Friday, November 25, 2005

When Esther first saw the Armenian man

Now that I'm in the old country with fewer distractions (except turkey), there's time to blog the Talmud.

Megillah 10b-11a:
Where we last left off, the Gemara on this perek had called it a day on commenting (in the broader sense) on the Mishnah, and had begun an extended midrashic work on Megillat Esther. We're still in the introduction.

Rabbi Levi has yet another received tradition from our ancestors: the ark that contained the tablets took up no space. Just do the math: the inner sanctum was twenty cubits in each dimension, and each cherub took up ten cubits, leaving zero cubits left over. Thus the ark only stood because a miracle suspended geometry (just like how there was room for everyone to prostrate themselves even though they were standing shoulder to shoulder). Far be it from me to second-guess a received tradition, but why do we assume that the ark and the cherubim were collinear? Why wouldn't they be arranged like this picture or this one or any other graphic representation of the ark?

The next step, before we dive into the text of Esther itself, is a series of petichtas to introduce the book. This is a homiletical form (seen in places like Vayikra Rabbah and Pesikta d'Rav Kahana) that ends with the target verse (often from the Torah), and begins with a verse from far away in Tanakh (often an unrelated verse from Neviim or Ketuvim), and gets from B to A by a complex chain of associations. But in this case, all we see is the verse from elsewhere and maybe a line or two of explanation. Each rabbi has his own petichta for Esther, each with the goal of situating Esther conceptually within the rest of the biblical tradition. Each one has a different idea about the main take-home message of Esther.

1) R. Yonatan opens with Isaiah 14:22. For him, the beginning of Esther is the fulfillment of the prophecy against Babylonia. Achashverosh's empire of 127 states is already evidence that Babylonia is no longer the dominant power. Isaiah's prophecy says that God will cut off Babylon's sheim (this refers to writing: no Babylonian writings survive except through other nations. Can the historians here address the veracity of this claim?), she'ar (this refers to language: the Aramaic language is dead, except in that one village in Syria, and ironically, among the Jews), nin (this refers to the kingship), and neched (this refers to Vashti, who according to tradition was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar). Thus, the removal of Vashti is, for R. Yonatan, the completion of Bavel's fall.

I should note here that I was a bit surprised here (and further on) to see Vashti portrayed as a villain. In all the communities I've run in, Vashti has always been seen as a sympathetic character and/or feminist heroine (who stood up to Achashverosh's drunken misogyny), and it didn't occur to me that the rabbis would have thought otherwise. We then made a list of other characters who seem ok from the plain sense of the text, but whom the rabbis turned into bad guys. This list included Eisav, Bil'am, and Ishmael.

2) Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani opens with Isaiah 55:13. As do we. Could he have known that one day, this would be read as the haftarah on the afternoon before Purim? The na'atzutz is replaced with berosh: Haman, who made himself an idol to bow down to (and na'atzutz is associated with idolatry), is replaced with Mordechai, who is rosh of all the spices ("[besamim rosh] mor deror" is translated into Aramaic as "marei dechai"). The sirpad is replaced with hadas: Vashti (granddaughter of the one who burned the roof of God's house - saraf refidat beit h') is replaced by Esther (Hadassah). The last clauses of the verse (about an eternal sign) refer to the reading of the megillah and the days of Purim.

3) R. Yehoshua ben Levi opens with the curses in Deuteronomy 28:63. So for him, Haman's attempted destruction of the Jews was a gleeful divine punishment for their sins.

But then we see an objection to the idea that God is happy about the downfall of the wicked. When Moab and Ammon get defeated, Israel exclaims "hodu ladonai ki le'olam chasdo". "Ki tov" is missing, because God isn't happy.

This is the source for the famous midrash that when the Israelites crossed the sea, the angels began singing, until God said "My creations are drowning, and you sing songs of praise?!". Thus, we spill out wine from our cups for the Ten Plagues, and we abridge hallel during Pesach. Even the people we don't like are God's creations.

