Megillat Esther Mesorat HaRav: Ve’Ata Kadosh – Hallel of the Hidden God

Excerpted from Megillat Esther Mesorat HaRav, co-published by OU Press and Koren Publishers Jerusalem

Ve’Ata Kadosh: Hallel of the Hidden God*

On Purim, the Megilla is read both at night and in the morning. While there is unanimity among rabbinic authorities as to the requirement to recite the sheheĥeyanu blessing prior to the recitation of the Megilla on the night of Purim, there is some disagreement regarding the need to repeat  the berakha when rereading the Megilla on Purim morning. According to Maimonides (Hilkhot Megilla 1:3), sheheĥeyanu is not recited in the morning since it was already said the previous evening. Ri, on the other hand, maintains that since the primary reading is the daytime reading, there is indeed a requirement to repeat the berakha (Tosafot, Megilla 4a s.v. ĥayav).

On the surface, Ri’s opinion seems difficult to understand. True, the reading of the Megilla during the day was instituted by the prophets while the reading of the previous evening was established only later by Ĥazal. Yet the question remains: if the mitzva performance is identical, why the need for a second sheheĥeyanu?

In a well-known passage (Megilla 14a), the Gemara raises the question as to why there is no Hallel recited on Purim. One of the reasons provided by the Gemara is that the Megilla reading itself comprises Hallel. According to this opinion, two distinct mitzvot are simultaneously fulfilled through the reading of the Megilla: the mitzva of Megilla itself as well as the mitzva of Hallel. Based on this, we can explain the repetition of the sheheĥeyanu blessing. With the exception of Pesaĥ night, the obligation to recite Hallel is exclusively discharged during the day. As a result, the sheheĥeyanu recited in the evening is a prelude to the mitzva of reading the Megilla itself, while the second berakha during the day is made as a prelude to a different mitzva: the fulfillment of Hallel implicit in the morning Megilla recitation.

On might now ask why this “Hallel” of Purim morning requires a sheheĥeyanu at all, since at no other time during the year is sheheĥeyanu recited as a prelude to Hallel. The answer is that the Hallel of Purim is unique since it is the only time one can fulfill the mitzva of Hallel without  actually reciting the specific chapters in Psalms that comprise Hallel. We recite sheheĥeyanu in the morning not because of the mitzva of Hallel per se, but because of the unique form that Hallel assumes on Purim morning.

The supposition that the mitzva of Hallel is fulfilled through the reading of the Megilla itself begs for explanation. Every other fulfillment of Hallel, whether on Rosh Ĥodesh, Ĥanukka, or Yom Tov, is fulfilled simply through reading the chapters of Psalms which comprise Hallel. Why on Purim alone is the mitzva of Hallel fulfilled through reading the holiday narrative? Furthermore, at the Seder table on Pesaĥ night, after discussing the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt at great length we recite Hallel. Why don’t we similarly maintain that retelling the story of the Exodus at the Seder constitutes a fulfillment of Hallel?

To address this question, we must first explore the nature of Hallel itself in light of a Talmudic passage: “R. Yosi said, Let my lot be among those who recite Hallel every day. But did not the master say, whoever recites Hallel every day is a blasphemer? Regarding what [did R. Yosi make his statement]? Pesukei DeZimra(Shabbat 118b).

The arrangement of those chapters of Psalms that we commonly refer to as Hallel is known in the Talmud as Hallel HaMitzri, the Egyptian Hallel. The theme of this Hallel is the miraculous. “When Israel left Egypt… the sea saw and fled, the Jordan flowed backwards, the mountains skipped like rams…He transformed the rock to a pond of water…” These are the occasions when the Creator breaches the processes of nature and temporarily suspends the laws of the physical world, the world of “day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). The appellation Hallel HaMitzri is used because the primary theme of this Hallel is the supernatural event that God performed on behalf of His people on the night of the Exodus. On that night, He intervened with nature – the rules of physics, of action and reaction, cause and effect, were suspended. On the night of Pesaĥ, we recount His wonders and miracles – God obstructed the processes of nature to liberate His people from slavery.

However, as the Gemara implies, there is another type of Hallel, the Hallel of Pesukei DeZimra. The theme of Pesukei DeZimra is not the miraculous but rather the mundane forces of nature: “He created heaven and earth, the sea and everything in it…He brings forth His snow like wool who can stand before His cold…the skies above praise Him…the sun and moon praise Him, the stars of light praise Him.” The chapters starting with Ashrei and concluding with Psalm 150 are a type of Hallel in which God reveals Himself through the powerful forces of nature. Is there truly any greater miracle than the sun rising in the morning?

