redemption, while the majority of the nation enjoys the luxuries of the debauched king's feast.
Megillat Esther, then, is the book of the exiles, which expresses the dangers latent in an exilic existence. Everything appears so good until the moment of crisis, when the solution presented is to kill the Jews. Even after the period of the Megilla, not too many Persian Jews migrated to Israel. This reminds us of the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition, when only a handful headed towards to Eretz Yisrael, while the majority dispersed throughout other countries. The same occurred in more recent times - after the Holocaust - and in our own generation - during the emigration of Soviet Jewry.
Perhaps the most tragic historical parallel to the Megilla is the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration, which granted Jews permission to move to the Land of Israel. Lamentably, the majority preferred the Diaspora. The situation in Israel was indeed grim and discouraging, but imagine what a giant step could have been taken towards our ultimate redemption were millions of Jews to have emigrated to Palestine before the Holocaust; how many Jews would have been saved from annihilation!
TWO FINAL OBSERVATIONS
We now turn our attention to the king in the Megilla. Achashverosh is typical of many kings in the ancient world. They exercised unlimited power over their subjects and their subjets' property. Like Pharaoh, the king effectively became the nation's god. This image of a king forms the antithesis of the Jewish king, who must submit himself to the Kingdom of Heaven, to the Divine Will. Like many before him, King Achashverosh turned himself into a god.
This brings us to the popular [inverse] parallel between Purim and Yom Kippur. While the later signifies the recognition of God's supremacy, the Jews of the Purim story initially gave their allegiance to a human king. The Holy of Holies was replaced by the inner chamber of the Persian king's palace.
From here we turn to the ethical perspective of the Megilla. What would have happened if not for the miraculous reversal of fortune that saved Benei Yisrael? Unquestionably, the massacre would have been carried out to completion, just as Jews have been martyred so many times in the past. After Haman's execution, Mordechai issues an ordinance allowing the Jews to defend themselves: "He had them written in the name of King Achashverosh… to this effect: The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions." The Jews were granted the permission to determine who the threatening enemies were and deal with them accordingly.
The letters reached every community throughout the empire and generated "joy, feasts and a holiday" among the Jews. Additionally, "many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them." Suddenly, it became worthwhile to be Jewish. On the thirteenth of Adar, the Jews assembled throughout the empire to wage war against their foes. However, they didn't plunder indiscriminately; they isolated specific targets and identified enemy posts. They located the heads of the organizations that plotted against them and those responsible for the plan to annihilate the Jewish people. During the time that passed in between the initial decree and the new ordinance, the Jews successfully identified their enemies and were adequately prepared for war.
In Esther 9:5, the Jews "struck at all their enemies;" in Esther 9:6, the Jews of Shushan "killed a total of five hundred men." Let us recall the royal edict given to the Jews: "If any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions." However, the verses detailing the actual combat make no mention of the "women and children." What more, "they did not lay hands on the spoil." Did the chief rabbi or some other person of authority order the people not to touch the spoils? We find no indication to this effect. Yet the Jewish armed forces dealt only with those whom they needed to, without capitalizing upon the situation for personal gain. The royal decree specifically allowed for the "plundering of their possessions," but the Jews had no interest in that which was not theirs. It was not enough to secure a physical victory over their enemies; a moral victory was also necessary, reflecting their status as "a singular nation ... whose statutes differ from those of all other nations."