Monday, March 13, 2006

Purim (Rambam)

The Torah of Purim

Rambam seems to have been far too serious a person to go in for frivolity, even on Purim. It is difficult to imagine him sitting around with his buddies, drinking wine and telling jokes, or even mellowly reminiscing about old times and speaking paradoxical words of Torah. Certainly, he didn’t think much of the carnival atmosphere and general revelry of Purim.

Nowhere does he expound upon the spiritual or philosophical meaning of Purim as such: It is not mentioned in the Guide for the Perplexed, except for two or three phrases from the Megillah quoted in passing to illustrate certain linguistic points; the laws of the holiday are brought in requisite detail in the Yad and in Perush ha-Mishnayot, as he does with any other halakhic topic, but there is hardly any discussion of the broader issues of meaning of the holiday, as do so many other Jewish thinkers. Nevertheless, there are a few passages towards the hand of his halakhic treatment of this holiday that are noteworthy in our context. Hilkhot Megillah 2.15:

15. And how does one fulfill the obligation of this feast? That a person should eat meat and prepare a nice feast according to his means. And he is to drink wine until he is drunk and falls asleep in his drunkenness…. And similarly a person is to send two portions… to his friend…

This ruling is an interesting example of how the process of pesak sometimes works. Ravva’s statement that “A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’” (Megillah 7b) had by Rambam’s time had already been considered authoritative and binding halakhically. Yet we can imagine that Rambam hardly found it his liking. So he made it as “painless” and “palatable” as possible by ruling that one can drinks until he feels sleepy, and in the sleeping state he does not know the difference between the two, rather than reaching the dubious state of being plastered out if one’s mind while awake.

16. And he must distribute [money] to the poor on Purim day…

§15 covers the first two celebratory mitzvot of Purim: the feast and the sending of mishloah manot, gifts to ones friends. The two are interrelated, and hence presented in one paragraph: the original intention of mishloah manot was that actual portions of food to be consumed at the Purim feast were send by friend’s to one another, making the feast itself into a tangible sign of camaraderie and mutual love—and not only the sweets that have become almost de rigeur today. The next halakha deals with the obligation to the poor.

17. It is preferable that a person increase the quantity of gifts to the poor rather than that he increase the [size of] his feast or the gifts he sends to his fellows. For there is no greater and more glorious joy than to give joy to the heart of the poor and orphans and widows and strangers. For one who rejoices the heart of these is like the Shekhinah, as is said, “to give life to the spirit of the downtrodden and to give life to the heart of the oppressed” [Isa 57:15]

Here the ethical moment is uppermost. In general, Rambam stressed the supreme importance of remembering the poor, the weak, and the unfortunate. Compare Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:18, where he states that one who feasts on the festival with his family and friends while locking his gate to the poor and bitter of heart, “this is not a rejoicing of mitzvah, but a rejoicing of his own stomach.”

18. All the books of the prophets and the holy writings shall be abnegated in the days of Messiah, apart from the Scroll of Esther. For it shall persist like the five books of the Torah and the laws of the Oral Torah, which shall never be abnegated. And even though the remembrance of the troubles shall be negated, as is said, “for the early troubles shall be forgotten and they shall be hidden from our eyes” [Isa 65:16], the days of Purim shall not be abolished, as is said, “And these days of Purim shall not pass away from among the Jews, and their memory shall not pass from their seed” {Est 9:28}.

RABAD: This cannot be, for nothing shall be abolished from all the books, for there is no book from which there is not that to be learned. But thus did they say: even if the other books will be negated, that people cease to read them, the Scroll [of Esther] will never be negated from being read in public.

This is a very strange and puzzling halakhah: that Purim, and the Megillah, shall persist long after the other holidays will be forgotten. The statement is based on an ancient midrashic tradition, evidently from Midrash Mishlei, but citing its origin makes it no less cryptic or mysterious. And why does Rambam bring it, without explaining why? And what is the point of the whole thing?

There are other books of the Bible that also carry profound messages: the lyrical love of God in the Song of Songs (which Rambam celebrates in Teshuvah 10); the existential dilemma of everyman in the Book of Jonah (at least according to one reading); the family dramas, worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, in Samuel 1 and 2; the profound questions of Divine justice posed in Job; the devotion, kindness, and religious feeling of Ruth the Moabite; etc. Why, against all these, was the Book of Esther alone chosen to last forever? But while Rabad of Posquières poses this very question in his gloss, his answer—that the Book of Esther alone is regularly read in totum in the synagogue, and to a full house—is inadequate and simplistic, what yeshiva students like to dismiss as “ballabatish.”

Here and there, there are hints of a very old underground tradition, in which the Book of Esther was given an esoteric interpretation by the Rabbis. Esther is particularly rich in Midrash: Esther Rabbah; Targum Sheni to Esther; the lengthy aggadah in the first chapter of Bavli Megillah. There is the statement that wherever the Megillah uses the word hamelekh, “the king,” this is intended to allude to God, i.e., “the King of Kings,” as well as to the rather comic, pretentious, stupid figure of Ahasuerus. That is, behind the surface, comic-opera like plot, there is a level of sacred history, of the hidden wheels of Providence operating in the world.

Then there is a tradition of Purim as kind of second holiday of receiving the Torah. ‘’The Jews fulfilled and accepted upon themselves’ [Est 9:27]. They fulfilled that which they had already accepted.” (Shabbat 88a). That is, they accepted voluntarily (“with love”) the torah which they had previously accepted under duress at Mount Sinai. In a similar vein, we read that Mar bar Rabina used to fast every day of the year, with only three exceptions—Shavuot, Purim, and the eve of Yom Kippur.

Then there is the peculiar homily preached by R. Jacob Isserlin in 12th century Ashkenaz, in which the Book of Esther is depicted as a kind of supplement to the written Torah, an esoteric commentary on it:

“And he called unto Moses” [Lev 1:1]—that is, upon Moses. For we find in Scripture that the word el (“to”) is used to substitute for ‘al (“on”). For we find naught in all the prophets that was added to Moses, apart from the reading of the Scroll [of Esther]. Therefore the letter aleph is small, for the miracle was performed by means of a woman; hence the word is written as if it were vayiker. And I do not wish to elaborate any further, and one who is wise will understand. (Leket Yosher, p. 155).

Various other answers have been given to the riddle of the uniqueness of the Book of Esther, and its related festival of Purim. Hasidic books, in particular, refer to Purim as the festival of paradox, and of God’s hiddenness. Behind the masks, the drinking, the tomfoolery and pseudo-Torah and satire, behind the upside-down nature of the day—Venahafokh hu—lies the Divine. But this is more a Hasidic and mystical answer than a Maimonidean one.

A variation of this is found in modern thinkers who speak of Purim as a kind of existential celebration, a day when we confront and look directly at the (seeming?) absurdity of the world (David Hartman); or as a festival of fools (Harvey Cox), a kind of moratorium on the usual gravity and rigidity of a strictly moralistic approach to life (see HY in almost all previous years, where I have developed these ideas at much greater length).

A third answer sees Purim as the holiday of Jewish survival, as a paradigmatic tale of Jewish existence in the Diaspora. “Even though the former troubles will be forgotten… “ (Yoram Hazony devotes his book, The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, to this theme.) All of which leaves our original question, of Rambam’s take on this festival unanswered. Perhaps, even though he did not articulate a clear stance, he too, knowing all these traditions, saw Purim as uniquely suited to be celebrated even beyond the Redemption.


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