How the Book of Esther Got into the Bible
Purim this year falls on March 13 and 14, 2006. This Purim Torah (celebratory spoof) asks why the Book of Esther made it into the Bible...
(Editorís note: In the Talmud, all sacred scrolls make the hands impure, perhaps because, like blood or semen, sacred texts hold the vitality and mystery of the circle of life. Arguments over whether a scroll makes the hands impure are arguments over whether the scroll is sacred or not.)
"Rabbi Yehuda said that Shmuel said the scroll of Esther does not impurify the hands [for it was not dictated by means of the holy spirit]."
Talmud, Shabbat 14a
"Rabbi Meir says, Ecclesiastes does not impurify the hands, and there is a controversy about the Song of Songs; Rabbi Yossi says that the Song of Songs impurifies the hands and there is a controversy about Ecclesiastes, Rabbi Shimon says that Ecclesiastes is a leniency of the Study Hall of Shammai and a stringency of the Study Hall of Hillel, but Ruth, the Song of Songs, and Esther impurify the hands."
Talmud, Megillah 7a
Characters: Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Shmuel, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Shimon, Queen Esther, and Queen Vashti
Location: A rabbinic court in ancient Persia. Five rabbis are sitting around a table.
Rabbi Shmuel: I am calling this meeting of the decanonization committee of Babylonian sages to order. On the table is the Book of Esther, story of Queen Esther, Mordechai, Haman, King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti, and assorted eunuchs. Sacred or profane? That is the question before us.
Rabbi Shimon (stroking his beard): If our ancestors held the Book of Esther sacred, that seems enough evidence on its behalf. After all, it does tell the story of the miraculous rescue of the Jews of Persia?
Rabbi Yehuda: Miraculous?? God isnít mentioned once in the entire book. The whole rescue is contrived by Esther and her spin doctors. If Esther had decided to sit and do her nails, everyone would have perished. Who wants to read a biblical story about human ambivalence, courage, sex, and revenge?
Rabbi Yossi: ErÖ everyone?
Rabbi Yehuda (frowning): Yes, well, be that as it may, there are too many books of the Bible, and this one is a novel anyway, so off with its head!
Rabbi Shmuel: Rightóoff with its head!
Rabbi Yossi: Youíre going to eliminate one of the two books of the Bible named after a woman? Isnít that discriminatory?
Rabbi Meir (whispering): What does he mean, a novel?
Rabbi Shimon (whispering): Iíll explain later.
Rabbi Shmuel: Look, the Book of Esther is a pagan book! Queen Esther is named after the fertility goddess Ishtar, Mordechai is named after a war god, Marduk, and Haman is obviously a stand-in for the god of death, defeated by Marduk. Vashti possibly might refer to a Persian goddess named Mashti. And who says law-abiding Jews should have a wine festival where men wear womenís clothing and vice versa? The whole thing is not kosher. It has to be nipped in the bud!
Rabbi Shimon: But, Your Honor, the bud is the point. Purim is the Jewish rite of spring, when winter is defeated by the forces of light and warmth. Esther, the brave young maiden, and Mordechai the fierce are our symbols of spring. They are Jewish and also universal! We canít decanonize them!
Rabbi Yehuda: Jewish rite of spring? Is Passover chopped liver?
Rabbi Meir: Exactly! The Song of Songs which we read during Passover is dangerous enough. ďLet him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine.Ē Thatís not enough of a rite of spring? We need Babylonian fertility goddesses?
Rabbi Shmuel: Even those little triangular cookies with black seeds in them look like you-know-what. Itís enough to make someone neglect his Talmud study!
Rabbi Yossi: Thatís the point, Your Honor! Sometimes we need to give people a break from us and our constant logical reasoning. Let them kick back, have a beer, make fun of a few sacred cows, and crossdress if they want to! It will make them like us more the rest of the year. Look, Purim is not boring! How many religious rituals can say that? I vote to keep the Book of Esther in the Bible!
Rabbi Shmuel: But it has eunuchs in it! Isnít that enough reason to decanonize it?
Rabbi Meir: Point of information. Whatís a eunuch? Does it have anything to do with crossdressing?
Rabbi Shmuel (sighing): This meeting is adjourned until further notice.
Scene 2: The Hallway of the Rabbinic Court
Queen Esther, a dark woman dressed in a long jean skirt and a long-sleeved blouse, is standing with Queen Vashti outside a door that reads ďCourt in Session.Ē Vashtiís hair is dyed blond and she is wearing a red off-the-shoulder dress.
Queen Esther: I just donít understand it. I filled out all their forms, and appeared in front of the beit din six or seven times, and brought evidence of my righteousness and virtue, and they still wonít grant me my canonization order. Itís been five years. What more do I need to do?
Queen Vashti: Come on, Esther, you have to stop playing by their rules. Give up on them. Letís get endorsed by some other religion. Maybe we can make it into the Catholic Apocryphaóor what about the Upanishad?
Queen Esther: I just canít do that, Vashti. My canonization document is too important to me. Without it I can never be a real biblical character. Please help me. I donít know how to prove to them I deserve to be in the Bible.
Queen Vashti: What about submitting documents that show Jews are reading the Book of Esther every Purim? Doesnít that prove you belong in the Bible?
Queen Esther: I tried that. They said they donít derive Jewish law from what the people are doing, unless they feel like it.
Queen Vashti: Well, what about threatening to leave the Jewish community and go elsewhere?
Queen Esther: I tried that too. They said I wouldnít get far. Thereís not much call for a Jewish Ishtar anywhere but in shul. Who else is going to name an organization like Hadassah after me?
Queen Vashti: Okay, what about a bribe? I have 200,000 hamantaschen I can deliver to their families and friends within the week. I won them from Hamanís wife Zeresh during a gambling night.
Queen Esther: Do you think it will work?
Queen Vashti: You bet your little poppyseed triangle!
Scene 3: Back in the Rabbinic Court
Rabbi Shmuel (munching on a hamantaschen): I guess we can keep the Book of Esther in the Bible. Itís near the end anyway. And I kind of like that guy Mordechai. Anyone who can sit in sackcloth and ashes and still look good is okay by me.
Rabbi Shimon: Iím so glad youíve decided to see it my way. I promise, generations of Jewish children will thank you for giving them a reason to yell their heads off.
Rabbi Yehuda: Purim and Passover can both be rites of spring. That way the Jews in Florida and the Jews in Winnipeg both have a timely spring holiday.
Rabbi Shimon: Absolutely. But the Jews in Buenos Aires will have to make do with Rosh haShanah.
Rabbi Yossi: Iíd like to pick up our discussion on Ecclesiastes. Has anyone ever noticed that the four elements appear in the opening verses of the book? How do we all feel about that?
Rabbi Meir: Four elements? Havenít scientists added to the list since then?
Rabbi Shmuel: No, there are only four elements. (Counting on his fingers.): Apricot, poppyseed, raspberry, and prune.
Rabbi Yossi: And sometimes chocolate!
Rabbi Yehuda: Now whoís breaking tradition??
Rabbi Jill Hammer is director and co-founder of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.
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