Friday, February 15, 2013

PURIM: Reading Megilat Esther

Part of the celebration of Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther twice during the 14th of Adar. The first time at night (next Saturday night, February 23rd ) and the second time during the day (Sunday, February 24th).

The reading should be done from a Megila, a scroll or igeret. This igeret was meant to be an official document,  to be registered in the royal Archives of the Persian Empire.   Rabbi Abraham Eben Ezra explains that this is the reason why Mordekhay did not write the name of God in Megilat Esther. He knew that, following the protocols of those days, when the Persian officers would translate the story of Purim to the Persian language, they would have changed the name of HaShem to the name of one of their gods. 

Because the Megila is an igeret (as oppose to a book) the custom is to unroll the Megila as an open document and read from it. At the end, we first roll it and then we say the final blessing.  (MT, Megila 2:11).  

When the ba'al qore (reader) reads the Megila everybody should listen and follow his reading silently from a scroll or from a printed Megila.

Because it is an igeret, if the reader makes a  mistake at the reading, we do not need to correct him (en medaqdeqim beqri-atah MT, Megila 2:7). The general custom is that the somekh (the reader's assistant) would correct the reader only if the mistake he made affects the meaning of the word. 

There is no Halakhic objection to use a microphone when reading the Megila in public, provided it could be heard without the microphone as well. Listening by media (TV, radio, phone) is not acceptable for fulfilling the Miṣva of Megila.

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle-lighting in NYC:     5:12 pm
Shabbat ends in NYC:         6:10 pm

The story of Asael Lubotzky

Thursday, February 14, 2013

PURIM: Why Mordekhay did not bow down to Haman?

 When King Aḥashverosh appointed Haman as his Chief of Staff he ordered all the officers of the King's court to bow-down to him. Everyone did, except Mordekhay.  As we explained yesterday (here) Haman's reaction (his personal revenge!) to Mordekhay disobedience was the plan to execute all the Jews. 

 We know of other occasions in which Jews have bowed down to others as a signal of respect.  So, why Mordekhay refused to honor Haman? The key to understand Mordekhay's disobedience seems to be the word: "kore'im" (Esther 3:2) "everyone knelt and bowed down to Haman".  In the Tora the verb leahishtaḥavot  (bowing down) is applied mostly in the context of prostrating in front of God. But we also find many times in the Tora that Jews bowed down to other people as an expression of respect. Abraham bowed down to the Hittites, Ya'aqob to Esav and Moshe to Yitro.  What we never find, however, is that people kneeled down to other people for respect. Knelling down (keri'a) has a religious connotation. As an expression of honor, kneeling down is an act of religious worship. We say in 'alenu leshabeaḥ that we reserved "kneeling down" exclusively to HaShem (ki LEKHA tikhra' kol berekh)! 

As our Rabbis explained, kneeling to Haman (or to the idol he was carrying) was an act of idol-worshiping.  Mordekhay was following the example of  Ḥanania, Mishael and Azaria, the three Jews that 100 years before him refused to kneel down to worship Nebuhadnezzar statue, and were condemned to death.  Mordekhay assumed that, same as  Nebuhadnezzar,  King Aḥashverosh will order his execution as well. Mordekhay was ready to sacrifice his life ('al qiddush haShem) to avoid idolatry, setting the example to all the Jews. 

READ HERE the story of Ḥanania, Mishael and Azaria, called by their Aramaic names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Haman, the genius megalomanic

The villain of the story of Purim is Haman ben Hamedata, a descendant of Amaleq. King Aḥashverosh appointed Haman as his Vizier (or Chief of Staff).  The King also issued an unusual order (Esther 3:2) all the officers of the Kings's court must bow-down to Haman. Everyone followed the King's order except one man: Mordekhay (tomorrow, BH, we will discuss why) . When Haman learned about Mordekhay's affront, "he disdained to lay hands on Mordekhay alone" (3:6), and anticipating the practices of the mafia, he decided instead to kill all of Mordekhay's brothers and sisters: the entire Jewish nation. As we have explained, the Persian empire covered all the civilized world, so every single Jew in the planet was a target of Haman's decree. Including more than 50,000 Jews that were living by that time in Israel. 

How would Haman execute his pan? To persuade the King was very easy. Among other things, because there were zero operating costs involved. On the contrary: in exchange for his executive order Haman offered the King a lot of money for the Royal treasure (3:9). Now, how would Haman recruit so many soldiers and forces to find and execute hundreds of thousands of Jews?  

