19 March 2014

"After Purim: Taking off the Mask"

17 Adar Bet 5774

By Daniel Pinner

The Megillah concluded with “Mordechai the Jew as second in command to King Achashverosh, great for the Jews, beloved by the multitude of his brethren; he sought good for his nation, speaking peace for all his seed” (Esther 10:3).

Though this is a happy ending to the Purim story, it is not the end of Jewish history. Now that Purim has finished (a day later in Jerusalem than in the rest of the world), now that we have sobered up, slept off the wine, put away our fancy-dress, taken off the mask, and returned to our day-to-day routine – now is the time for the post-Purim story.

The Talmud addresses the anomaly that we do not say Hallel on Purim: “If for being delivered from slavery to freedom [when we were redeemed from Egypt] we recite a Song of Praise, then should we not all the more so for being delivered from death to life [on Purim]?!” (Megillah 14a).

The Talmud proceeds to cite three reasons for not saying Hallel on Purim:

1) Rabbi Hiyya bar Avin cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha’s explanation that the miracle happened outside of Israel, and Hallel is said only for a miracle that happens in Israel. True, we say Hallel to thank God for the Splitting of the Red Sea which happened outside the Land of Israel, but this is because “as long as Israel had not yet entered the Land, all lands were fit for reciting a Song of Praise. Once Israel had entered the Land, other countries were not fit for reciting a Song of Praise”.

2) According to Rav Nachman, the reading of the Megillah is the Hallel for Purim.

3) And Rava derives the reason we say Hallel to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt but not on Purim from the opening verse of Hallel “Praise ye, O servants of Hashem” (Psalms 113:1). “Servants of Hashem”, says the Psalmist, and no longer servants of Pharaoh! But on Purim, we cannot say “servants of Hashem” and no longer servants of Achashverosh, because even though our lives had been saved, we were still servants of Achashverosh.

The third reason – that even though we had been saved from extermination at Haman’s hands, we were still under Achashverosh's domination, and therefore not yet free – is the most relevant to the postscript to Purim. What makes it supremely relevant is the implication that had we been freed from Persian domination then we would be saying Hallel on Purim.

And to understand this properly, we have to go back into history and to understand both the historical background and the aftermath of Purim.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had invaded Judea in 3321 (603 B.C.E.) and destroyed the Holy Temple 12 years later in 3338 (586 B.C.E.). Israel remained subjugated to the Babylonian Empire for 25 years, after which time Daryavesh (Darius) the Mede (Daryavesh I) conquered Babylon and inherited its empire – which included the Land of Israel.

The return to Israel began when Daryavesh I died after reigning for just two years. Koresh (Cyrus), king of Persia, succeeded him in 3391 (533 B.C.E.) and inherited the Persian Empire. Upon assuming the throne, one of Koresh’s first acts was to proclaim the Jews’ right to return to Israel from anywhere in the Persian Empire they may be, and rebuild their Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-3, 2 Chronicles 36:22-23). Nevertheless, Israel was still far from independent; it was but a province in the Persian Empire.

That year in Tishrei, even though the Holy Temple had not yet been rebuilt, they already reinstituted several sacrifices on the Temple Mount – the daily burnt offerings morning and afternoon, the Festival sacrifice on Sukkot, and the Mussafim (Additional Offerings) of Festivals and New Moons (Ezra 3:1-6). Half a year later, in Iyyar, they began construction work on the Holy Temple (ibid. v. 8).

Work on the Holy Temple came under constant attack, predominantly by the Samaritans. After two years Koresh died, Achashverosh became the new king of the Persian Empire in 3394 (530 B.C.E.), and one of the first things he did was to prohibit further construction work on the Holy Temple (Ezra 4:24) – a construction-freeze that would last for 18 years.

And this leads us into the events at the beginning of Megillat Esther: “It happened in the days of Achashverosh – this is the Achashverosh who reigned from India to Ethiopia, a hundred and twenty-seven provinces – in those days, when King Achashverosh was sitting on his royal throne which was in Shushan the capital, in the third year of his reign, he made a feast for all his officials and servants” (Esther 1:1-3). This feast happened in the year 3397 (533 B.C.E.), while the construction-freeze on the Temple Mount was in force.

