Language, Letters and Liberty

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


The Megilla as an Iggeret


The concluding section of the Megilla describes the process of canonizing the story of Esther as part of Tanakh.  "Va-tichtov Esther bat Avichayil U-Mordekhai ha-yehudi et kol tokef le-kayem et iggeret ha-purim ha-zot ha-shenit," "Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Avichayil, and Mordekhai the Jew, wrote down all the acts of power, to confirm this second letter of Purim" (Esther 9:29). Intriguingly, the book of Esther – primed to be included within Scripture – is referred to as an iggeret - a letter.  Of course, historically, as the Jews were scattered throughout the Median empire, Esther and Mordekhai's proposal of perpetuating the celebration of Purim was necessarily dispatched through letters.  It is still odd, however, that a book intended as part of Tanakh is continually referred to as an informal "letter."


The gemara in Megilla (19a) notes this anomaly and draws important halakhic conclusions regarding the texture of the actual Megilla parchment.  Unlike a standard Sefer Torah, which must be stitched exclusively with strands of animals, the Megilla may contain non-animal based stitching (provided it contains at least three animal-based strands).  By recognizing the Megilla as an iggeret, a more informal style is allowed by Halakha. 


In his comments on that gemara, the Ramban elaborates upon the leniencies pertaining to the Megilla, based largely on its status as a less rigid "letter."  These allowances include reading the Megilla while sitting (unlike reading from the Torah), unfolding the Megilla like a letter (rather than scroll-like, as in the case of a Sefer Torah), and the custom of some to ignore rules of grammar when reading the Megilla.  It is obvious that Chazal understood the status of iggeret as intentional and symbolic rather than textual or incidental. 


Beyond the lone reference to the Megilla as a "letter," the overall narrative of Esther highlights the strategic role of letters and letter writing.  Preliminary events such as the reinforcement of male authority within families, as well as pivotal events such as the initial pernicious decree and the subsequent repeal, are all dispatched through letters.  The Megilla pays disproportionate attention to seemingly mundane and irrelevant details surrounding these letters.  The carriers of these letters – the previously unknown "achashdranim benei ha-ramchim" - achieve almost celebrity status as their heroic and rushed delivery of their letters is announced as headline news! Beyond the manner of dispatch, the actual language of the letters – ve-el am ve-am ki-leshono - is carefully monitored.  Evidently, the role of letters and the ideas which these letters evoked are pivotal aspects of the miracle and the yom tov.  To insure their notice, the letters are constantly underscored and the Scriptural product of the miracle - Megillat Esther - is characterized as a letter!


Purim's Place in Redemption


It is almost impossible to gauge the full historical impact of Purim without viewing it against the backdrop of Ezra, Nechemia, and the return to Eretz Yisrael.  Conventionally, Chazal view the miracle of Purim as historically nestled between Zerubavel's original return and Ezra's pilgrimage during the reign of Achashverosh (who ruled after Cyrus and prior to Darius).  The foundations of the Temple had been built, but the building had been halted due to international pressure, and the Jews were awaiting further instructions. 


The Ramban, in his comments to Megilla, may question this chronology, and some modern scholarship has suggested alternate dating as well.  Even if we allow these modifications, the events in Shushan were clearly viewed as commentary on the events in Jerusalem.  The miracle of Purim didn't merely rescue the Jewish nation from pending genocide; it also fueled expectations and reinforced achievements in the process of resettling Israel and rebuilding the Temple.  What happened on this holiday provided clear comment and clarity to the unfolding mysteries of the redemption.


Language and Exile


            Without question, language deeply impacts national identity.  Chazal speak of the oppressed Jews in Egypt as retaining the integrity of language and thereby preserving some degree of national autonomy.  As the Jews of Babylonia restored their homeland in Eretz Yisrael, reconstituting their language was an essential ingredient of the process.  We witness the Jewish language "under siege" in the smattering of Aramaic throughout the books of Ezra and Nechemia and the manner in which this foreign language dominates Sefer Daniel.  If Sefer Daniel describes the nadir of the Jewish exile, it is only fitting that the text itself is tyrannized by Aramaic. 


