Jews Without Borders

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Reprinted with permission from Rabbi Bernstein’s new book, Purim: Removing The Mask

  1. Comparing Purim with Chanukah

The Vilna Gaon makes a fascinating observation with regard to the two festivals that were ordained by the Rabbis: Purim and Chanukah. In terms of the “level” of miracle involved, it would seem that the miracle of Chanukah was greater: it involved the stunning military victory against a vastly more powerful army, as well as the miracle with the oil, all very “high voltage” events.

In contrast to this, the miracle of Purim was relatively low-key. The orchestrations and manipulations of the various personalities led to everyone being where they needed to be in the right place at the right time. A miracle, to be sure, but somewhat more “subdued.”[1]

And yet, we seem to make more of a celebration out of the Purim miracle than we do of the Chanukah one! Purim was established as “days of feasting and joy.” While Chanukah involves mitzvos commemorating the miracle, it does not seem to reach the same festive level.

If the miracle of Purim was of a lower level than that of Chanukah, why does it result in more of a celebration?

  1. The “Network Coverage” of Spirituality

In order to understand the Vilna Gaon’s answer to this question, it is appropriate to preface with a few words regarding what we call spirituality. It is clear that a spiritual event does not conform to and is not restricted by the laws of nature, but that is not to say it has no laws of its own. As surely as the physical world has laws, so too, the spiritual world has its laws. We are somewhat out of touch with the inner spiritual workings of the world and therefore it seems to us as if the entire concept of “rules” goes out the window any time a miracle occurs; however, that is simply because we are encountering something whose infrastructure is unfamiliar to us.

An analogy: we are quite familiar with the laws of electricity, radio waves, etc., while earlier generations were not. If one were to be transported five hundred years back in time with a basic digital camera, one could easily become ruler of that province — assuming one wasn’t first convicted of witchcraft. After all, how can one “capture someone else’s face” by pressing a button?

In the same way we are familiar with modern technology, earlier generations were familiar with the spiritual technology of the world — for better or for worse. This brings us to the question of geography. Again, if we may use an analogy, in the same way that it is not enough to have access to a phone in order to use it — the phone also needs to be charged and needs to be in a place where there is network coverage — so too, the spiritual flow from Hashem to the Jewish People has a natural “network coverage” that exists within the land of Israel and is enhanced immeasurably with the existence of the Beis Hamikdash, which serves as a receiver for Divine influence. If both of the above factors should be absent, accessing Divine intervention is the equivalent of trying to call someone with a phone that has a type pad but no reception.

At the time the Purim story happened, the Jewish People were in just such a situation, for they had been exiled from their land and the Beis Hamikdash had been destroyed. As such, they were beyond the “natural” spiritual reach of Divine providence. Moreover, this was something Haman himself knew, and, according to the Midrash, was explicitly mentioned by him in his initial conversation with Achashveirosh as he presented his plans for the Jews. Achashveirosh expressed his reservations in starting up with the Jewish People, given their long history of almost always defeating their foes and leaving them on the scrap heap of history. To this Haman replied, “All that was true when they were in their land and had their Temple. Now, however, with the Temple destroyed and the people exiled from their land, you may do with them as you please.”[2]

It is important to realize that from a certain point of view, Haman was absolutely right! His knowledge of the spiritual workings of the world left no natural way for the Jewish People to be saved. What he did not take into account is that the Jewish People are supervised by the Ultimate spiritual force Whose reach has no limitations, and neither does His concern for His people. While the quality of the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People is enhanced immeasurably in certain locations and under certain conditions (i.e., in the land of Israel and with the presence of the Beis Hamikdash), on a fundamental level, His care, concern, and connection with his people are without boundary or limitation.

It is for this reason we celebrate Purim more than we celebrate Chanukah. While it was true that the miracle of Chanukah was of a higher level, nonetheless, that was due in large measure to the fact that we were in our spiritually natural setting and the Beis Hamikdash was in existence. During the Purim story, neither of those factors were present. The miracle of Purim was thus perhaps on a lower level, but it was a bigger deal, and Purim became a bigger festival.

  1. Purim as the Name of the Festival

This brings us to consider another very basic question: Why is this festival called “Purim”?

