Divrei Torah - Book of Esther

Observations on a Book



Administrator and Rabbinical Advisor of B'Ahavat Yisrael

As Jews around the world hale the commencement of the joyous month of Adar and prepare for Ta’anit Esther (Fast of Esther), the fast that ushers in the subsequent Purim holiday, one may wish to reflect on the book in the Holy Scriptures that is at the center of the holiday of Purim that is the source of all the fanfare during this month.

In volume 6, pp. 262-269 of his innovative critical history of the Rabbinic tradition from Biblical times to the Gaonic era in the early Middle Ages, Dorot ha-Rishonim, R. Isaac Halevy (Rabinowitz), scholar and historian of the late 19th century and early 20th century, brings to light certain intriguing observations in the course of refuting critical opinion of his day concerning the Book of Esther.

It has been asked, Halevy notes: If the Book of Esther were written by Mordekhai and Esther and their assistants at the time of the reported events, what is meant by the verse, “And these days are remembered and kept in every generation” (Esther 9:28), which appears to imply an author who postdated the events several generations?  And, it has been wondered, why there is no mention of even one divine name in the Book of Esther?

Halevy, unlike German scholars of his time such as I.H. Weiss, argues that the verses of the Book of Esther itself testify to the time they were written and the manner in which they were composed, thereby supporting the Rabbinic tradition on the matter.

First, Halevy suggests, it is clear from the books of Ezra and Nechemiah that the time of the Book of Esther’s composition and the Men of the Great Assembly (to whom the Sages in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 15a attribute the composition of the Book of Esther) postdated the actual events reported in the Book of Esther.  We know this because the beginning of the era of the Great Assembly was subsequent to Ezra’s and Nechemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, at which time Ezra became the head of this Great Assembly, whose first enactments are recorded in Nechemiah 10.  Indeed, earlier thinkers and researchers agree that the Great Assembly was established while Ezra and Nechemiah were in the Land of Israel and that Ezra was its leader.  Moreover, it is evident from Ezra 4:6-7 that Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes, preceded Artahshasta, also known as Artaxerxes; and, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes’ reign, Ezra left Babylonia (Ezra 7:7-9), and Nechemiah left later in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign (Nechemiah 2:1).  Then, after Nechemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, the Great Assembly was established and began functioning with Nechemiah’s aid.  Consequently, it is clear that the events in the time of Xerxes described in the Book of Esther preceded the founding of the Great Assembly by Ezra and Nehemiah (which is responsible for the final composition of the book).

Second, Halevy argues, upon investigation into the Book of Esther, we see that it is divided into three parts. From the beginning of the book until chapter 9 verse 20 is the essence of the narrative, which concludes: “And the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces convened and defended themselves….On the thirteenth day of the month Adar and on the fourteenth day thereof, they rested and made it a day of feasting and joy…Therefore, the Jews of the villages who dwell in the unwalled towns make the fourteenth of the month Adar a day of joy and feasting, and a holiday, and of sending portions one to another.”  This completes the whole course of events from start to finish.  Subsequently, a passage explains that Mordekhai recorded all these events and proposed that the Jews should accept upon themselves for coming years those acts which they voluntarily initiated.  However, Mordekhai and the scholars of his generation apparently disagreed with the Jews’ treating these days as holidays, on which work is prohibited, in order not to add to the Torah’s words by fixing a holiday not stated therein.  Consequently, we read, “And Mordekhai wrote these things and letters unto all the Jews who were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus [Xerxes], near and far.  To establish among them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and the fifteenth day thereof annually.  As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy and from mourning into a good day that they should make them days of feasting and joy and of sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:20-22).  Therefore, it is explicit that Mordekhai wrote all that is stated until this passage and added “To establish among them that they should keep…,” i.e. that they should accept upon themselves what they had already begun to practice voluntarily, namely to make them days of feasting and joy on an annual basis.  However, Mordekhai and the scholars of his generation did not mention the adoption of a holiday from labor.  They but added to the Jews’ voluntarily initiated practice of sending portions to one another, a proposal that they should adopt the practice of giving “gifts to the poor”.  Afterwards, from chapter 9 verse 23 on, the Men of the Great Assembly, Halevy asserts, interpolated the manner in which the Jews adopted all this: “And the Jews undertook to do as they had begun and as Mordekhai had written unto them….The Jews ordained and accepted upon themselves and their seed and upon all such as joined themselves unto them so as it should not fail that they should keep these two days according to their writing and according to their appointed time every year.  And these days are remembered and kept in every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and then these days of Purim should not fail among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.”  In fact, Halevy argues, until the matter of the people’s acceptance was made public, Esther herself did not join in the writing of the letters.  This was because the generation’s scholars did not want the acceptance of the practices of Purim to be a result of royal authority that she possessed as queen, but, rather, to derive solely from the Jewish people’s own understanding and free will.  For this reason, Esther was not mentioned in connection with the letters until now.  Until now, only Mordekhai is said to be writing.  From hereon, however, after the Jews were informed that they all consented to the aforementioned practices, Esther was able to ascribe her name to this matter by sending the second letter of Purim to inform the Jews of all the various lands in which they resided of the people’s general consent.  The Men of the Great Assembly tell us this in short: “And Esther the queen wrote…along with Mordekhai the Jew with all authority to confirm this second letter of Purim [concerning the Jews’ consent].  And he sent letters to all the Jews, to one hundred and twenty seven provinces of Ahasuerus’ kingdom, words of peace and truth.  To confirm these days of Purim in their times, according as Mordekhai and Esther the queen had enjoined them and as they decreed for themselves and for their seed the matters of the fasting and their cry.”  Then, the Men of the Great Assembly conclude: “And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim and it was written in the book.”

