“For this reason, they called the days Purim, after the pur…” (Esther 9: 26)
It is the Jewish people themselves who named the holiday Purim, a singular name unlike any other in the roster of special days on the Hebrew calendar. Shabbat is called after an act of God, the cessation of creative acts after the Six Days of Creation. Pesach is similarly named after an act of God, the passing over the houses of the Israelites. Shavuot receives its name from the weeks counted by B’nai Yisrael between the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah. Sukkot refers to the protection afforded B’nai Yisrael in the wilderness by their beneficent God. The only special days that might be said to reflect the acts of Gentiles in their name, the four fasts, are actually Israel centric.
Purim, however, named by the Jews themselves, alludes to the act of their sworn enemy, the evil Haman: the casting of lots to identify an auspicious day for their destruction. In his important work R’sisei Layla, the holy R’ Tzadok haKohen of Lublin observes the central role of the evil Haman in the name of the holiday and hence an indication of the essential character of Purim itself. R’ Tzadok associates Purim with a folk saying cited by the Gemara: “from the forest itself comes the handle of the ax” (Sanhedrin 39b). In other words, the forest produces the very tool of its own destruction, the wooden handle of the ax used to cut down its trees.
The Mitzvah of Mishloach Manot has become synanomous with the word Purim, but why? Why is this mitzvah so unique to Purim. “Unique?” you may ask, and the answer is yes. Other mitzvot associated with Purim, can be found in elsewhere in the mitzvot, Matanot la’evyonim the mitzvah of tzdakah, can be found in many others contexts, a seuda—the obligation to have a meal—can be found on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and more, even to obligation to read a Megilah, according to many can be found on Pesach, Sukoot and more, what we are left with is Mishloach Manot. Mishloach Manot remains a mitzvah that is uniquely synanimous with Purim in a way that no other aspect of this day shares. Why?
In order to understand this Mitzvah that is of the essence of Purim, we need to understand what the essence of the holiday of Purim is all about and why we celebrate Purim to begin with. There is a famous story about a person who showed up in a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and said that he had decided to become religious and study Torah. The rabbi, dean of that Teshiva, asked him what had inspired this idea. The young man shared with the rabbi that he is an avid mountain-bike rider. One day, when riding on the edge of the mountain, on the verge of a cliff, his mountain-bike slipped and he began rolling towards the edge of the cliff. This life was about to end in a moment. Suddenly, his bike his a small bush and his bike stopped.
The most telling moment presented in the Megillah was when Haman discovered that one of the king’s retainers, Mordechai, would not follow Haman’s decree to bow before him. This was aggravated by the fact that Mordechai let it be known that he was a Jew. According to Jewish tradition, it was not just obeisance that Haman demanded, but he declared himself to be a divinity and thus made it impossible for any Jew to recognize that claim.
The Megillah (3:5-6) describes this critical moment in the following manner:
And Haman saw that Mordechai did not bow or prostrate himself before him, and Haman was filled with rage. It was insignificant in his eyes (vayivez b’einav) to strike a blow at Mordechai alone, for they told him who was the nation of Mordechai, and Haman desired to exterminate all the Jews which existed throughout the empire of Achashverosh, the people of Mordechai.
We typically associate Purim with the other Yomim Tovim. The day has its own Mitzvos, customs, and rites like all the others. Yet if one looks at the Mitzvos of the day a bit closer, one sees how the nature of the day comes from a completely different source.
Take, for example, Seudas Purim. At first glance, this is like any other feast for Yom Tov. However, there are some differences. On a usual Yom Tov, the meal is eaten as the festival enters. The meal may or may not consist of bread, but must occur. Yet the Seuda of Purim has some qualifications which force us to reanalyze this comparison. Firstly, the Gemara Megillah (7b) says that one can’t fulfill his obligation of the meal at night. Secondly, we find that this meal is one of the three days on which one who is fasting all year must eat. Thirdly, though contested in the realm of Halacha, there is value of Chayav Inish Li’ivisumi, intoxication until one can’t see the difference between a Haman and a Mordechai. What do these Halachos tell us about the nature of the Seuda and our approach to Purim in general?
The Mishnas Ya’avitz has the following He’ara on the nature Purim which sheds light on our questions. When discussing the issue of Issur Melacha on Purim, the Megillah (see 5b) presents Purim initially as “Simcha, Mishteh, Yom Tov” (including Issur Melacha in the words “Yom Tov”) but concludes that there is only “Mishteh and Simcha” (leaving out Issur Melacha). Rav Dzolti points out that the Megillah’s concluding presentation of the order of names for Purim, Simcha then Mishteh, indicates the inner nature of the day. Initially, Purim was to be a holiday like any other Yom Tov, thus containing a proper Issur Melacha– highlighted by the first word “simcha”- like any other Simchas Yom Tov. However, the actual Chag was accepted by the people without a formalized Issur Melacha and the day took on a new form. Its focus became the Mishteh giving forth the Simcha.
The importance given to Purim by Rabbinic tradition seems way disproportionate than its observance as a minor holiday would merit. Although the Book of Esther is placed in the Tanach in the section of Ketuvim, the Rabbis assign it a significance comparable to the Torah itself.
All the books of the prophets and all the Ketuvim are destined to become nullified at the time of the Messiah, with the exception of the Scroll of Esther. It will continue to exist as will the five books of the Torah, and as the oral Torah which will never be nullified. Even though memory of the earlier sufferings of the Jewish people will become null . . . the days of Purim will never become null for it says, “these days of Purim will not pass away from the Jews and memory of them will not cease from their progeny.” Megillat Esther, 9:28, Mishneh Torah , Laws of Megilla, 2:18
The Raavad explains that the text of the Prophets and Ketuvim will not really cease to exist, but rather, will no longer be read publically, but Megillat Esther will always be read publically. Raavad ad Locum.
