“Shabbat and Purim”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This year, the festival of Purim will be celebrated throughout the world on Saturday evening, March 19th, and Sunday, March 20th (except for Jerusalem and other ancient walled cities in which Purim is celebrated a day later). Consequently, I have chosen to focus on the story of Purim, rather than comment on this week’s parasha, parashat Tzav. (For previous analyses of parashat Tzav, please consult the parasha archives.)

Because the festival of Purim begins at the conclusion of Shabbat, the Fast of Esther, which is normally observed on the day before Purim, is moved to the previous Thursday. It is only when Yom Kippur occurs on Shabbat, that a fast is observed on that holy day.

Upon careful review of the Book of Esther, we find several fascinating connections between the story of Purim and Shabbat.

According to the wonderful interpretation by the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia), summarized in Tetzaveh 5761-2001, Ahasuerus was a mercenary who had amassed great wealth and bought his way into the monarchy of Persia and Medea. In order to justify his exalted position, he married Vashti, a blue-blooded Babylonian princess, the daughter of the last Babylonian king, Belshazzar, and the granddaughter of the great conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar. While Vashti is always referred to in the Book of Esther as a queen, Ahasuerus is not introduced as a king. The Book of Esther opens simply with “And it came to pass, in the days of Ahasuerus, who reigned from India to Ethiopia.”

A pretender to the throne, Ahasuerus was terribly insecure, and concerned that because of his lack of royal qualifications, the people might not be loyal to him. To win the citizens’ loyalty, Ahasuerus throws a royal party for one hundred and eighty days, celebrating the third year of his reign. He also breaks many established Babylonian traditions, allowing the common people into the magnificent hanging gardens of Babylon, and even into the royal palaces. He established new, more lenient, rules for drinking, allowing even those who were not experienced drinkers, to drink as much or as little as they pleased, no longer requiring the large amounts that the Babylonians had established for the “real men.”

To guarantee his first line of defense, Ahasuerus threw a second, special party: a seven day bash, for the citizens of Shushan, the capital.

In order to show the citizens of his great empire that he indeed was a legitimate monarch, Ahasuerus ordered Queen Vashti to come to the men’s party on the seventh day, to show her beauty to all. His real intention, of course, was to underscore that he did not marry Vashti to gain legitimacy as a king, but only because she was so stunningly beautiful. Our rabbis say, that when Ahasuerus ordered Vashti to come wearing a royal crown, he intended her to come naked, wearing only the royal crown.

The blue-blooded Vashti would not stand for this. She was, after all, legitimate royalty, and her slovenly, mercenary husband could not simply order her around with such disrespect. To add insult to injury, instead of inviting her personally, Ahasuerus sent menial chamberlains to summon Vashti. This was beneath contempt, and Vashti refused to come, even at the cost of her life. Eventually, Vashti is either banished or put to death.

Scripture tells us that Queen Vashti had also made a feast for the women in the royal house of King Ahasuerus. The Book of Esther then continues to state, 1:10: “Ba’yom hahsh’vee’ee, k’tov layv ha’meh’lech bah’yahyin,” On the seventh day when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he ordered his seven chamberlains, who attended the king, to bring Queen Vashti before him, wearing the royal crown, to show off to the people and the officials her beauty, for she was beautiful to look upon.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), maintains that the “seventh day” was Shabbat. The Talmud, in Megilla 12b, states that Vashti was particularly cruel to the Jewish women who served her. She would strip them naked and make them work on Shabbat. It was therefore, on Shabbat, that her punishment occurred, and because of her abuse of the Jewish women, the Divine spirit moved King Ahasuerus to order Vashti to appear publicly, stripped of all clothing.

The May’am Lo’ez (an extensive Ladino commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible, 17-18th century) suggests another connection to Shabbat. On the first day of the king’s banquet, Mordechai and the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of Israel) began fasting and praying for six days that G-d should not allow the Jews to be destroyed. On the seventh day, the Shabbat, G-d responded to their prayers, by causing Vashti’s rebellion.

Another connection to Shabbat is highlighted by the commentaries, in chapter two of the Book of Esther. There we learn that Esther, the niece of Mordechai, was taken, against her will, to the royal beauty contest that would result in her being chosen successor to Queen Vashti. As soon as Esther arrives at the palace, she is placed under the charge of Hegai, the chamberlain of the women. Esther finds favor in Hegai’s eyes, and he hurriedly prepares her cosmetics, and provides her with everything, all the anointments and delicacies that were fit for a Queen.

The Book of Esther, 2:9, states as well, “V’ayt sheva ha’n’ah’roht hah’r’oo’yoht lah’tet lah mee’bayt ha’meh’lech,” that Hegai also provided Esther with seven special maidens from the palace, and transferred Esther and her maidens to the best housing facilities.

The Malbim points out that Hegai favored Esther more than all the other candidates in four ways. Only Esther began her cosmetic regimen immediately, so that her twelve months of beauty testing would be quickly completed, expediting her introduction to the king. Apparently, Hegai immediately recognized that Esther would be chosen to be queen, and therefore favored only Esther with gifts, as is fitting for a queen. A queen also has seven attendants, and that is why Hegai gave Esther seven maidens to serve her. He also granted special favors to Esther that none of the other candidates received. She received the best and most beautiful accommodations in the palace and the finest foods.

The ArtScroll Megillah, cites the Yaarot Devash (Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, 1690-1764, great Torah scholar of Moravia), who refers to the Talmudic passage, which explains that Esther was given seven maidens so that she could keep track of the days of the week, assigning a different maiden to serve her on each day of the week. The commentators are surprised that Esther, a prophetess, would be unable to keep track of Shabbat. But that was not really the purpose. Esther’s real intention of assigning a specific day to a specific maiden, was to keep her identity as a Jew hidden. Esther was afraid that the maidens would notice that during all the days of the week she kept very busy, but on Shabbat, she never performed any work. But those who ministered to Esther on the weekdays never saw her rest on Shabbat, and the Shabbat maiden simply assumed that as a potential queen, she never worked at all, not only on Shabbat.

From these two references to Shabbat in the Book of Esther, we see the powerful influence of Shabbat. It was because of Shabbat, that Vashti was ultimately deposed as queen. It was also Esther’s abiding commitment to Shabbat, that undoubtedly influenced the Divine powers to choose Esther, not only to be queen over one hundred and twenty seven states, but also to be the instrument of salvation for her people, and become a heroine of our people for all time.

Having the Holy Shabbat lead us directly into Purim should allow each of us to feel a special sense of empowerment this year.

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, and Sunday, March 19-20, 2011. Since the Fast of Esther cannot be observed on Shabbat, it will be observed on the previous Thursday, March 17, from dawn to nightfall.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information Click here.