If one recites Hallel HaMitzri every day, he is considered blasphemous because one should not require the daily invocation of supernatural miracles to appreciate His greatness. Recitation of Hallel HaMitzri daily would suggest that our praise of God is predicated exclusively on His performance of such wonders. When does God intervene in nature and perform such miracles? He does so when He has no choice, when He, so to speak, can no longer accomplish His objectives through natural means. If God had not miraculously intervened in Egypt when He did, the Jewish people would have assimilated entirely, and the chosen people would have disappeared.

Yet, as is evident from the following Midrash, such miraculous intervention is far from His preferred course of action (Shemot Rabba 15):

[The Exodus from Egypt] is analogous to a Kohen whose teruma falls into a graveyard. He says, “What can I do? To defile myself is impossible, and to abandon the teruma is impossible! It is better for me to defile myself once, return, and purify myself so that I not lose my teruma.” So were our forefathers the teruma of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as it says: “Israel is holy to the LORD, the first of His grain” ( Jer. 2:3). The Holy One, Blessed be He said, “How can I redeem them? To abandon them is impossible! It is preferable for Me to descend and save them,” as it says (Ex. 3:8): “And I will descend to save them from the hands of Egypt.”

Holiness in Judaism can be broadly defined as maintaining separation. When God intervenes supernaturally, His holiness is diminished because His separateness is diminished. Since the redemption from Egypt required God’s supernatural intervention, His involvement constituted a “descent,” as it were, in His holiness, in His separateness. For this reason, God labels the Exodus from Egypt as a descent.

God directs the complex cosmic drama; the light that speeds through the universe, the flying nebulae, all act in accord with His decree. The organic and biological world is a greater manifestation of His will than all the plagues visited upon Egypt! Is there anything extraordinary in God being able to overrun Egypt with frogs? His ability to drown the Egyptian army is trivial compared to His manifestation through nature.

Thus, R. Yosi says, “Let my lot be among those who recite Hallel [i.e., Pesukei DeZimra] every day.” When one truly appreciates that the most magnificent manifestation of God on earth is His revelation through nature, he recites Pesukei DeZimra, reflecting the profound sense of awe that is experienced upon witnessing natural phenomena.

When His nation passed through the Red Sea and exclaimed, “This is my God and I will glorify Him,” they were able to point to God leading them to freedom (Rashi, Ex. 15:2). Yet, had the Children of Israel been on a higher spiritual level, God would have taken them out of Egypt through natural means, without resorting to overt miracles. If the Jews had been on a more elevated spiritual plane, He would not have had to violate the natural process to save them. He did so in Egypt only because time was of the essence. Israel was on the brink of total assimilation. Had He not intervened through overt miracles, there would have been no nation left to save.

The miracle of Purim is fundamentally different from all other miracles that are commemorated in the Jewish calendar because it is not a revealed miracle. It is a “natural” miracle. There is no incident in the Megilla that one might consider as anything but a natural occurrence. As elaborated by Ĥazal (Megilla 15b), the natural miracle of Purim is the theme of Psalm 22, which begins:

For the leader; upon Ayelet HaShaĥar [literally, the morning star; interpreted as a reference to Esther]…My God, my God, why have You forsaken me…O my God, I call by day but You answer not, and at night and there is no surcease for me.

When Esther entered the inner chamber to approach the king and plead on behalf of her people, she was fully aware of the serious implication of her action, as evidenced by her message to Mordekhai (4:11): “There is only one law for any man or woman who comes before the king, into the inner courtyard, without being called: to be killed.”

Ĥazal say that upon first seeing the queen, King Ahasuerus withheld his scepter. His first inclination was to put her to death for brazenly entering the inner chamber uninvited. Esther had hoped that her hesitant approach to the king would herald a supernatural event that would lead to the salvation of the Jews, in the same way that God had performed open miracles on behalf of His people in the past. She was therefore bitterly disappointed when Ahasuerus did not immediately extend his scepter. At that point, Esther thought that all was lost, her efforts to save the Jewish people were in vain. In despair, she exclaimed: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

When the capricious king changed his mind and held out his scepter, Esther knew that the deliverance of the Jews would take place. However, she also understood that this rescue was to be different from the other salvations in Jewish history. This time the Jews would be saved through natural means.

