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Letter Perfect

In Tractate Megillah, the Talmud sends us a very personal note on faith

Dovid Bashevkin
January 10, 2022
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Marble left hand holding a scroll, first or second century CE, RomanThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Marble left hand holding a scroll, first or second century CE, RomanThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Do you remember the first time you sent a letter?

Once upon a time—before email, before WhatsApp, before social media—it was a solemn and joyful act: writing by hand, gently folding into an envelope, licking a stamp, checking the address, and anxiously waiting for a reply. Sure, modern-day communication has its perks, but I miss letters, I miss pen pals, I miss the time when the mail wasn’t just Amazon packages and bills but included friendship scrawled on paper. Tell me how much you think a stamp costs and I’ll tell you when you grew up (I am from the 29 cents era). And that is why it was so exciting to receive Tractate Megillah in my proverbial Torah mailbox—because Tractate Megillah is an ode to letters, the Talmudic story of a book that first began as an intimate letter.

The Megillah from which Tractate Megillah derives its name is Megillat Esther, the story of Esther’s covert ascension into the Persian Kingdom of Ahasuerus to foil the evil plot of Haman to destroy the Jewish people. It is read every year on Purim. And this story was first told as a letter. Most of the Jewish people were unaware of what had transpired—Esther had kept her Jewish identity a secret, unknown to everyone except her cousin Mordechai. As far as the Jewish people were concerned, the governmental decree for their demise was unavoidable and frankly somewhat deserved, given their participation in the sacrilegious feast of Ahasuerus, a party that used the sacred vessels of the recently destroyed Jerusalem Temple.

Once the crisis was averted, Esther mailed letters to the Jewish people informing them of all that transpired. Absent these letters, the full story may have never emerged. There was no clear miracle or prophecy alerting the Jewish people of what had saved them. Without Esther’s letter and story, their survival could have easily been attributed to a relieved shrug—slow bureaucracy , perhaps? But Esther did send her letters and her story with all its details, role reversals, and astonishing serendipity remains preserved for us today in the eponymous Megillah. God, however, is not mentioned, which Ibn Ezra attributes to the medium of its initial dissemination. A letter, after all, could be easily discarded in a way unbefitting of a document with the name of God. So, that initial decision to write the letter without the name of God was preserved even after Esther’s correspondence became a book. Because, as we shall see, its status as a timeless book was not something that Esther could take for granted.

I want to become a book, Esther pleaded to the Jewish leaders of her time. She wasn’t satisfied with her story being preserved as a letter that would likely become discarded, her story lost in the crumpled trash bin of history. Becoming a sacred book within the canon of the People of the Book is not a small matter. Jewish books have a sanctity, have detailed regulations about how they should be prepared, and should not even be touched. Normally only overt prophecies are part of the Jewish canon of books—not letters. But Esther’s story was no ordinary letter. In fact, the Talmud states, the story of Esther was even more powerful than all of the previous prophetic revelations. Prophets can stand on their podiums urging the Jewish people to repent to no avail. In a world without such overt prophecy, with a now ruined Temple still in the people’s collective memory, the spiritual anxiety of the Jewish people had never been greater. Once Ahasuerus handed his ring to Haman, giving him the political power to destroy the Jewish people, the only place the Jews knew to turn was toward God. Without a prophet’s word to ignore, the urgency had to come from within.

Eventually, Esther’s letter and story was canonized as a holy book. Still, its status as a book was still questioned by many. The Talmud quotes the opinion of Shmuel who questions whether Megillat Esther has the same status of the rest of the works of Tanach, the canonized corpus of Jewish books. Just because a story should be preserved doesn’t mean its status as a holy book is deserved. And Esther is a curious case of what exactly constitutes a holy book. Martin Luther was outright hostile to the canonization of Megillat Esther, which he deemed included “too much Jewishness.” Himself an avowed antisemite, Luther had difficulty imagining a post-biblical story where the Jewish people, led by a woman no less, would not simply give up on their national identity. Esther, clearly, was not a book for everyone. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, every biblical book was found among them, except Megillat Esther.

Even after Megillat Esther was canonized, its original character as a letter was preserved. The story of Esther, the Talmud explains, should be seen as both a book and a letter. Some of the laws of Megillat Esther—how it is sewed, how the lines are carefully etched, its font and its ink—deliberately mirror those of a Sefer Torah, the ultimate holy book. Other laws, however, preserve its original medium as a letter. To this very day, when we read the Megillah on Purim, we unfurl it, like a personal letter.

What is the difference between a letter and a book? Or, as Jonathan Ellis writes in his masterful introduction to the book Letter Writing Among Poets, “for what is a letter?” We know books, they live on our shelves. Books are written for us, not to us. Letters, however, are written to us. As Mary Ruefle explains in her lecture, “Remarks on Letters”:

For what is a letter, but to speak one’s thoughts at a distance. Which is why poems and prayers are letters. The origins of poems, prayers, and letters all have this in common: urgency. They each originate in the pressing need to make a message directed at something unnear, that the absence of the unnear be made to appear present—that the presence of absence be palpably felt—that consciousness create consciousness.

Megillat Esther began as such a letter. The very name Esther means hidden, and her very story is an urgent letter reminding the beleaguered Jewish people of the presence of absence. God may be hidden, the Temple may be destroyed, our collective lives may feel like they have been severed from the comforting presence described in our timeless books, but a life retold through letters can still be worthy of canonization. Books are carefully edited, expertly printed, and strategically marketed. Letters are private, personal, temporal and usually riddled with errors. Esther showed the Jewish people that their exilic epistolary lives could also become a part of the timeless canon of the Jewish story. A life where the only presence of God is felt through His absence is still worthy of preservation.

And along with the canonization of Esther came the revelation of what Esther’s story represents. I recently read a short story, a parable of sorts written by my dearest friend Dovid’l Weinberg. It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a person who lived under the rule of a powerful king. The only way the king communicated with his subjects was through a bulletin board where he posted his most recent edicts and ordinances. “Whenever the man passed the board,” Weinberg writes, “he would faithfully—if somewhat routinely—read and study the laws, which he would then share with his family and friends.” Until one day, he received a personal letter from the king. It was written specifically for him. “To my faithful subject,” the letter began, the man could not believe his eyes. The letter was personal, intimate, and described the inner workings of the palace and the personal life of the king. The subject was amazed to receive personal correspondence from the king. Until one day, this subject once again passed by the bulletin boards with the ordinances of the king. This time, however, he noticed something different:

… these simple ordinances, hanging on the bulletin board were written in the same handwriting as the personal letter. It turned out, that these, too, were the handwritten letters of the king. Now, whenever he passes the bulletin boards, he knows with certainty, that these too, are the personal notes of the king to his beloved subjects.

The canonization of Esther was the revelation that our canon itself had been personal letters all along. When the Jewish people were able to transform the absence of God’s presence into the intimate presence of God’s absence, they discovered that a revelation through correspondence reveals the very intent of the corpus of the canon. And God agreed. It had been letters all along. And for every Jew that has ever wondered why their lives don’t bespeak the spiritual grandeur of a book, the story of Esther is a reminder that revelation occurs within the pedestrian and ordinary unfolding of our lives as well. Esther taught us that we too can insist that our lives have the latent holiness deserving of canonization. That in each day, in each breath, in each difficulty and success in our lives, we can still hear the quiet whisper, “Sincerely, God.”

הדרן עלך מסכת מגילה והדרן עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.