To be sure, Halevy notes, the Men of the Great Assembly spanned a number of generations.  It is, therefore, necessary to demarcate the period in which the Men the of Great Assembly composed the final version of the Book of Esther.  To do this, we need only investigate the very words of the book.  Such an investigation demonstrates that even the end of the book interpolated by the Men of the Great Assembly did not postdate the fall of the Persian empire, for the final words of the book are: “And the king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land and the isles of the sea.  And all the acts of his power and his might…”  Such a conclusion was only pertinent when Jews were under Persian rule, in order to ensure peace within the kingdom and to show that Mordekhai was viceroy to king Xerxes by describing the Persian kings and their greatness in addition to reporting the Jewish victory.  However, after the fall of the Persian empire, it would not be pertinent to conclude the Book of Esther with a description of a Persian king’s powerful acts and his placing a tribute on the isles of the sea.  Consequently, Halevy concludes, the Book of Esther was apparently written in its final version in the early generations of the Men of the Great Assembly.

In light of the above, Halevy continues, we can also comprehend the absence of any name of G-d in the Book of Esther.  As aforementioned, the entire book until chapter 9 verse 23 was originally a letter of Mordekhai to the Jews.  In this vein, it is stated, “And Mordekhai wrote these things and sent letters unto all the Jews…” (Esther 9:20), and later it is stated explicitly, “Therefore, they called these days Purim after the name of Pur, therefore, for all the words of this letter…”  Only at the conclusion of the Book of Esther do we read, “And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim and it was written in the book.”  Originally, however, it just was of the nature of a letter and was, therefore, written like a letter.  Accordingly, when they wrote a second version and added the information concerning the Jews’ consent, they called this the second letter of Purim.  As is well known, it was customary not to write the name of G-d (which is forbidden to be erased) anywhere other than in a book which is of a permanent character.  They apparently also heeded this custom when Mordekhai originally sent this letter to all the Jews.  Consequently, afterwards too, when “the decree of Esther confirmed the matters of Purim and it was written in the book,” they did not deviate at all from the wordage of the letter that Mordekhai originally wrote concerning all the events of Purim.

Thereby, in the course of his analysis, R. Isaac Halevy manages to resolve the major difficulties related to the Biblical Book of Esther, as well as defuse the criticism of those who doubt the authority of the Holy Scriptures.  May the entire Jewish people, like R. Isaac Halevy, with the help of clear minds and proper thought and analysis, understand and respect the entire message of the Book of Esther and the consequent holiday of Purim and thereby merit to gain the full and proper joy at this very joyous period on the Jewish calendar.


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