Psalm 22 therefore continues with this verse: ואַתָּה קָדוֹשׁ יוֹשֵׁב תְּהִלּוֹת יִשְָׂראֵל , You are the Holy One, enthroned on the praises of Israel. As explained earlier, holiness denotes separateness. When God redeems Israel through natural means, He is kadosh, hidden, separate from man, concealed behind a cloud. When King Ahasuerus finally extended his scepter, Esther realized that although God would answer her prayers, He would still remain kadosh, separate. He would provide salvation by performing a “natural” miracle. As a result of this belated realization, Esther exclaimed: You are the Holy One, enthroned on the praises of Israel. And when God orchestrates salvation from afar, maintaining the separateness of a kadosh, He acts in accordance with the praises that Jews recite daily: the praises of Pesukei DeZimra rather than those of Hallel HaMitzri.

In the Purim drama, God directed a sequence of events that when considered separately do not appear extraordinary. He set in motion a series of seemingly mundane and plausible incidents so the salvation had the appearance of emerging naturally.

Esther herself is called Ayelet HaShaĥar in the Gemara (Yoma 29a). Ayelet HaShaĥar refers to the rise of the morning star at the very beginning of dawn. The inception of dawn is very subtle. When one looks towards the east at the earliest moment of dawn, the slow brightening of the sky is not even perceptible. At the very moment that the Purim salvation was incubating, one could only see an evil, politically astute Haman getting drunk with a king whom he easily manipulated. The darkness, the despair of this long night seemed so overpowering that one might have mistakenly concluded that there was no guiding hand behind those events.

In appreciation of this aspect of Purim, after the Megilla readings of both evening and morning we recite the portion of U’Va LeTziyon starting with ואַתָּה קָדוֹשׁ יוֹשֵׁב תְּהִלּוֹת יִשְָׂראֵל. וקָרָא זֶה אֶל זֶה ואָמַר קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהָוה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאֶָרץ כְּבוֹדוֹ , You are the Holy One, enthroned on the praises of Israel. And [the angels] call to one another, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory.”

The appellation “LORD of hosts” connotes that He is the Master of the host of seemingly inconsequential events on earth. As the prayer continues: קַדִּישׁ בִּשְׁמֵי מְרוֹמָא עִלָּאָה בֵּית שְׁכִינְתֵּהּ , Holy in the highest heavens, home of His presence. Initially, it seems that He only controls the celestial sphere, that He is entirely removed from the events taking place on earth. Only after we step back and view these natural events in perspective can we appreciate their sequence and thus perceive His providence: קַדִּישׁ עַל אְַרעָא עוֹבַד גְּבוְּרתֵּהּ , holy on earth, the work of His strength.

Although we cannot see His guiding hand, what happens on earth is far from random; it is “the work of His strength.” After we gain this appreciation we affirm: קַדִּישׁ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא , holy for ever and all time.

Upon narrating the story of the Exodus on Pesaĥ, we do not recite the prayer of Ve’Ata Kadosh. As we spill the wine and enumerate the ten plagues, the revelation of God’s presence is evident. On Pesaĥ, we do not need to declare our faith that He is “holy on earth, the work of His strength,” since at the moment of the splitting of the sea we could see Him clearly. “By signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand… according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes” (Deut. 4:34).

In contrast, when we read the Megilla, we relive the black night when a drunken king and his evil advisor tried to seal the fate of the Jews. Yet, as it states in the Megilla, “On that night,” when the situation was dark and bleak, “the sleep of the king was disturbed” (Es. 6:1). The night did not give way to the morning light quickly, yet events were orchestrated in a way that very slowly led to salvation. This process happened naturally, culminating in, “Thus was Haman hung up, on the very post he had prepared for Mordekhai; and the king’s fury subsided” (Es. 7:10).

The Gemara (Megilla 19a) comments: “The Megilla is called a letter [iggeret] and it is called a book [sefer].” The word sefer in ancient Hebrew refers exclusively to words written on parchment. As such, it suggests a permanent record. For example, “Take these documents [sefarim] and place them in an earthenware vessel so they will endure for many years” (Jer. 32:14). “‘He shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book’ – in a book and not on paper” (Sifrei, Deut. 160). Ink on parchment is durable. An iggeret, on the other hand, is written on paper, the message is temporary. One reads a letter and soon discards it.

Megillat Esther is unique because it is designated as both an iggeret and a sefer. Superficially, the events that are recounted in the Megilla would not seem to have any lasting significance. The narrative at first seems to be a mildly interesting tale of political intrigue, an iggeret that one reads and soon discards, like a newspaper. On the other hand, the Megilla is also a sefer, a profound book that recounts a very significant and momentous event in Jewish history. As a sefer, millions of people read it on Purim and will continue to do so.