Now, the reason for this name is actually given in the Megillah itself, where it says that the name derives from the fact that Haman drew lots (purim) in order to determine which day to kill the Jewish People.[3] The problem is that this seems to be such a minor detail within the story as to be practically insignificant! If someone I knew independently chose Purim as the name of the festival, I would probably recommend that he read the Megillah again! It is true that Haman drew lots to determine the day to kill the Jews, but it is also true that he did many other things: he met with Achashveirosh, offered to pay him money, drew up an edict of annihilation, sent messengers out, consulted with his wife at various points, built a gallows, and did a dozen other things. All of this means that if you would ask me if I had any other ideas for what to call the festival, I would say, “Yes! Lots!”

Why, of all things, is Purim the name of the festival?

Additionally, in the paragraph we recite in shul after the Megillah reading, Asher Heni, we say “פור המן נהפך לפורנו — Haman’s lottery was transformed into our lottery.” What does this mean? How can one person’s lottery become another’s?

  1. Haman’s War Room

The Vilna Gaon explains that the lottery Haman cast was not, as we may think, a matter of choosing some random date. After all, why would Haman do such a thing? It may be true that Amalek consider things to “just happen,” but why should that result in Haman insisting on making his choice of date dependent on a random lottery? That doesn’t seem in any way as if it will increase his chances of succeeding. In fact, by definition, it doesn’t seem like it will make any difference at all! Why not simply do what most people do when they would like to decide on a date — think about when the best date will be!

That, says the Vilna Gaon, is exactly what Haman was doing.[4]

In order to understand how this was so, we need to discuss the idea of mazalos. The word mazalos literally translates as “constellations” and represents the flow of spiritual forces into the world through the celestial arrangement of the various constellations. Indeed, the word mazal comes from the word nozel, which means to flow. The mazalos are the system through which Hashem runs the world, empowering certain mazalos at certain times, which results in success or failure for those who are influenced by that mazal in that area. This is the way in which all nations receive their spiritual influence.

All except the Jewish People. The Gemara tells us that “there is no mazal for Yisrael.”[5] This means that Hashem does not guide the Jewish People through mazalos, rather, He guides them directly, as the verse says: “For Hashem’s people are His portion.”[6] However, this direct supervision is dependent on the Jewish People being on a level that makes them deserving of it. Should they fail to attain the level that grants them such supervision, they become at the mercy of the mazalos that govern the nations of the world generally, and the mazalos are not kind to Yisrael.

The workings of the mazalos were well-known to Haman. The lottery was a means through which he was able to determine the day in which the mazalos would be most damaging to the Jewish People. The date on which the lottery fell was the thirteenth of Adar.[7]

Was Haman correct in his assessment? In principle, he was entirely correct. The thirteenth of Adar was the day where the mazalos should have been most damaging to the Jewish People. Moreover, the susceptibility of the Jewish People to being damaged through mazalos was likewise very much connected to the question of their location, as well as to the presence or absence of the Beis Hamikdash.

  1. Beis Hamikdash: The Ultimate Sukkah

It is interesting to note that one of the names by which the Beis Hamikdash is known is as a “sukkah.” Thus, for example, the Navi refers to the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash as the “restoring of the Sukkah of David.” [8][9] Why is the Beis Hamikdash called a sukkah? It doesn’t look anything like a sukkah!

In his commentary to Shir HaShirim, the Vilna Gaon explains that the analogy of the Beis Hamikdash to a sukkah is that, like a sukkah, it provides “shade from the sun.” The “sun” represents the mazalos of the stars and constellations, and the “shade” provided by the Beis Hamikdash represents the Divine protection from the harmful effects of the mazalos.

Hence, in the absence of the Beis Hamikdash, and having been exiled from their land, the Jewish People are indeed prone to the harmful effects of the mazalos. This is the meaning of the verse in Shir HaShirim that states: “Do not look at me for I am blackened, for I have been burned by the sun…they set me as a guard for the vineyards, my own vineyard I did not guard.”[10]

In this verse, the Jewish People are bemoaning their “sunburned” state, having been exiled and, without the shade of the Beis Hamikdash to protect them, they have been damaged by the mazalos. The reason for their predicament is that having failed to guard their own vineyard — the land of Israel — they have been forced to guard others’ vineyards, which have no shade to protect them.[11]

If this is true regarding the Jewish People’s relationship with mazalos generally, we can well understand that, as long as things remained as normal, the day when the mazalos were most stacked against them would result in an absolute catastrophe. As far as Haman was concerned, it was worth the wait!

  1. The Thirteenth of Adar: Mazel Tov!

However, had Haman lived until the thirteenth of Adar he would have been deeply disappointed. In the end, the day went extremely well for the Jewish People; they succeeded in defeating all their foes without suffering any casualties on their side. What happened? Where did Haman err in his calculations?