If the miracle of Purim advances redemption, it must also participate in and catalyze this process.  We encounter the protagonist of the story – Mordekhai the Yehudi - as a bit of a cultural enigma.  Exiled in the original destruction of the Temple, he is a throwback who possesses strong Jewish identity and defies Haman's intimidating demands.  Yet, he possesses a Persian name, which seems to demonstrate a degree of cultural adaptation.  The gemara in Menachot (65a) identifies Mordekhai as a member of the Sanhedrin and conversant in seventy languages.  In fact, the gemara explains that his nickname was Mordekhai "balshan" – a name which captures his abilities to decode foreign languages.  Chazal also assume that this linguistic facility aided him in eavesdropping upon Bigtan and Teresh as they conspired in a foreign language to assassinate King Achashverosh.  Mordekhai, in name and in linguistic skills, mirrors the process of "delinguisitification" that the Exile had rendered.  Though his multi-lingual skills are admirable and requisite for inclusion in Sanhedrin, they display a "linguistic neutrality."


Ezra ha-Sofer and "New" Language


Perhaps Ezra ha-Sofer serves as the hero of language reclamation; he was, after all, a scribe who authored Sifrei Torah and was obviously expert in the (new) Hebrew language.  Again, not incidentally and unlike his predecessors, he does not prophesy in Aramaic, nor does he write letters to Persian kings in Aramaic.  We do not have record of any of these letters, but the omission of any Aramaic from the end of chapter 7 in Ezra until the conclusion of the book is a resonant absence.  From the moment that Ezra ascends and occupies central stage, only Hebrew will be spoken, written, or prophesied in. 


As redemption advances, Hebrew must be reconstituted as the national voice.  Jewish language in transition is evidenced by the adoption of a new script - ketav ashurit – which, though conceived outside of Israel, becomes a uniquely Jewish script  and replaces the ancient and original alphabet (at least according to most opinions in Chazal).  A people seeking to reclaim lost or corrupted language may "reset" the system to reestablish linguistic identity. 


In fact, according to one opinion of the Midrash, the debut of ketav ashurit occurs in Belshatzar's dream.  He witnesses previously unknown script – the original writing on the wall – predicting his demise.  It is not incidental that new Jewish script emerges at the turning point of the Babylonian Exile.  After Belshatzar fades, a new Persian empire emerges - one which will requisition and support the rebuilding of the Temple.  The empire that destroyed the Temple is replaced by one which will revive it through the debut of ketav ashurit. 


Interestingly, Chazal establish certain parallels between Moshe Rabbenu and Ezra ha-Sofer.  Several similar verses suggest parallels between their careers.  At one point, the Midrash notes that although Ezra did not deliver a Torah, "al yado nishtaneh ha-ketav" – he was responsible for the reinvented language.  In fact, Ezra's work with language and Torah texts far surpassed the invention of a new script.  He introduced cantillation (trop), modified the internal grammar of pesukim by inserting pauses, and adjusted the schedule of Torah reading.  These acts, far from being merely technical occupations, rank him as equivalent to Moshe.  Reclaiming the Jewish tongue is an event on a par with delivering the Torah. 


Perhaps Ezra's most "renowned" accomplishment can be better appreciated in this light.  "Asarah yuchsin alu im Ezra mi-Bavel;" Ezra cleansed the Jewish community of its genealogical corruption.  He reestablished the categories of Jewish pedigree which had collapsed under the weight of expatriation.  Notably, he also crusaded against maintaining gentile wives, imploring the people to practice national fidelity. 


These efforts were not independent of or unrelated to his linguistic function.  Ezra reconstituted Jewish identity - in part by solidifying family bloodlines and in part by rejuvenating the Jewish vernacular.


Mordekhai Back in Israel


The gemara in Menachot (64b) recounts an interesting incident regarding Mordekhai (at least according to Rashi's version of the story), one which presumably occurred subsequent to the miracle of Purim.  After returning to Israel, the people face the task of locating early harvested barley for the korban omer and wheat for the shetei ha-lechem.  Presumably, produce was scarce, as the land had lain fallow for more than seventy years and Jewish farmers may have become rusty in their agricultural skills.  Perhaps the dangers of travel outside the Jerusalem metropolitan area further complicated this search.  An announcement was promulgated soliciting information leading to the location of these grains. 


A mute man approached and placed one hand on the roof and another on a tent.  Mordekhai correctly interpreted this as a reference to a place in Israel named Gaggot Tzerifin (in English, gaggot means roofs and tzerifin means tepees).  In a second instance, the mute man placed one hand on his eye and one hand on a part of the door post.  Again, Mordekhai correctly deciphered this as a reference to Ein Sukor (ein meaning an eye and sokur referring to the door post). 


