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Is the Book of Esther—a Story Told in Human Terms, Not Miracles—a Holy Book?

Talmudic rabbis, like us, can only study the course of history for the elusive signs of God’s intentions

Adam Kirsch
July 22, 2014
(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photo from Library of Congress)

Literary criticAdam Kirschis readinga page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

This week, Daf Yomi readers began a new tractate, Megilla, which deals with the holiday of Purim—the day on which we read the Megilla or Scroll of Esther. And in Megillat 7a, we learned a surprising fact about that scroll: “Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: The book of Esther does not render the hands ritually impure.” All the other books of the Bible transmit tumah, ritual impurity, to those who touch them: As the Koren Talmud explains, the sages instituted this rule in order to discourage people from handling the biblical books too casually. Why doesn’t the Book of Esther follow this pattern? “Is this to say,” the Gemara asks, “that Shmuel maintains that the book of Esther was not stated with the inspiration of the Divine Spirit?”

The rabbis go on to debate the question, and they finally decide that Esther was indeed divinely inspired. But their uncertainty about this is telling, and it points to the anomalous nature of the Book of Esther in the Bible. The best way to gauge its uniqueness is that Esther is the only biblical book that never mentions the name of God—which itself may be a reason why it doesn’t transmit tumah. The story of how Mordecai and Esther foil the evil plot of Haman is told entirely in human terms; it is full of coincidences that never quite rise to the status of miracles. Perhaps it was divine providence that placed Esther on the throne of Persia, where she could intervene to save the Jews; perhaps God ensured that Mordecai was in the right place to overhear the plot against Ahasuerus; perhaps God gave the king insomnia one night so that he could have the story of Mordecai’s good deed read to him.

Certainly, a pious reading of the book would attribute all these individual strokes of good fortune to God. But the Book of Esther itself never goes that far. The most Mordecai is able to say to Esther is simply, “Who knows whether you were brought to royal estate for such a time as this?” That “who knows” has an extremely modern sound: It is the sound of a Jew without a direct line to God, without Moses’ or the prophets’ certainty that God is telling him what to do. Mordecai, like us, can only study the course of history for the elusive signs of God’s presence, hoping that everything will work out for the best. In the Book of Esther, it does; on many other occasions in Jewish history, it didn’t, and God’s intentions, if he had any, remained utterly hidden.

The Gemara, of course, cannot accept the idea that a biblical book is bereft of God—that Esther is just a kind of historical novel, the way modern biblical scholars see it. So, the rabbis offer a series of arguments for why Esther couldn’t have been written without divine inspiration. For instance, at one point the Megilla says, “And Haman thought in his heart”: How could the author of Esther have known what Haman was thinking if God hadn’t revealed it? But Rava refutes this argument: Haman’s thought process could be deduced through “logical reasoning,” based on what we already know about his character. What about when the plot of Bigtan and Teresh “became known” to Mordecai—wasn’t that a sign of God’s intervention? Again, Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba was not convinced: Perhaps Mordecai merely eavesdropped on the plotters and understood their language.

In the end, the Gemara offers only one ironclad proof that the Book of Esther was written with divine inspiration. This is the verse from Chapter 9 that reads, “they confirmed and took upon themselves the obligation to celebrate Purim for all time.” To Shmuel, the redundancy of “confirmed and took upon themselves” is a sign that the verse needs to be interpreted: What it really means is that “they confirmed above in heaven what they took upon themselves below on earth.” And how could the author of Esther know what was decided in heaven unless God told him? To this, the Gemara concludes, “there is certainly no refutation.” The skeptical reader, of course, will find this very far from convincing proof; it reads an enormous supposition into the text on no real basis, simply to reach the desired conclusion. But the rabbis of the Talmud did not see things that way. Indeed, Ravina observes, using a folk saying, that “one sharp pepper is better than a basketful of pumpkins”: that is, one convincing reason for divine inspiration is better than a whole bunch of unconvincing reasons.

This discussion is just one of a series of fascinating moments in the first pages of Tractate Megilla. The tractate begins with a discussion of the dates on which the Megilla is supposed to be read. In the Book of Esther itself, we are told that Purim is to be celebrated on the 14th of Adar, except in Shushan, the capital of Persia, where it is observed on the 15th of Adar. These dates are the ones on which the persecuted Jews turned the tables on their enemies, massacring the Persians who had been about to massacre them. This part of the Esther story causes a lot of discomfort to Jewish readers today, who would prefer the Jews of Persia not to have had quite such a good time slaughtering their foes; but the author of the Book of Esther had no such scruples, since he was certain that vengeance could be a source of delight.

The Talmud goes on to expound further rules about when Purim is celebrated. Cities that were already walled at the time of Joshua read the Megilla on the 15th, by analogy with Shushan, the walled Persian capital; villages read it on the 14th. It was permitted, however, to move the Megilla reading to the previous market day—that is, the Monday or Thursday prior to Purim—in order to make it more convenient for Jews from small villages to congregate in the cities. In the course of this discussion, the Talmud has to define the terms “city” and “village”: How big does a community have to be in order to be considered a city? The unexpected answer, which comes in the Mishna on Megilla 5a, is that a city is a place “in which there are 10 idlers. Fewer than that, it is considered a village.” The Gemara goes on to clarify that this doesn’t mean just any 10 people with a lot of time on their hands; it specifically means 10 people who habitually spend their time in the synagogue, and so are free for religious duties. Still, the use of the word “idler” makes this a rather amusing idea, as if a city were defined not by its busyness but by its laziness.

When the rabbis try to establish a list of which cities were walled in the time of Joshua—so that they will know where the Megilla has to be read on the 15th of Adar—they are brought up against the difficulty of using the Bible as an atlas. The cities and villages of Palestine in the first centuries C.E., when the Mishna and Gemara were written, were quite different from those that existed a thousand years earlier, when Joshua was supposed to have lived. (Imagine using a modern-day map of the United States to locate population centers among the Native Americans circa the year 1000.) However, the rabbis did not believe that the Holy Land could have evolved so much over time. They were sure that the cities they knew were the same as the cities in the Bible—only the names had changed.

Thus Rabbi Yochanan says that the fortified city of Hammath, mentioned in the Book of Judges, was identical with the city he knew as Tiberias. “And why was it called Hammath? On account of the hot springs [hammei] of Tiberias.” Rava disagrees, however, holding that Tiberias is the city known in the Bible as Rakkath: “Because even the empty ones [reikanin] of Tiberias are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds.” Rabbi Yirmeya is of the same opinion: “Rakkath is its real name; and why was it called Tiberias? Because it sits in the center [tibbur] of the Land of Israel.” And Rava has yet another etymology: Tiberias’ name comes from the Hebrew words tova re’iyyata, “its appearance is good.”

Here we have once again run into the mystery of how much the rabbis knew about actual history. Earlier, we read about how the Talmud inaccurately identified Alexander the Great as the destroyer, rather than the founder, of Alexandria, Egypt. This time, the rabbis seem to have no knowledge of the fact that Tiberias was in fact named after the Roman Emperor Tiberius, during whose reign it was founded, in the year 18 C.E. But could they actually have been ignorant of something so comparatively recent? Or are the etymologies they offer for Tiberias, all based on Hebrew names, simply imaginative or poetic or homiletic interpretations—midrashim rather than historical claims? And did the rabbis clearly differentiate between these two kinds of explanations—that is, were they conscious that they were making up just-so stories about the name of Tiberias? As always, I find the difference between the Talmud’s way of viewing history and our own to be one of the most fascinating of its mysteries.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.