ישיבת כרם ביבנה

The Fast and Feast of Purim

David Preil

An integral part of Judaism is the belief that everything that occurs happens because G-d desires it to be. Therefore, nothing happens without a reason. This logic prompted R. Shimon b. Yochai's students to ask him why the Jews who lived in the days of Achashverosh deserved to be destroyed. They suggested that the reason was because they "derived benefit from the feast of that evil man." R. Shimon asked them: If that were the case, only the Jews of Shushan were worthy of annihilation! Rather, he explained, the sin that caused the rise and the decree of Haman was that in the days of Nevuchadnezzar the Jews bowed to an idol. (Megilla 12a)

From this Gemara it seems that the sin that prompted the decree and, later, the miracles of Purim was the sin of idol worship. However, Rashi on the Megilla, in explaining why the decree was passed, mentions both of the aforementioned reasons. Similarly, the Midrash uses both sins to explain why Haman was given the upper hand. It seems that in the end there were two sins: eating at the party, which was local to the Jews of Shushan, and bowing to the idol, which the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for.

It is also interesting to note that in describing the sin of the Shushanites the Gemara uses the phrase, "they derived benefit from the feast of that evil man." Why does it choose to describe Achashverosh in this way instead of simply stating his name?

After Esther was placed in the harem to be prepared for presentation before the king, the Megilla says: "Day after day Mordechai would walk about in front of the courtyard of the harem to learn about Esther's well-being." (Esther 2:11) The Vilna Gaon explains that Mordechai knew Esther was a tzadeket (righteous woman). This being the case, any good from evil people was painful to her, as the Gemara in Yevamot (103b) says, "All the good of the wicked is bad for righteous people." (Rashi explains that the tzadik hates the rasha, and people by nature don't like receiving from people they dislike.) Therefore, explains the Gaon, Mordechai was afraid that Esther would become sick from receiving so much good from the wicked Achashverosh.

This explains the ambiguity of the first Gemara. The Jews didn't violate any commandment by attending the party. All the food was kosher and served by Jewish attendants. The problem was that they received benefit from a rasha. They should have hated the wicked Achashverosh and despised being forced to eat his food. The foreign cuisine should have tasted like cardboard, because it originated from an evil person. If they had gone only with the intention of not upsetting Achashverosh, this would have been so. But, the Gemara testifies, their intentions were less that altruistic; they ate, drank and were merry.

The Megilla says, "These days of Purim will never cease among the Jews, nor shall their remembrance pass from their descendants." (Esther 9:28) The pasuk mentions two aspects of Purim. "These days of Purim" refers to the festivity aspect of the day, and "their remembrance" refers to the reading of the Megilla. (Similarly, it says earlier in the pasuk, "These days should be remembered and celebrated.") The Vilna Gaon explains that these two facets correspond to the two sins that were the cause of the decree. The festivity and merriment reflect the sin of enjoying the feast of Achashverosh, and the reading of the Megilla reflects the worship of the idol in the days of Nevuchadnezzar.

To rectify these two primary sins, Esther led the Jews in fasting, to atone for enjoying the feast of Achashverosh, and Mordechai led them in prayer for forgiveness, to atone for worshipping the idol. The fact that this fast served a unique purpose explains the strange nature of the fast. Normally, when a tragedy strikes, the fasts begin on the first Monday, then Thursday and continue in this pattern. Never in the history of Klal Yisrael has there been a consecutive three-day fast. Why did Esther demand that the people take such a radical course of action that had never been done before and never would be repeated?

When one understands the fast of the days of Shushan as part of the standard Teshuva process they make little sense. However, by understanding that these fasts were more than standard Teshuva - they they were a means of correcting the sin of enjoying the feast of Achashverosh - it is clear that this fast holds a unique place in Jewish history. We had to do more than repent; we had to correct the mistake.

This correction was properly led by Esther. In the king's harem she received all the pleasures and enjoyments a woman could want. In addition to this, the Midrash relates that Hegai, the keeper of the women, suspected that she would be chosen as queen and treated her as one. When she went before the king she could have taken anything with her. Amazingly, throughout the whole ordeal she only took what she was forced to take. She never asked for anything because she didn't want anything. Anything that came from the rasha Achashverosh was repulsive to her, and she could not enjoy it. This is how she was able to live many years in the lap of luxury and never request any pleasures. To her it wasn't pleasure; it was torture.

The Megilla says that Esther was "finely featured and beautiful of appearance." (Esther 2:7) However, the Gemara (13a) says she was green! The Vilna Gaon explains that in reality she was quite beautiful. However, when she was given so much from the king it was so repulsive and sickening to her that her complexion became greenish. Esther's negative response to receiving so much good from Achashverosh led the way in correcting the sin. This, coupled with the fasting of Bnei Yisrael, eradicated the cause of the sin and paved the road to salvation.

This also answers one final question. If the whole sin came about through overindulgence and was corrected by fasting, would it not be more appropriate to commemorate Purim by refraining from eating? The answer is simple. The sin was not the feasting; it was what lay beneath the surface. They enjoyed the pleasure received from a man they should have hated. The ultimate correction is to eat and feast for the sake of a mitzvah. This is why Purim is a holiday of seudah - because only by repeating the actions with proper intentions can we say that the cause of the sin has truly been uprooted.

(Adapted from the sefer "Kiymu V'Kiblu" by R' Shlomo Brevda.)

 

 

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