In fact, he did not err at all. His assessment of the mazalos situation was entirely accurate. What he had failed to factor in was the One who arranged the mazalos in the first place, Who saw fit to intervene and not only place His people beyond the reach of mazalos, but actually to reverse the nature of the mazal for that day permanently! This represented another aspect whereby Hashem completely overturned the “natural” workings of the spiritual realm for the sake of the Jewish People. Moreover, the newly acquired propitious nature of the month of Adar for us remains testimony to this upheaval until this day. The Gemara tells us that if one has a court case pending against a gentile, he should try and arrange to have it in the month of Adar, which is an auspicious month for the Jewish People regarding any altercations with other nations.[12] Thus, the “lottery of Haman” was indeed “transformed to be our lottery.”

And so, the transformation of the nature of the month of Adar generally, and the thirteenth of Adar specifically, represents the full extent to which Hashem was prepared to “break the rules” in defense of His people. Therefore, in choosing a name with which to celebrate our salvation, there is no more appropriate name than “Purim,” which is the plural of the word Pur” — lottery, referring to the original lottery of Haman that identified this as the blackest of days for us, and the subsequent lottery that transformed it into the brightest of days!


  1. Parallel Developments: Beyond the City Limits

The Vilna Gaon further points out that alongside the demonstration of Purim that Hashem’s supervision over His people is not restricted to any particular location or circumstance, there was a parallel breakthrough in another area — prophecy. The Gemara discusses the prophecies of two of the prophets Yeshayah and Yechezkel, and notes that they differ in one key aspect:

What is the background to these two different introductions?

The Gemara explains:

למה יחזקאל דומה לבן כפר שראה את המלך, ולמה ישעיה דומה לבן כרך שראה את המלך

To what can Yechezkel be compared? To a villager who sees the king. And to what can Yeshayah be compared? To a city dweller who sees the king.[15]

What is the meaning of this comparison?

Rashi explains that a city dweller is used to the sights and sounds, the hustle and bustle of the capital city. Therefore, if he should ever see the king, he will not elaborate on any aspect of the experience beyond the actual seeing of the king. In contrast, if a villager should ever visit the capital city to see the king, he will be so overwhelmed and dazzled by everything he sees that he will describe it all in intricate detail; he may spend five minutes on traffic lights alone![16]

So, too in this case: Yeshayah lived in Jerusalem and received his prophecy there. Jerusalem is essentially the “capital city” of spirituality. As such, he was accustomed to everything that surrounded a prophetic experience, and therefore got straight to the point when he described his prophetic vision.

Yechezkel, on the other hand, received his prophecy in Babylon on the banks of the Euphrates River. For him, everything about the experience was dazzling and overwhelming, and that is why he described it in such great detail before getting to the actual message itself.

Tosafos explains the analogy somewhat differently. The point of the Gemara comparing Yeshayah and Yechezkel to a city dweller and a villager is not that of a city dweller who sees the king in the city and a villager who visits the city to see the king. Rather, it is the difference between a city dweller who describes seeing the king in the city and a villager who says he saw the king in the village![17]

Imagine a villager telling his fellow villagers that while they were all sleeping the king came to the village and met with him. He would be met with looks of utter disbelief, for the king does not visit the village — his place is in the capital! If the villager should nonetheless insist that he was indeed visited by the king, those who are familiar with the king’s entourage and retinue — having themselves visited him in the city — will at some point ask the question: “All right, then, what was it like? Describe the visit to us.” The villager will then proceed to describe the entire visit in intricate detail, including things that he could not possibly know had he not seen them himself. At a certain stage, those who themselves saw the king will look at each other and say, “Well, what do you know? It seems the king really did visit the village.”

In terms of the way the world is spiritually “wired,” prophecy should only be able to be experienced inside the Land of Israel; beyond its borders, however, it is impossible. It is for this reason Yeshayah was able to introduce his prophecy in such a brief fashion. Living in Jerusalem, it was hardly an unusual event for someone to have a prophetic vision. Yechezkel, on the other hand, lived in “the village,” i.e., outside of Israel. For him to claim that he had received prophecy would be tantamount to claiming that the King had visited him in the village, something that simply does not happen!

It is for this reason Yechezkel introduces his prophecy with such a lengthy description of what it looked like, for initially, no one actually believed him! It was only thirty pesukim later, when he had finished describing every detail of what he had seen, that some of those who had themselves experienced prophecy in Eretz Yisrael prior to the exile looked at each other and said, “Well, what do you know, it seems the King really did visit the village!”