Haman came up with a shrewd evil plan, which the Megila briefly describes with two words: ushlalam la-boz. A Royal Decree was sent saying: "If you kill a Jew on a certain day (Adar 13), you are not to be prosecuted. The police  will not oppose you. Moreover: you can keep the Jew's money, his assets and his properties". It was a genius plan! There was no need for professional army forces, trains to transport the Jews to death camps or gas chambers. Our Rabbis explained that there was no shortage of volunteers. Many people, particularly those who were not sympathetic to the Jews, were fighting among themselves to be the first to kill the Jews and keep their money!

Had Haman succeeded (and he was very close!) it would have been the end of the Jewish people! 

At the end, as we all know, Mordekhay and Esther devised an effective plan, and HaShem, from behind the scenes, saved us from extinction.  

"Despite some disappointments, he moved the strained Christian-Jewish relations one step closer."
by  Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Purim: Esther 1:11. Ostentation, unlimited.

On the third year of his kingdom, King Ahashverosh threw a party (=mishte, a drinking party). Ahashverosh party lasted for 187 days.  His empire was so big that he had to set different times to properly entertain all his guests. Each week Ahashverosh would honor guests from different regions of his Empire (me'am lo'ez). The last seven days were dedicated to the people of Shushan, those who live close to his palace. 

Why did Ahashverosh throw such a party? Some speculate that it was done to celebrate his conquest of Egypt or his victory over the Babylonians, who tried to rebel against him.  The Megila is very explicit about the inner psychological motives of Ahashverosh to throw the biggest party ever: behar-oto, (1:4) "to display the wealth of his royal glory and the magnificence of his greatness". In other words: to show off.  Ahashverosh was not the first, for sure not the last, rich or powerful man who throws a lavish party to show-off his wealth. Usually this is done to compensate for one's low self-esteem, or other inferiority complexes. In the case of Ahashverosh it is ver clear that the man was terribly insecure, hesitant and doubtful (1:15, 7:7 and many others). 

In any case, the Megila also shows the unlimited nature of ostentation. The text uses this term "lehar-ot", (to display, to show off) one more time in 1:11. On the very last day of the 187 days party, Ahashverosh "merry with wine" summoned up his wife. She had to be escorted to his presence naked, dressed only with her crown "to show the commoners and the officers her beauty". 

The message is loud, clear and horrendous: Look at this rich but miserable man, who cannot control his urge to show-off. Once he was done exhibiting all his riches, he found one more thing to show-off: his trophy wife, Queen Vashty! 

Ostentation is self destructive. And expectedly, the end of the party is tragic.  Vashty was executed for refusing to follow the Royal order. And Ahashverosh, who invested so much in a party meant to boost his ego, ended up disgraced and humiliated by all (1:18).    

Monday, February 11, 2013

The story of Purim: Esther 1:1

Megilat ester, the book of Esther, is not a romantic novel. It is an historical document (=igeret) which records one of the most dangerous events in the history of the Jewish people: when we all were at the verge of extermination.   

What makes Megilat Esther a very special book is that in spite of being an historical document, it is not written as a dry prose, like the historical documents authored by Herodotus at about the same time (ca. 450 BCE). Megilat Esther is also a masterpiece of literature. It is written with a supreme literally style: a sophisticated textual structure, intrigue, irony, and tension that sometimes borders with vertigo.  In addition, Megilat Esther might be classified as a book of musar (=Jewish behavioral psychology) in that it generously describes the mental processes and profiles of its main characters, particularly the dysfunctional personalities of the Megila's villains. 
But before we discuss all these aspects of the Megila let us begin with the historical background of Megilat Esther. 

In the first verse, the book of Esther provides the references of time and space: 

(i) The tradition of Persian Jews, passed throughout the generations until our days is that the King Achashverosh was the Persian emperor Khashayar-Sha. And Khasayar-Sha is not other than the famous King Xerxes, who reigned in the Achaemenid Persian dynasty between 486 to 465 BCE. This time coincides with the Jewish time-reference mentioned in the Megila: Mordekhay was the son or Ya-ir, who was the son of Shim'i, who was the son of Qish, who was exiled at the time of Yekhonya (Jeconiah) the king of Yehuda (ca.597. This time is different in Seder Olam. For the full discussion see Mitchell First's book here).
(ii) Achashverosh's Kingdom extended from India to Qush (today Sudan/Ethiopia, in those days Nubia).   The Persian Empire consisted of 127 "city-states" and it was the largest Empire that ever existed in the history of humankind!

From the story of Purim  
see THIS
by Shira Cohen-Regev, from