The Spirit of Purim
BY RABBI HERSHEL SCHACHTER
The Rabbis record the tradition that although the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai out of their own free will, there was, nevertheless, an aspect of coercion involved. After the miracle of Purim, the people accepted the Torah again, this time without any element of coercion (Shabbat 88a). When we observe Purim, we celebrate this second accepting of the Torah. According to the Geonim, this is the reason that Purim alone was singled out from all the other holidays instituted by the Rabbis (and recorded in the Megillat Taanit) to have a mitzvah of seudah (eating a festive meal). Just as we must celebrate Shavuot with an elaborate meal as part of the commemoration of our accepting the Torah (Pesachim 68b), so too must Purim be celebrated with an elaborate meal for this same reason.
According to the Midrash, the element of coercion at the time of ma’amad Har Sinai that necessitated the later second acceptance was regarding the Torah Shebe’al Peh. Am Yisrael was fully prepared to accept G-d’s written Torah, since it was clearly of Divine origin. But the bulk of the Oral Law consists of laws classified as divrei sofrim, laws developed by the rabbis over the generations, which have the status of biblical laws. The discretion and judgment of the rabbis is considered Divinely inspired, and therefore has been endowed with biblical status. The Talmud frequently cites the verse “The secrets of G-d are with those who fear Him” (Tehillim 25:14) to illustrate this point.
This is in no way a contradiction to the principal developed by the rabbis of lo bashamayim hi (Bava Metzia 59b), that after the giving of the Torah G-d will no longer reveal any laws to man in a supernatural fashion, i.e. through prophecy, and any bat kol (voice from Heaven) proclaiming a law must be disregarded. G-d expects us to work out the law. At the same time, He has promised to assist the rabbis from behind the scenes to ensure they do not err. The binding force of any psak of any rabbi is based on the assumption that the individual posek was granted this supernatural Divine assistance.
Am Yisrael at the time of the giving of the Torah apparently found it hard to accept this concept (see Me’erot Neryah 16a). At the time of the Purim miracle, a group of rabbis known as the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly, was establishing many of our ritual forms of observance – including berachot, tefillot and other areas of law – as they are still being observed today, two thousand years later. Just as the Jews realized that G-d’s Hand was involved in the Purim story from behind the scenes, they also came to understand the principle of “the secrets of G-d are with those who fear Him”, that G-d’s Hand guides the rabbis’ development of Jewish law and the Oral Torah.
Once the Jewish people accepted the Oral Torah again without any coercion, this part of the Torah began to flourish and develop in a much greater fashion than ever before. Indeed, the greatest part of the development of the Oral Torah took place, historically, after the days of Purim (see Be’Ikvei Hatzon p.138, 114).
The Shelah, in his essay on Purim, cites the verse וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, “and the law was given in Shushan” (Esther 8:14), as an allusion to the Jewish people’s reacceptance of the Torah. The traditional festive Purim meal is eaten to celebrate this reacceptance and should be eaten with such an attitude. Becoming drunk and rowdy does not align with the spirit of Purim observance. Purim is not the Jewish Halloween. The custom of wearing masks and dressing up to conceal one’s true identity is meant to show that just as in the story of Purim, one had to look below the surface to see the hidden Mover behind the events, so too in Torah study, one must always look below the surface, and read in-between the lines to absorb the insights of the Oral Torah. The custom of masquerading is meant to teach us, al tistakel bekankan elah bemah sheyesh bo, “Do not look at the outer appearance of the container, but rather at that which is hiding beneath the surface within it.” This is also why G-d’s name never appears in the megillah. The hidden Oral Torah interpretation always enlightens the Written Torah and puts things into clearer perspective.
● A version of this essay was originally published at TorahWeb.org
Rabbi Hershel Schachter is Rosh Yeshivah and Rosh Kollel at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.