Why is Megillat Ester Written in Such a Secular Style? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
In honor of Purim, we will present an approach to Megillat Ester that emerges from a brief essay written by Rav Yoel Bin Nun that appears in the work Ester Hee Hadassah (pp.47-54). Rav Yoel is one of today’s leading voices in Tanach, and I thank him for talking with me about some of the topics that appear in this essay. Our presentation will differ somewhat from Rav Yoel’s and I take responsibility for any mistakes.
The Secular Character of Megillat Ester
Megillat Ester is written in a manner that appears extremely secular. For example, it is well-known that Hashem’s name does not appear in Megillat Ester. However, it should be noted that the Megillah not only omits His name, but even goes out of its way to avoid mentioning Hashem’s name. For example, in 4:14 Mordechai tells Ester that if she will not help the Jews, “Deliverance for the Jews will come from another source.” Instead of recording Mordechai saying that if Ester will not help, then Hashem will find another means by which to save the Jewish People, the Megillah conspicuously omits any mention of Him.
Another dramatic example of this phenomenon is when Ester instructs Mordechai to fast on her behalf for three days (4:16). One would expect that the Pesukim would also mention the Tefillah that presumably accompanied the fasting, as it does elsewhere in Tanach (for example, in Shemuel 2:12:16, Yoel 2:15, Ezra 8:23, and Nechemiah 1:4). Yet there is no mention of Tefillah!
In addition, the secular appearance of Megillat Ester is highlighted by the fact that there is no mention of the fasts’ disruption of the observance of Pesach that year (see Rashi 4:1 s.v. Vayaavor). Ester 3:12 records that the decree of annihilation was issued on the thirteenth of Nissan, and one may assume that the fasting occurred very soon afterwards, as it appears from the Megillah that Mordechai acted without delay.
Moreover, there is no mention of Eretz Yisrael or the Beit Hamikdash in Megillat Ester, even though the events of Megillat Ester occurred in 482 B.C.E., 478 B.C.E., and 473 B.C.E., long after Cyrus permitted Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael (539 B.C.E.) and the Beit Hamikdash was completed (515 B.C.E.). (This follows the approach of the Daat Mikra in understanding the Peshuto Shel Mikra of Ezra-Nechemiah, especially the order of Persian emperors that appear in the beginning of Ezra chapter four.) Jerusalem is mentioned only as a city that existed in the past (2:6). No mention is made of the city of Jerusalem functioning in the time of the Megillah.
Moreover, Achashveirosh’s palace is presented as an alternative to the Beit Hamikdash. Anyone who enters Achashveirosh’s inner sanctum without proper authorization is liable to be killed instantly, similar (LeHavdil) to the Kodesh Hakodashim in the Beit Hamikdash. Ester wears special clothes upon her entrance to the inner sanctum of Achashveirosh (5:1) similar (LeHavdil) to the Kohen Gadol on Yom Hakippurim, who must wear special clothes upon entering the Kodesh Hakodashim. Achashveirosh’s palace has an inner and outer court similar to the Beit Hamikdash as described in Yechezkeil (40:19). Achashveirosh views himself as a virtual god, an almighty king who rules the world (although one who studies Megillat Ester carefully realizes that the Megillah subtly ridicules Achashveirosh and shows how impotent he truly was).
Furthermore, a very fundamental principle in the Tanach is that of divine justice, that Hashem treats us according to our behavior. Thus, if we suffer in any of the stories recorded in the Tanach, the text often presents an explicit explanation for the suffering, typically stating that it is a result of our having sinned. For example, the Chumash states clearly that the Dor HaMabul and Sedom were punished because of their sins. Sefer Shemuel states plainly the reasons why David HaMelech had such intense difficulties with his children. However, there is no explanation presented explicitly in the Megillah for why we deserved to have Haman’s decree issued or why it was later reversed. The casual reader of the Megillah receives the impression that this occurred simply as a result of the political intrigues of Achashveirosh’s kingdom. Indeed, it seems from a cursory reading of Megillat Ester that “lots” determined the course of events, rather than Divine providence.
Moreover, Ester’s Persian name (meaning “star;” see Daat Mikra to Ester 2:7) is used throughout the Megillah rather than her Hebrew name Hadassah . Furthermore, one would expect a Sefer in Tanach to express a mournful note over the fact that Ester is essentially taken captive by Achashveirosh, and over the tragedy of her being unable to build a Bayit Ne’eman BeYisrael (Perhaps this is the source for Chazal’s assertion regarding Ester’s relationship with Mordechai even after her being selected as queen; see Megillah 13b.)
We may answer the question regarding the seemingly secular nature of the Megillah by posing another fundamental question: why is so much critical information missing from the Megillah? Very basic questions regarding the behavior of the main characters are left unanswered. These questions include why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman and why Ester concealed her Jewish identity.
Additionally, assuming that Achashveirosh is the Persian emperor known as Xerxes (see the Daat Mikra’s introduction to Megillat Ester pp. 4-6), it is astonishing that the Megillah omits any reference to Achashveirosh’s exploits. The Megillah describes events that occurred during the third, seventh, and twelfth years of Achashveirosh’s reign, but makes no reference to the fact that Achashveirosh (Xerxes) also waged a war against Greece at that time, a war involving a colossal effort which at first succeeded but ended in great failure.