Rabbi Elazar resolves the contradiction: God itself doesn't rejoice, but makes others rejoice (yasis is in the causative). Whether or not this is the ideal response, it is certainly empirically true that humans rejoice at their enemies' downfall.

4) Rabbi Abba bar Kahana opens with Kohelet 2:26. Mordechai is the good guy, Haman is the bad guy, and Mordechai and Esther end up with Haman's stuff at the end. This is the cowboy reading of Esther: the good guys always win.

5) Rabbah bar Ofran opens with Jeremiah 49:38. Elam is Persia. Again, a prophecy about upheaval is fulfilled. The melech is Vashti (in a gender-bending role), and the sarim are Haman and his ten sons.

6) Rav Dimi bar Yitzchak opens with Ezra 9:9. Self-explanatory: God has "extended mercy to us in the sight of the kinds of Persia".

7) Rabbi Chanina bar Papa opens with Psalm 66:12. We went through fire (in the time of Nebuchadnezzar) and water (in the time of Pharaoh), but now it's all going to be ok.

8) Rabbi Yochanan opens with Psalm 98:3. Self-explanatory salvation.

9) Reish Lakish opens with Proverbs 28:15. The lion is Nebuchadnezzar. The bear is Achashverosh (since those Persians eat and drink like bears, get fat like bears, grow hair like bears, and are restless like bears - funny, I thought bears were known for sleeping). The wicked ruler is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and guess who the humble nation is.

10) Rabbi Elazar opens with Kohelet 10:18. Israel got lazy with the mitzvot, so (if such a thing were possible) God got weak, leaving Haman with free reign to attack Israel's compromised immune system.

11) Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak opens with Psalm 124:1-2. God saved us when a plain old adam, not a king, rose against us. That's right, it was Haman!

12) Rava opens with Proverbs 29:2. Guess who the "righteous" and "wicked" are supposed to be. This verse encapsulates the plot of the megillah, but in reverse order, thanks to comic inversion.

13) Rav Matanah opens with Deuteronomy 4:7 - look how great we are!

14) Rav Ashi opens with Deuteronomy 4:34, and he gets the last word, so Purim is framed as a story of Pesach-like wonders and redemption.

In conclusion, Esther is a Rorschach test.


Exegesis begins.


Vay vehi -- oy vey!

Rav sees the glass as half empty, while Shmuel sees it as half full. Yes, this is a story of exile and persecution, but even in the worst of times, God hasn't forgotten Israel. Even in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, there was Daniel and his buddies. In the time of the Greeks, there were Shimon haTzaddik and the Maccabees. In the time of Haman, there were Mordechai and Esther. In the time of the Persians (here the rabbis talk about their own time), there were the rabbis! And in the future, no nation will be able to rule over Israel.

Shabbat is about to arrive in Chicago, so I'll stop there for now.


  1. Good reference. Happy Thanksgiving, hope you had a thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat.

  2. hey!

    very intesting stuff! You told me that you blogged through Masechet Shabat, spicificaly the subject of chanukah, could you refer me there. i want to show my teacher.

    also i like the Yafi posting as we talked at thanksgiving.

    also whats new with the Emahot tishuva! i was thinking i could twist my case and have the same goals and acomplish it quicker.

    sorry it im just rambiling

  3. Hi Aaron! Welcome!

    I haven't actually blogged about Masechet Shabbat; just Rosh Hashanah and Megillah (and a small slice of Makkot).

    No word yet on the teshuva; i'm trying to track it down.

  4. Thanks for u good work! if there isanyhting i can do tell me

  5. Far be it from me to second-guess a received tradition, but why do we assume that the ark and the cherubim were collinear? Why wouldn't they be arranged like this picture or this one or any other graphic representation of the ark?

    Two points:

    1. You left out the Gemora that says that there was ten amos on each side of the Aron and thats the proof.

    2. Also, we are referring to the keruvim which were standing on the ground and check turei Even.

    Thanks for the rundown