Director of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
“בלילה ההוא נדדה שנת המלך” Which king was restless that fateful night? The human king Achashverosh or the divine King? The Megilla is simultaneously a story of divine Providence and a model for functioning in a world where God’s intervention is anything but apparent. This tension surfaces in a discussion about the nature of the text itself. At first glance, Megillat Esther is written by a human narrator describing a story of politics and intrigue. No, the Tannaim unanimously insist, Megillat Esther is actually written with a degree of “inspiration.”
תניא רבי אליעזר אומר אסתר ברוח הקודש נאמרה שנאמר ויאמר המן בלבו רבי עקיבא אומר אסתר ברוח הקודש נאמרה שנאמר ותהי אסתר נשאת חן בעיני כל רואיה רבי מאיר אומר אסתר ברוח הקודש נאמרה שנאמר ויודע הדבר למרדכי רבי יוסי בן דורמסקית אומר אסתר ברוח הקודש נאמרה שנאמר ובבזה לא שלחו את ידם (מסכת מגילה ז.)
It has been taught: R. Eleazar said: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, And Haman said in his heart. R. Akiba says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, And Esther obtained favour in the eyes of all that looked upon her. R. Meir says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, And the thing became known to Mordecai. R.Jose b. Durmaskith said: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, But on the spoil they laid not their hands (Megilla 7a)
The consensus among the Tannaim is that the Book of Esther was composed with Ruach Hakodesh. The text itself provides evidence for its prophetic nature. The narrator of the Megilla knows too much. How could the narrator tell us what Haman was thinking in his heart? Or state with confidence that Esther was attractive to all who looked at her? Or that none of the people, without exception, laid their hands on the spoils of the war? This omniscient narrator must have some prophetic powers.
The amoraim, however, are not convinced by any of these proofs. Rava presents a series of responses to each proof. Instead, the amoraim focus on the closing passages of the Megilla to demonstrate its prophetic nature. The megilla testifies that “קיימו וקבלו” – the Jewish people “upheld and accepted” the holiday of Purim. And again, “וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים” – and these days of Purim will not pass from the Jewish people. And finally, “וזכרם לא יסוף מזרעם” – their memory won’t pass from their descendants.
Powerfully, It is the Jewish people’s continued celebration of Purim that verifies the prophetic nature of the Megilla. The narrator boldly asserted that we would not cease to celebrate this miracle and annually, when the 14th of Adar rolls around, we affirm and re-affirm that assertion.
The endurance of the celebration of Purim is indeed noteworthy. Megillat Ta’anit, the earliest Rabbinic piece of literature, describes days when the Jewish people celebrated miraculous or joyous events. Most of those festive days were abolished after the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash. Purim is among the few that remain in force. According to the Rabbinic literature, credit for that staying power goes to Esther herself.
שלחה להם אסתר לחכמים קבעוני לדורות שלחו לה קנאה את מעוררת עלינו לבין האומות שלחה להם כבר כתובה אני על דברי הימים למלכי מדי ופרס
רב ורבי חנינא ורבי יוחנן ורב חביבא מתנו… שלחה להם אסתר לחכמים כתבוני לדורות שלחו לה הלא כתבתי לך שלישים שלישים ולא רבעים עד שמצאו לו מקרא כתוב בתורה כתב זאת זכרון בספר כתב זאת מה שכתוב כאן ובמשנה תורה זכרון מה שכתוב בנביאים בספר מה שכתוב במגילה (מגילה ז.)
- Samuel b. Judah said: Esther sent to the Wise Men saying, Commemorate me for future generations. They replied, You will incite the ill will of the nations against us. She sent back reply: I am already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia.
Rab and R. Hanina and R. Johanan and R. Habiba record [the above statement in this form Esther sent to the Wise Men saying, Write an account of me for posterity. They sent back answer, Have I not written for thee three times — three times and not four? [And they refused] until they found a verse written in the Torah, Write this a memorial in a book, [which they expounded as follows]: ‘Write this’, namely, what is written here and in Deuteronomy; ‘for a memorial’, namely, what is written in the Prophets; ‘in a book’, namely, what is written in the Megillah.
“קבעוני לדורות…כתבוני לדורות” Esther insisted that her story be both celebrated and recorded. In each case there was apparently resistance. She had to ward of fears of promoting anti-Semitism. She had to build a case that this wasn’t “just” a story, but was the final chapter in the Bibilical drama of Amalek. Esther had to argue and convince the Rabbinic leaderhip that this was a story that had to be told.
Here we come to the circularity of the argument. How do we know that Megillat Esther is a divinely inspired book? Because the Megilla predicts that we will continue to celebrate the holiday and indeed we do. But why has the celebration of Purim lasted? Because Esther insisted. So is it prophecy or a willful decision? The answer, it seems, is that it is both.
In a book with no explicit mention of God, Hazal find evidence that Esther is a prophetess.
דכתיב “ויהי ביום השלישי ותלבש אסתר מלכות” בגדי מלכות מיבעי ליה אלא שלבשתה רוח הקדש. כתיב הכא “ותלבש” וכתיב התם “ורוח לבשה את עמשי” (מגילה יד.)
…as it is written, Now it came to pass on the third day that Esther clothed herself in royalty.
Surely it should say ’royal apparel’? What it shows is that the holy spirit clothed her. It is written here, ‘and she clothed’, and it is written in another place. Then the spirit clothed Amasai, etc.
The proof text is intriguing. Esther “clothed” herself in the same sense that “the spirit clothed Amasai.” But the parallel highlights the difference as well. In the latter verse, Amasai is the direct object. He is “clothed” by the spirit. On the other hand, there is nothing passive (at least at this point in the narrative) about Esther. She actively clothes herself.
Esther is not a prophetess by birth but by choice. She turns herself into a prophetess by making a prediction and relentlessly pursuing its fulfillment. Esther had a vision. Perhaps she understood that her story would resonate with future generation, that this holiday would escort the Jewish people through their long exile. So she willed the vision into reality. She fought the establishment and convinced everyone to document the story, to establish a national holiday around it. She became a prophetess in a time when divine presence was waning. She gave new meaning to the term “self-fulfilling prophecy.”