What is the nature of the mitzvah of Mishloach Manos and why was it instituted in conjunction with Purim? Allow me to present a new and novel insight into the mitzvah of Mishloach Manos which may provide food for thought beyond the belly fodder of the mitzvah itself.
Many commentators suggest that the mitzvah of sending gifts of food is intended to foster and strengthen unity amongst the Jewish people and repair the divisiveness that characterized Jewish life in Ancient Persia. After all, Haman recounted to Achashverosh “Yeshno Am Echad Mefuzar U’Meforad” – “There is a nation that is scattered and divided.” Factionalism has plagued us as a people through much of our history, rendering us most vulnerable to both spiritual and physical onslaughts from enemies bent on our destruction.
The turning point in the Purim saga came about when Ester instructed Mordechai, “Lech K’nos es Kol HaYehudim” – “Go and gather all of the Jews,” and unify them in common purpose to serve Hashem, to repent, and to resolve to care for each other. When we are together, we are invincible. The ensuing unity saved the Jews and is thus memorialized and celebrated through the mitzvah of Mishloach Manos.
When Mordekhai learned of Bigtan and Teresh’s plot against the king, he did what a good subject would do: he relayed the information to the court. However, Bereshit Rabba (39:12) discussing God’s blessing to Abraham at the beginning of Lekh Lekha, wonders why he did so; why should he go out of his way to save the undeserving Gentile king? R. Yehuda says that Mordekhai followed in the footsteps of earlier role models—Jacob blessing Pharaoh, Joseph working in Pharaoh’s court, Daniel responding to Nebuchadnezzar’s requests. R. Nehemia holds that Mordekhai looked back to the mission God gave Abraham, to be a blessing to the nations: since Jews cannot benefit the world through material wealth (since the Gentiles outstrip us in that regard) we can only help the world through the information we provide when consulted.
At first blush it would seem that Mordekhai’s obligation to report treason is anchored in the prophecy of Jeremiah 29: “Seek out the welfare of the city where you dwell, for in its welfare is yours.” What does the Midrash add to the seemingly straightforward duty of social benevolence?
The necessity for a second letter establishing the holiday of Purim implies that the initial letter was not fully accepted. Yet it is unclear why not, or what was added in the second letter to permanently establish the celebration of Purim. The only apparent new elements in the second letter are that while the first came from Mordechai, the second primarily came from Queen Esther. Further, a comparison is made between the Jewish people’s acceptance of the fast and their acceptance of Purim.
The Ramban suggests that the Jews were still afraid and needed the authority of the queen to reassure them before feeling free to celebrate. However, there is no explicit mention of any lasting fear. The Ibn Ezra mentions three opinions about the reference to the fasts. The Rambam sees them as a hint to Ta’anis Esther. According to this view, it may be that the victory of Purim had to incorporate the vulnerability that preceded the triumph to be fully approved by the Sages in Israel marking Purim as a galus celebration. This interpretation reflects the Rav’s understanding of the nature of our celebrating of Purim. The permitting of excessive drinking reflects an intensive, but temporary and artificial, high.
Is the day of Purim to be celebrated as a holiday in its own right, or is it just the occasion for fulfilling or performing specific commandments, (namely the reading of the Book of Esther, having a festive meal during the day, interchanging gifts of food with friends, and giving special assistance to the poor)? Logically, if Purim is only the occasion for fulfilling specific commandments, then it would lose all meaning and be like any other day for Jews who do not fulfill these commandments. Finally, what would make Purim a holiday is if it were a Yom Tov, i.e. a day on which work is forbidden.
When we look in the Book of Esther, it appears at first glance that Purim was established as a Yom Tov. The Jews agreed to observe the fourteenth (or fifteenth day) of Adar because on these days the Jews rested from battling their respective enemies. The text clearly states, “And it was the month that was turned for them from agony to happiness and from mourning to a Yom Tov.” Esther 9:22. This (that Purim should be a Yom Tov) indeed was one opinion that was stated in the Talmud. Megilla 5b.
“And the Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor” (Esther 8:7). Perhaps more interesting, and often overlooked, as we move towards the conclusion of the Purim story, is the pasuk that comes before the one quoted above: “And Mordechai exited from before the king wearing royal clothing of techeilet v’chur, a big gold ateret, a robe of butz and argaman, and the city of Shushan was jubilant and happy” (8:6). At first glance, this pasuk seems relatively normal in the context of the Jews being victorious and Mordechai proving that he was an important player in Jewish affairs as well as in town politics. But why is it important to describe the clothes that he was wearing? And why was Shushan so happy when they saw this?
Clearly there must have been something significant represented in Mordechai’s attire. There is an interesting parallel between this pasuk and one that appears at the very beginning of the Megillah. When the first party that Achashverosh throws is over, he makes a second one. The party’s decorations are cited in the story: “Hangings of chur, wool and techeilet, fastened to ropes of butz and argaman, on silver poles and marble pillars, couches made of gold and silver on the marble floor” (1:6). The Megillah uses five of the same specific and descriptive words that are found in the pasuk regarding Mordechai as well (tcheilet, v’chur, gold, butz, argaman). Additionally, the second party was only for people left in Shushan (1:5), the same city that witnessed Mordechai’s regal presentation. What does the connection between these two pesukim reveal?