MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary “Meaning in Mitzvot” on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, www.vbm-torah.org
Purim of Walled Cities
The book of Esther relates that while all the Jews of the empire venged themselves of their enemies on the thirteenth of Adar and made a feast on the fourteenth, the Jews of Shushan were granted an additional day of requital and celebrated on the fifteenth. Therefore, the holiday for future generations was also split between the two days. (Esther 9:18-21.) Purim thus has the unique status of being on different days in different cities; this year, the fifteenth falls on Shabbat and so the “walled cities” celebrate Purim over a three-day period.
The Megilla contrasts Shushan with “the unwalled cities”, suggesting that what was special about Shushan was its wall. So it would have been logical to make Purim on the fourteenth of Adar in all cities which were unwalled at the time of the miracle, and on the fifteenth in cities which had a wall, or even to distinguish between cities that are unwalled and walled in each generation.
However, the Purim story took place when Yerushalaim and its wall were in ruins. Such a ruling would have given Yerushalaim and the land of Israel a status inferior to that of the walled cities of Persia, or those of each era! So our Sages gave a special importance to the land of Israel and ruled that “walled cities” which celebrate Purim on the fifteenth of Adar are those which had walls when Yehoshua led the Jewish people into the land of Israel. (Yerushalmi Megilla 1:1.) Practically speaking, this gives a special status to Yerushalaim, the one city which has historical continuity from the time it was walled at the time of the conquest.
Even though the entire Purim story takes place in the diaspora, and the land of Israel and Yerushalaim are barely mentioned, our Sages read into the story an undercurrent of concern for the holy land and city:
• The megilla tells of “varied utensils” which were used at Achashverus’s public feast; the Midrash tells us that this included utensils looted from the Temple. (Megilla 19a.)
• Achashverus tells Esther that she may have any request “up to half the kingdom”; our Sages say that “half the kingdom” was Yerushalaim, hinting to her that he would not agree to a request to rebuild the Temple. (Megilla 15b.)
• The megilla tells of the rivalry between Mordekhai and Haman; the Midrash extends the rivalry, explaining that Mordekhai lobbied to have the Temple rebuilt and Haman fought his initiative. (Midrash Panim Acherim, second version, Esther 1:1.)
• The Tikkunei Zohar, explaining that Yom Kippurim is “a day like Purim”, points out striking parallels between Esther’s approach to Achashverus and the Kohen Gadol’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur: On the one hand the fasting Queen Esther, dressed in special garments, entering the King’s inner chamber at the risk of her life in order to bring salvation to the Jewish people; on the other hand the fasting Kohen Gadol, dressed in special white vestments, entering the normally off-limits inner sanctum of the Temple at the risk of his life (our Sages say that the danger was so great that a rope was tied around the Kohen Gadol’s waist to drag him out if anything happened to him) in order to bring us forgiveness (Tikkunei Zohar Tikkun 21).
This hidden theme of the Purim story has both historical and educational importance. It reminds us that the Temple was ever in the consciousness of the Jewish exiles, even as they were immersed in the court intrigues of Persia; and it induces us to view the Purim story in the perspective of the larger currents of Jewish history, which while it encompasses exile and destruction is ultimately based on the ideal of return and redemption, with Yerushalaim and the Mikdash at the center of our national life.
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.