How does R. Eliezer son of R. Yose understand the word “second”? He understands it closer to its literal meaning. There were two letters. The first letter was addressed only to the people of Shushan, trying to convince them to observe Purim. The second letter was addressed to Jews elsewhere in the world. Next week’s daf will continue to deal with this second letter.
Today’s section offers some midrashic interpretations of the various letters that Mordecai and Esther send to the Jews asking them to commemorate Purim or to write the Megillah. What is most fascinating about these midrashim is that they express very well the anxieties of the Jews that composed them. Many of these anxieties are still felt by us today.
The darshan imagines Esther sending her letter not just to any old “Jews” but to the sages, whom the darshan imagines run the show. The sages are hesitant to establish Purim for it might incite the non-Jews against them. After all, the Megillah contains some descriptions of Jews massacring the people of Shushan. Esther assures the sages that the non-Jews already know these events. They are already written in their history books, as is stated in Esther 10:2.
In this midrash, the rabbis don’t want to write down the book of Esther and preserve it for posterity. The rabbis cite a verse in Proverbs which they understand to mean that the battle between Israel should be written in the Bible three times and not four times. Besides Esther, this perpetual battle is already referred to three times: Exodus 17, Deuteronomy 25 and Samuel I 15. So how can Esther ask for it to be put again into the Bible, making a fourth mention.
The rabbis resolve their own difficulty with a verse from Exodus 17. Each word in the verse alludes to a different section of the Bible. “This” refers to what is written in the Torah (Exodus and Deuteronomy). “For a memorial” refers to Samuel. And “in a book” refers to the Book of Esther. Thus already the Torah alludes to the legitimacy of adding Esther to the biblical canon.
The anxiety expressed and allayed in this midrash seems to be the anxiety of adding books to the Jewish canon. The rabbis may have been hesitant to add books to the Bible in the face of Christians and other competing groups who were continuing to write Holy Scripture.
Elazar HaModai (perhaps from Modiin, where I’m from!) agrees with the opinion of the sages from above—the Torah already alludes to writing the book of Esther. But R. Joshua reads the three words in Exodus as relating only to two of the mentions in the Torah and a mention in Samuel. It seems that he holds that the book of Esther should not be included in the Bible. We will continue with this discussion tomorrow, where we will see other opinions that also exclude the book of Esther from the biblical canon.
Today’s section discusses whether the book of Esther belongs in the biblical canon, but it does so in two different ways.
First of all, does Esther “defile the hands?” Only Holy Scripture causes the hands to be defiled. This is a concept we learned about in Tractate Yadayim, especially towards the end of chapter three and chapter four. Saying that a certain book does not defile the hands implies that it is not part of the Bible.
The second issue is whether a book was “said under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” This does not mean that “God” wrote the book. Most of the books under discussion were clearly not written by God. What it seems to mean is that the book has a certain amount of inspired holiness in it and should certainly be included in the canon.
Shmuel, the amora, makes two contradictory statements. First he says that Esther does not defile the hands. This implies that it is not holy. But then he says it was inspired by God. So which is it?
The Talmud resolves this by saying it was inspired by God, but God did not mean for it to be written. It was intended to be read, but not written.
We should note that this is not an easy resolution. After all, the Book of Esther clearly was written, and Esther and Mordecai clearly intended for their story to be written history.
The Talmud now cites an objection taken from Mishnah Yadayim 3:5. In this mishnah there are some disputes as to whether Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim) belong in the canon. But there is no disagreement that Esther does belong in the canon. So how could Shmuel even have any doubt about Esther?!
The answer is that Shmuel agrees with R. Joshua from yesterday’s section who said that the book of Esther should not have been written because there were meant to be only three portions about Amalek in the Bible, not four.
In this baraita there is a dispute as to whether Kohelet is holy. According to R. Shimon b. Menasia, since it was written by King Solomon, it is not holy. The other sages object. Solomon spoke thousands of proverbs, but he only wrote down a few (Proverbs, Kohelet and Song of Songs). Therefore, those that he wrote down were said with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We can also see from the fact that he prohibits adding to those proverbs he wrote, that what he did write down was holy.
Four sages cite proof from the book of Esther itself that it must have been written under divine inspiration.
Elazar proves this from the fact that the author knows what Haman was thinking (when he told Ahashverosh that the one who saved him should be dressed in the king’s clothes and ride the king’s horse).
Similarly, R. Akiva cites proof from the fact that the author knows what everyone thinks of Esther.
Meir cites proof from the fact that the plot to kill Ahashverosh became known to Mordecai. How? Through the Holy Spirit!
Yose b. Durmaskit proves the book’s sanctity because the author knows that no Jews took spoil from those they had killed in Shushan and elsewhere. He could only have known this about people who lived far from him if he was told through the Holy Spirit.
Shmuel lived well after the sages above, who were all tannaim. He did not have the opportunity to be there to give his own proof. But he believes that he has a superior prooftext. The Megillah says, “They confirmed and they accepted.” These two words seem to be superfluous. Therefore, Shmuel says that the first verb refers to Heaven, which confirmed what they, the Jews, had accepted upon themselves below.
We should note that this is an entirely different type of proof. All of the tannaim basically pointed out that the narrator or characters know something that they could not have known on their own. In other words an omniscient narrator is proof that the book is holy. Shmuel, on the other hand, offers a more typical midrash, focusing on a superfluous word.
Rava, an amora who lived several generations after Shmuel, refutes all of the tannaim, confirming that Shmuel’s explanation is superior, as Shmuel himself thought.
The author could have known without divine inspiration that Haman assumed that Ahashverosh was thinking of honoring him.
That Esther found favor in everyone’s eyes may have been known to the author because everyone was saying “she’s one of us” for she appeared to everyone as if she was from their nation.
Mordecai could have overheard Bigtan and Teresh plotting against the king speaking the Tarsis language, which Mordecai also understood. They would not have known that he understood this language.
Perhaps the author learned that no Jews had taken from the spoil from messengers who were sent from afar.But Shmuel’s midrashic interpretation, not based on logic, cannot be refuted, at least not based on logic.
One grain of sharp pepper—Shmuel—is better than all of the pumpkins—the tannaim—whose proofs were all refuted.
Two more amoraim chime in with proof that Esther was written under divine inspiration. Both of these proofs are from the same verse and they both say the same thing. Only God can know that Purim will never cease to be observed.
Today’s section deals with the mitzvoth of sending food portions to others on Purim and giving gifts to the poor.
The mitzvah of “sending portions (mishloah manot)” consists of sending at least two portions of food to at least one person. This is because “portions” is plural but “another” is singular. But when it comes to gifts to the poor, two gifts must be given to two men—both words are plural.
There follows a series of stories about rabbis sending gifts to each other. In the first one, R. Judah Nesiah sends a leg of calf and a barrel of wine. This counts as two gifts. And sounds like a great meal—much better than some hamantaschen and an apple.