The Megillah concludes in the thirteenth year of Achashverosh’s reign, ten years after the feast with which the Megillah begins: Haman cast the lots in Nisan the twelfth year of Achashverosh’s reign (Esther 3:7), and the genocide was planned to happen a year later in Adar (v. 13), and instead was transformed into the day when the Jews slew their enemies.

We return now to the Gemara with which we began, and specifically Rava’s reasoning that the reason we do not say Hallel on Purim is that we cannot say “Praise ye, O servants of Hashem”, because even though our lives had been saved, we were still servants of Achashverosh.

The fact that we were still living under Achashverosh’s rule, both within the Land of Israel and in the rest of the Persian Empire (which meant almost all the Jews in the world at the time), meant that we were not independent, so we were not yet “servants of Hashem” but rather “still servants of Achashverosh”. And therefore, Purim did not constitute a reason to institute Hallel.

Achashverosh would remain on the throne of Persia for slightly over two years after the end of Megillat Esther, dying in 3407 (517 B.C.E.). He was succeeded by Daryavesh (Darius) II, who was the son of Esther and Achashverosh (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5; Esther Rabbah 8:3; Yalkut Shimoni, Shmini 536); hence Persia now had a Jewish emperor.

In the second year of his reign on the 1st of Ellul, Daryavesh II gave the order that the Jews in Judea could continue constructing the Holy Temple (Haggai 1:1-15). The Second Holy Temple was completed on the 3rd of Adar in the sixth year of Daryavesh’s reign (Ezra 6:15), which prompted massive celebration. This Holy Temple was destined to stand for 420 years – ten years longer than the first Holy Temple, built by King Solomon.

Even the rebuilding of the Holy Temple did not merit a new festival or a celebration for the generations, because even though Jews were free to make Aliyah, the Holy Temple was standing and functioning, all the sacrifices had been restored, and a Jewish monarch – Daryavesh II – was ruling over Israel, the Land was still ruled by a foreign empire, the nation was not independent. We were not yet “servants of Hashem” – we were still “servants of Daryavesh II” who, even though he was halachically Jewish, was nonetheless a foreign emperor.

Israel would remain in the Persian Empire until Alexander the Great invaded in 333 B.C.E. in a bloodless conquest, and Israel was absorbed into the Greek Empire. When Alexander the Great died ten years later and the Greek Empire fragmented into three successor-empires, Israel was included in the Ptolemaic Empire, ruled from Alexandria in Egypt.

In 198 B.C.E. the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire, ruled by King Antiochus III, invaded Israel from the north, defeating the Ptolemaic Empire. Seleucid reign became progressively harsher, more oppressive, and less tolerant of Judaism, until the Maccabean Revolt in 164 B.C.E.

Only after the Jews in Israel fought and won a War of Independence in the days of the Maccabees, when Israel became politically independent, was a new time for saying Hallel instituted – Chanukah, the festival which celebrates Jewish military victory over a foreign occupier and the restoration of Jewish political sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

The Sages of the Talmud chose to celebrate specifically the day that the Holy Temple was dedicated because that was the central event which epitomised the entire conflict. But the event that Chanukah celebrates is the military victory as a whole and the fact that “Jewish sovereignty was restored for more than 200 years” (Rambam, Laws of Megillah and Chanukah 3:1, Mishnah Berurah 670:1, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 139; see also Aruch ha-Shulchan, Orach Chayyim 670:1).

All these halachic authorities – the Rambam, the Mishnah Berurah, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and the Aruch ha-Shulchan – cite the military victory as the principle reason for celebrating Chanukah, and the miracle of the oil as an afterthought. The Al ha-Nissim prayer mentions only the military victory and the purification of the Holy Temple, and does not mention the miracle of the oil at all.

That was when the conditions implied in the Gemara were fulfilled: the Maccabees’ miraculous military victory over the Seleucid Empire happened in the Land of Israel, and we were once again “servants of Hashem” and no longer servants of any foreign ruler.

That period of independence would end when the Romans would invade and eventually destroy the second Holy Temple.The Land of Israel would then be under foreign occupation for close on 2,000 years, and the nation of Israel would be servants of foreigners and not “servants of Hashem”.

Only in the last generation would God once again grant us a national miracle in the Land of Israel and restore us to the status of “servants of Hashem”. And only the miracle of restored political independence in our Land could create a new day on which to say Hallel.

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