One cannot claim that the author of Megillat Ester was unaware of these events, especially in light of archaeological discoveries of ancient Persian royal palaces that match the descriptions of Achashveirosh’s palace that appear in Megillat Ester (see Daat Mikra’s introduction to Megillat Ester p.7). Thus, if the Megillah’s author was aware of the details of ancient Persian royal palaces, he was certainly aware of the colossal war that Xerxes (Achashveirosh) waged against Greece. (In fact, this war might be alluded to in Ester 10:2; see the Daat Mikra commentary to this Pasuk.)
These historical facts are not irrelevant to the storyline of the Megillah. They help explain why Achashveirosh threw such an extravagant party in the third year of his reign – to publicly demonstrate his financial capability to wage an epic war against Greece. In fact, it helps clarify why the Persian Empire, which had been so positively supportive of the Jewish People during the reigns of Cyrus and Darius (they actually assisted in the building of the Beit Hamikdash) would suddenly be willing to exterminate the Jewish people. Just as Germany sought a scapegoat for the disaster of World War I and its aftermath (and found the Jews), so too it seems that the Persian people were willing to follow Haman to use the Jewish people as a scapegoat for the failed war against Greece. Nevertheless, these incredibly relevant facts are omitted.
Megillat Ester as a Reflection the World as it Currently Functions
Accordingly, the thoughtful reader of Megillat Ester realizes that its authors deliberately omitted pivotal information and explanations. One could say that the authors seek to communicate thereby that just as they have omitted information regarding the characters and plot of the Megillah, so too have they omitted the true Being that controls and determines all events. By omitting the relevant historical information, they might also be communicating that just as without the historical background to the Megillah, one’s understanding of the Megillah is incomplete, so too one’s understanding of the Megillah is incomplete without comprehending Hashem’s role in the unfolding of events.
Indeed, a key message of Megillat Ester is how to comprehend a world in which Hashem does not display His hand openly as He did at others times, such as during the forty-year-long sojourn of the Jews in the Sinai desert. The world as it functions now has a secular veneer or surface. If one does not see beneath the surface and discover the Ribbono Shel Olam, one does not understand the world properly. Megillat Ester is written to appear superficially secular in order to reflect the world which today is superficially secular. The careful reader understands that Hashem’s hand was behind the salvation of the Jews, because otherwise the chain of events in the Megillah is inexplicable.
The subtle hand of Hashem is evident to the attentive reader when he or she considers why Ester, of all women, was chosen as queen (especially considering the fact that she did not appear to make any effort to be chosen); how it worked out that Mordechai foiled a plot to kill Achashveirosh; and how Achashveirosh was reading about Mordechai’s exploits just as Haman was coming to request permission to kill Mordechai. There are numerous other examples of how we can discern Hashem’s hand in the twists and turns of the Megillah.
Accordingly, just as Hashem’s subtle hand lurks behind the superficial secular surface of Megillat Ester, so may the discerning individual discover the Ribbono Shel Olam subtly orchestrating world events today. In fact, this might be a reason behind the Minhag for children to wear masks and costumes on Purim. Just as a mask conceals the identity of its wearer and one must remove the mask to reveal his true person, so too the world’s superficial, secular surface masks its true nature, and one must look beneath the surface to comprehend its functioning.
Chullin 139b and Shabbat 88a
Rav Yoel’s approach she ds much light on a famous Talmudic passage that appears on Chullin 139b. The Gemara asks where we find an allusion to Ester in the Torah. The Gemara responds by citing the Pasuk (Devarim 31:18) that states, “And I will hide [My face on that day].” This Pasuk is a perfect allusion to the days of Ester, when Hashem hid His workings behind a secular veneer.
Rav Yoel’s approach also helps us understand a celebrated but somewhat enigmatic Aggadic passage that appears on Shabbat 88a. The Gemara notes that we were coerced to receive the Torah when Hashem suspended Har Sinai above our heads, threatening our destruction if we did not accept it. The Gemara then poses a dramatic question: since Halacha regards coerced acts as illegitimate, then our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai should be illegitimate and not binding on future generations! The Gemara resolves this problem by stating that we subsequently accepted the Torah in the days of Achashveirosh.
We may explain this passage based on the thoughts of Rav Hayyim Angel. At Har Sinai we were figuratively coerced to accept the Torah due to the overwhelming evidence pointing to its truth. It was so obviously true that we hardly had a substantial choice in our decision to accept it. However, in the days of Achashveirosh, when Hashem’s hand was concealed and not nearly as obvious as it was when we stood at Har Sinai, our acceptance of the Torah then was a much freer choice than the one we made at Sinai.
The twentieth-century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, an outspoken atheist, was once asked what would happen if, after his death, he would unexpectedly find himself before God, who would be ready to punish him for his heresy. He replied that he would say that God did not supply sufficient evidence for His existence. I believe that Megillat Ester provides a response to such superficial thinking. The Megillah teaches that there is abundant evidence of Hashem’s existence and mastery of the world for those who make the correct choice to discern Hashem’s hand operating behind the superficial, secular mask.