"Rabbis Reject New Holiday"

"Mordekhai Blasted as Reformer"

"Council of Torah Sages Fears Gentile Reaction"

As Jews worldwide prepare for Purim, few realize that had there been newspapers at the time of Mordekhai and Ester, the headlines would have read something like the above. No, this is not "Purim Torah." This is absolutely for real - and the facts are recorded, quite explicitly, in the Meghillah (the Book of Ester) and the Talmud.

Purim: A New Paradigm

Torah sages are, by nature, conservative. Prior to the events of Purim, the only festivals k

Many of the sages were opposed to the newfangled notion of Purim, as we learn in the Babylonian Talmud.

nown were those mandated in the Torah. When a respected Jewish leader (Mordekhai) and a young Jewish woman (Queen Ester) insisted that a new festival be instituted, and that a new book be added to the Bible in its honour - a revolution in the spiritual life of the Jewish people was set in motion: "Forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses arose in Israel, and they did not add to nor detract from that which is written in the Torah with the exception of the reading of the Meghillah." (Babylonian Talmud, Meghillah 14a)

Many of the sages were opposed to the newfangled notion of Purim, as we learn in the Babylonian Talmud (Meghillah 7a): "Ester sent [a letter] to the sages: 'Establish me (i.e., Purim) for future generations.' They replied: 'You will only cause us strife with the nations! (Who will say that we rejoice at their downfall - Rashi).' She replied: 'I (i.e., the events of Purim) am recorded in the royal archives of Madhai and Persia' (and the Gentiles will in any event know - Rashi).... Ester sent [a second letter] to the sages: 'Write me up for future generations' (i.e., add the Meghillah to the Bible)."

It would seem, based on this Babylonian account, that fear of the nations was the sages' major concern. However, as is often the case, it is the Jerusalem Talmud that elucidates the core issue:

"Rabbi Shemuel Bar-Nahman reported in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: 'Eighty five sages, over thirty of whom were prophets, were greatly vexed by this matter [of instituting Purim and including the Meghillah in the Bible]. They reasoned thus: It is written: 'These are the misswoth that HaShem commanded Moshe' (Wayiqra 27:34). These are the misswoth we were commanded by Moshe, and thus said Moshe: 'No other prophet shall henceforth introduce something new.' And [yet] Mordekhai and Ester wish to innovate! They continued to consider the matter until the Holy One Blessed be He opened their eyes, and they discovered [that a source for Purim] was hinted at in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings...." (Meghillah 1:5)

The Crux of the Matter

Fear of Gentile reaction was, evidently, a partial excuse at best. The crux of the matter was a clash of Torah philosophies: Is Halakha sacrosanct and immutable, or can it sometimes evolve to fit the facts of Torah life, the better to serve HaShem's purpose and the Jewish people's needs?

These two schools of thought have coexisted throughout our history. The most obvious examples, perhaps, are the sages Hillel and Shammai and the two schools they founded. The School of Shammai was conservative, their Halakhic approach rigid. The School of Hillel was more lenient and willing to consider innovation. The Mishnah relates that when Hillel saw the plight of the common people who were unable to receive loans from the wealthy classes due to the approaching Sabbatical year (when all loans would be forfeit) - thereby nullifying the Torah commandment, "If there be among you a needy man, one of yo

Is Halakha sacrosanct and immutable, or can it sometimes evolve to fit the facts of Torah life, the better to serve HaShem's purpose and the Jewish people's needs?

ur brethren, within any of your gates, in your Land which HaShem your God gives you. You shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand against your brother in need. Rather, you shall surely open your hand for him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need." (Devarim 15:7-8) - he introduced the radical reform known as Prozbul, which enabled the circumvention of the prohibition (Shevi'ith 10:3).

The Split and the Royal 'We'

The Purim episode resulted in a split among the Sages, which fact is alluded to in the following statement: "'For Mordekhai the Jew was second to King Ahashwerosh, great among the Jews, and accepted by the majority of his brethren.' (Ester 10:3) - 'the majority of his brethren' and not his all his brethren. This teaches us that some of the Sanhedrin [i.e., his brethren] distanced themselves from him (Mordekhai)." (Babylonian Talmud, Meghillah 16b)

If the truth be told, Purim only entered the Jewish calendar due to royal intervention. And so we read:

"And Mordekhai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews that were in all the provinces of king Ahashwerosh, both near and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month of Adhar, and the fifteenth day of the same, each year (Ester 9:20-21).... Then Ester the queen, the daughter of Avihayil, and Mordekhai the Jew, wrote in the strongest possible terms to confirm this second letter of Purim.... to confirm these days of Purim in their appointed times, as Mordekhai the Jew and Ester the queen had enjoined them.... And Ester's proclamation confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was entrusted to writing (Ester 9:29-32)."

Initially Mordekhai wrote in his name alone, but this proved insufficient. He needed the 'royal we'.

"This passage informs us that the Jews kept this misswah [of Purim initially], but later relinquished it. Mordekhai therefore needed Ester to proclaim it, as she was the queen.... [It] was not established for all time until Ester published it in writing." (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, ad loc)

Mordekhai, Hillel and Torath Eress Yisrael

And so it has been ever since. In every generation, there are Torah scholars who adopt a Shammai-like approach - their main concern is traditionalism, maintaining that which was. This, in my humble opinion, is a fair description of the present-day rabbinical establishment. On the other hand, every generation also produces great Torah minds, rabbis who take the longer view and are able to perceive new needs and challenges, and formulate an appropriate response.

Let us not forget, too, that the Jewish people are just coming out of a 2,000-year exile. Like a patient waking from an extended coma, we need to take stock of our situation, re-familiarize ourselves with our natural surroundings and relearn many things that were once instinctive.

"But isn't that like Reform Judaism?" some ask. Not at all. Reform Judaism simply bends to whim and convenience. As opposed to such flippancy, change and innovation in response to new-old realities, based on authentic Halakhic sources and reasoning, and aimed at furthering the goals of the Torah itself - as with Hillel's Prozbul or Mordekhai's Purim - are not only legitimate, but the very life-blood of the Oral Tradition and Halakhic process.

Making changes to received Jewish practice is a delicate matter to be sure. The rule of thumb is, "If it works, don't fix it." But what to do when it doesn't work? Mordekhai and Hillel serve as the paradigm. The revolution begun by Mordekhai and Ester was continued by Hillel and his disciples. And the House of Hillel, as we know, eventually won the day, setting the course for the Jewish people for future generations.