The lesson that emerges from the Gemara’s discussion regarding prophecy is similar to that which emerges from the Purim story regarding Hashem’s Providence in general. When it comes to the needs of the Jewish People, there are no rules that cannot be broken and no borders that cannot be crossed. The Jewish People are never “beyond reach”!

  1. A Curious Law: Accommodating the Villagers

In our practical experience, there are two days on which the Megillah can be read: the fourteenth of Adar for those who live in unwalled cities and the fifteenth for those who live in walled cities. Interestingly, originally there were additional days on which the Megillah could be read. This allowance dates back to the original enactment of Megillah reading, and continued throughout the era of the Mishnah.[18]

Indeed, this is the topic of the very first Mishnah in Megillah, which reads:

מגילה נקראת באחד עשר, בשנים עשר, בשלשה עשר, בארבעה עשר ובחמשה עשר

The Megillah may be read on the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth [of Adar].

The background to this halachah lies in the fact that people who lived in outlying villages typically did not have the wherewithal to fulfill the mitzvah of the Megillah reading by themselves, either because they had no Megillah or because no one there knew how to read it. However, twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, it was common for the villagers to come to the city. These were the days when the Torah was read and when the beis bin would be in session to hear court cases, as well as being market days. The enactment therefore was that the villagers who might not be in the city on the fourteenth of Adar could have it read for them on the preceding market day. Thus, for example:

When we think about it, an arrangement such as this seems most unusual, and perhaps even a little objectionable. There is no such arrangement when it comes to any other festival; that is simply not how halachah works!

Imagine someone inquiring as to when Rosh Hashanah would be that year, so as to know when to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, and upon being told that it would be on a Monday responds: “Monday, hmm, no, that doesn’t work for me. Sunday, though, is a very good day for me; I am actually available all day. Can we do Sunday?”

No, we cannot do Sunday! If Monday is the day for performing a certain mitzvah, then it is up to each individual to see to it that he is available on that day, not the day before and not the day after! Any attempt to have things moved would be met with a look of utter incredulity, or perhaps pity (or perhaps a look that combines both incredulity and pity — those are great!)

Why is the halachah on Purim so flexible when it comes to accommodating the villagers?

In light of our discussion, perhaps we can understand that the idea of “accommodating the villagers” features within the laws of Purim as part of a commemoration of the Purim miracle itself. In the Purim story, the Jewish People were the villagers, and Hashem accommodated us! We were in chutz la’aretz, outside the “city” of Eretz Yisrael. In principle, we were in a place where the King would never “visit.” Had Hashem “followed the rules” that He set up, the miracle of Purim would have never happened. The basis of the miracle was Hashem reaching out and saying, “I’m in the city and you’re in the village. The natural laws of Providence should be inaccessible to you, but we’ll work it out.”

This incredible idea was then enshrined and commemorated in the halachos of the Megillah itself. As Hashem said to us, we say to the villagers: “You won’t be in the city that day? We’ll work it out.”

[1] Vilna Gaon to Esther 1:2.

[2] Yalkut Shimoni 1,054.

[3] Esther 9:24–26.

[4] Vilna Gaon to Esther 3:7.

[5] Shabbos 156a.

[6] Devarim 32:9.

[7] The Hebrew word for lottery is “goral.” In both places where the Megillah mentions Haman’s lottery (Esther 3:7 and 9:24), it refers to it as “a pur, that is, the lottery (goral),” thereby indicating that this was not a standard lottery that is entirely arbitrary. Rather, this special pur-type of lottery was based on a system of finding the most auspicious day for any given endeavor. It is referred to as a lottery only in the sense that the answer is not consciously chosen by the one who casts it. Indeed, a simple reading of the verse indicates that Haman did not even cast the lottery himself, for it states, “He cast the lot in front of Haman” (3:7). Haman did not have the expertise needed to cast a pur-type of lottery, and therefore commissioned someone who did (Maharal, Ohr Chadash to 9:24).

[8] Amos 9:11.

[9] This verse forms the basis of the addition to the HaRachaman section of Birkas Hamazon during the days of Sukkos.

[10] Vilna Gaon to Shir HaShirim 1:6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Ta’anis 29a.

[13] See Yeshayah 6:1–4.

[14] See Yechezkel 1:4–28.

[15] Chagigah 13b.

[16] Rashi, Chagigah ibid., s.v., ra’ah.

[17] Tosafos, Chagigah ibid. s.v., l’ven.

[18] See Megillah 4b for the reason it was subsequently discontinued.