The sefer aspect of the Megilla narrative is reflected in halakha. Commenting on the phrase in the Megilla, “words of peace and truth” (Es. 9:30), the Gemara derives that the Megilla requires etched lines, “like the truth of Torah” (Megilla 16b). Rabbenu Tam (Tosafot, Gittin 6b) explains that the “truth of Torah” refers to Shema Yisrael. Indeed, this story is as basic and fundamental to our religion as the cardinal declaration of faith itself. Jews recited Shema Yisrael as they prepared to sacrifice their lives for the sanctification of God’s name, during moments in our history when the night of exile was at its darkest. Rabbi Akiva could perceive God’s presence as his body was being perforated with combs of iron and the word eĥad issued from his dying lips. By celebrating the holiday of Purim, we demonstrate our belief in Divine Providence during a dark, tragic night. The Gemara rereads the verse: “On that night,” when no one thought that God would intervene, when the situation seemed hopeless, “the sleep of the King of the Universe was disturbed” (Megilla 15b). The night imperceptibly gave way to dawn, to salvation. We proclaim Ve’Ata Kadosh despite the superficial perception of God’s absence: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

A dispute is recorded in the Mishna and the subsequent Gemara regarding where in the Book of Esther the Megilla reading on Purim should commence (Megilla 19a). The halakha follows the opinion which maintains that we must read the Megilla in its entirety. But why do we even bother to read the beginning of the Megilla, with its depiction of a drunken king and his petulant wife? Why are we obligated to recite the dual blessing of al mikra Megilla and sheheĥeyanu before hearing such trivial details?

The answer is that in the Megilla narrative, no detail is trivial. If we did not know about Vashti’s fall, we would not understand the significance of the flow of these events. What did the conflict of Vashti and Ahasuerus have to do with them? Only later did they recognize that the process of salvation began the moment Ahasuerus became intoxicated at his royal feast. Were it not for Vashti’s fall from the king’s graces and Esther’s subsequent rise to the throne, Haman would have been triumphant. Megillat Esther is a sefer because every detail must be taken into account to appreciate how the saga reaches it denouement.

Purim (lots) is the name of the holiday, not the singular pur, because there have been many attempts to destroy us in exile. Yet, while God has saved us every time we faced annihilation in the diaspora, He also remained hidden, kadosh.

In Egypt, the miracles were so numerous that Israel did not have to act to defeat the Egyptians: “Stand fast and see the salvation of the LORD… The LORD shall do battle for you, and you shall remain silent” (Ex. 14:13-14). In contrast, the battle against Amalek was never fought through overt miracles. The battle had to be fought conventionally: “And Moses said unto Joshua: ‘Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek’” (Ex. 17:9). Why this difference in the method of salvation?

Pharaoh’s persecution of the Israelites was due to simple economic considerations. The persecution was a means of maintaining a pool of cheap labor to serve his kingdom’s needs. In contrast, Amalek’s battle was not against Jews per se, it was against the God of Israel Himself. Amalek fights God through His people. Amalek’s antagonism towards the Jewish people is rooted in the fact that Mordekhai did not bow nor prostrate himself before Haman. And Haman knew that if Mordekhai did not bow, the simple shoemaker would not bow either. Mordekhai lived differently, he ate differently, his children were different. When Haman characterized the Jews to Ahasuerus, he himself emphasized this uniqueness: “There is one people…whose laws are different from those of all the other peoples” (Es. 3:8). Haman did not hate the Jews per se. Had they worshiped idols, he could have tolerated them. Haman hated the Jewish religion, the Jews’ uniqueness, their determination to cling to their faith and uphold the Torah. When the battle is against the Jews, as in Egypt, God Himself fights on their behalf. But when the battle is waged against God, the Jews must do the fighting, without any overt supernatural intervention. His people must take the initiative and lead the battle, while God remains kadosh, subtly controlling events.

The Gemara (Megilla 7a) recounts that when Esther requested that the Megilla be canonized, the Rabbis initially hesitated until they found a scriptural basis for canonization: כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר ושִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁע כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם , Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven (Ex. 17:14). The Book of Esther was canonized because the message of Purim must constantly be reinforced in our own battle with Amalek. There are moments in this struggle when we seem to face imminent defeat – when, like Esther, we ask God why He has forsaken us. Yet, towards the end of the night when it is darkest, at the moment of deepest despair, we await the rise of the morning star and proclaim: ואַתָּה קָדוֹשׁ יוֹשֵׁב תְּהִלּוֹת יִשְָׂראֵל.


*This derasha by the Rav, originally presented in Yiddish in 1956, was translated by Dr. Arnold Lustiger.