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?
The Gemara1 records a beraissa that teaches: “Kohanim engaged in their avodah, Leviim engaged in their musical accompaniment to the avodah, and Yisraelim attending the avodah, all must abandon their service to go hear the reading of the Megillah.”
The Gemara further records that the Yeshiva of Rebi relied upon this beraissa to interrupt their study of Torah in order to hear the Megillah. They reasoned, if the avodah, which is stringent, must be abandoned for Megillah reading, then it is certainly true that Torah study, which is not as stringent, should be abandoned as well2. The Shulchan Aruch3 codifies the ruling that we interrupt Torah study to go hear the Megillah and adds that all the more so one must disrupt any mitzvah one is engaged in in order to hear the Megillah.
At first glance this halacha is difficult to understand. Why does the Gemara refer to interrupting the study of Torah in order to hear the Megillah as “bitul Torah” In what manner is the study of Torah being interrupted if listening to Megilah is inherently Talmud Torah, as it is part of Tanach?