Of all the people who attempt to decipher this charade and translate it into a Hebrew name of a little known location in Israel, Mordekhai alone is successful.  Though gifted in many languages, he now thinks primarily in Hebrew even when the message is delivered visually, a medium that can lend itself equally to any language.  Is this snapshot of Mordekhai a portrait of a successful redemption? A cultural "hybrid" who was gifted in every language and named in a foreign one was now thinking exclusively, or at least primarily, in Hebrew! That he alone is familiar with unknown locations in Israel merely reinforces this cultural reconstitution. 


The Language of the Megilla Letters


What does all this have to do with letters and their prominence in the Megilla narrative? In the era immediately preceding the destruction of the first Temple, letters were gaining popularity as the media of choice.  Not incidentally, Nevuchadnetzar had his start as a scribe to the king.  Presumably, this position granted him access and influence.  With the rise of burgeoning worldwide empires, letters were necessary to exert influence and enforce authority across regions too distant to personally visit.  A federation of 127 provinces cannot be maintained without letters, deliverers, and strict enforcement. 


In this light, Achashverosh's refusal to simply rescind his original genocidal letter is understandable; revoking a letter would question the authority of letters in general and destabilize his kingdom.  He allows an addendum to be distributed, but will not repeal his original letter.  The post carriers – those famous achashdranim - are pivotal members of Achshverosh's sovereignty, as are the interpreters who translate his missives into every conceivable language.


That is, every conceivable language except for one! The Megilla implies that all earlier letters of the episode were translated into every language but not into Hebrew.  Did it matter? Perhaps Jews were just as conversant in Persian or Aramaic as they were in Hebrew and did not require a Hebrew text. Or perhaps this was just another attempt to further denude the Jews; not only were they slated for extinction, they were forced to read about it in a foreign language! Either way, the deculturation of the Jewish people – scattered as they were across the empire - had reached its depths. 


As redemption sets in and as the people of Shushan become empowered, language is reclaimed as well.  The final letters – speaking of Jewish defense and presaging Jewish triumph - are decidedly written in Hebrew - ki-khtavam ve-ki-leshonam.  Hebrew is once again recognized, and Judaism is therefore once again popular rather than ridiculed.  The "letter," which is such a powerful symbol of human experience, has been incorporated into Judaism and Hebrew. 


Another sefer about events in exile – in addition to Sefer Daniel - is canonized, and this time in Hebrew.  What better manner to refer to Megillat Esther than as a letter or iggeret.  It was the medium of iggeret that served as both metaphor and medium for redemption.  It was this linguistic and cultural emancipation that advanced redemption and jump-started similar events in Israel.  Aramaic yielded to Hebrew and Mordekhai's leadership gave way to Ezra's.  A new script would revitalize the Jewish language and the rehabilitation of Israel. 


Interestingly, it is not only the text of the Megilla that elucidates this process, but its manner of recital as well.  The gemara rules that a Megilla can only be read in a language understood by its reader and listeners.  Since the reading serves to publicize the miracle, linguistic comprehension is necessary and sufficient.  The events can be conveyed in French just as they can be conveyed in Chinese.  There is, however, one language which can be employed regardless of the comprehension level of its audience - Hebrew.  The gemara questions this surprising rule - after all, the listeners cannot understand the reading. The gemara offers an oblique response, claiming that pirsumei nissa, publicizing the miracle, is achieved even in the absence of direct comprehension - as long as the text is read in Hebrew.  Perhaps Hebrew was validated even without comprehension because its revival was a symbol and a stimulant to the redemption that Purim was very much a part of. 


As miraculous as Purim was and as crucial as language was to relocation and redemption, this process, sadly, went unfulfilled.  Most of our population remained behind in Bavel, preserving their foreign language and unknowingly crippling any attempt to achieve the glory of the first Temple.  The bittersweet result of this disappointment is the rendering of Torah She-be-al Peh, the Oral Law, in a foreign language.  Although the formulation of Torah She-be-al Peh is a singular triumph of Jewish history and in many ways the Aramaic backbone enriches the process, it seems unfortunate and almost symbolic that the potential of the second Beit ha-Mikdash - national, religious, as well as linguistic – was never fully actualized. 


May we soon merit the full reclamation of Jewish nationhood, the retooling of Jewish tongue, and the rebuilding of the Mikdash.