The Talmud re-reads Esther and the Purim story to teach Jews in exile how to deal with false prophets.
The Torah tells us the prophets talked to God. The ancients (Adam, Eve, Noah), the patriarchs and matriarchs, (Abraham, Sarah, etc.), and prophets (Moses, Miriam, Devorah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) had a direct line. They conversed with Him – some more than others – like an intimate.
There once was a second way to talk to God. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, wore a mystical Breastplate of Judgment (the choshen or the Urim v’Thumim), an array of jewels that would light up, like a mystical computer, receiving coded transmissions directly from God.
In 536 BCE, the Jews return to Israel from their exile in Babylon and eventually rebuild the Temple. But when the High Priest dons the Urim vThumim again, he finds that the signal is noisy and unreliable. A local call has become a long distance one, and from a tricky payphone at that. So the High Priest mostly wears it as a symbol of authority, aspiration, and perhaps nostalgia, hoping it will one day ring again. It never did.
Will prophecy ever return? Or can inspired individuals continually keep Judaism alive by writing and teaching? And if so, what happens if a charismatic Jew gets over-heated, believes or pretends to believe God has spoken to him or her alone, sets up as a modern self-styled prophet, and begins to attract Jews to their vision or re-vision?
I believe that Esther, the heroine of Purim and the exemplar of the diaspora Jew, has answers for us. Or more specifically, the sages of the Talmud, living and writing in their own diaspora, extract a strong answer from Esther’s story.
The Second Exile Reflects on the First One
When the Second Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, prophecy is completely lost. The Romans martyr the great rabbis horribly and scatter the Jews into another, but much worse, exile. Fearing that the Jews will disintegrate in the Diaspora, Judah HaNasi (The Prince) compiles the Mishnah, the tradition of laws and practices that defined Jewishness, by 200 CE. Over the next 300 years, rabbis gather in academies in Babylon and what’s left of them in Palestine (the Romans rename Israel after her enemies to humiliate her) and further elucidate the Mishnah in a long, hypertextual, and incredibly complex symposium. The thousands of pages recording their stories, debates, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries across centuries and countries is called the gemarah. Together, the mishnah and gemarah comprise the Talmud, which has been the foundation of Jewish life, thought and religion in the Diaspora, along with the hope of returning to Israel.
The sages of the Talmud are prescient. They seem to anticipate that the wait for the next reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is going to be a long one. So they transmute Judaism into something portable and vital, adaptable to alien environments. They transform the authority of the Temple, the physical home for God, into an enduring and expansive form of inquiry, discourse, and exegesis. Architecture becomes architexture, a sprawling text, a vine with many roots and branches sprouting and spreading. One offshoot may die out but another springs up somewhere else. Burn it, eradicate the people attached to it, and still a single Jew (and a donkey or two) could transport the Talmud to revive the Jewish legacy.
In this milieu, the threat that a charismatic Jew might arise and declare he has a new vision of God’s instructions for us is a problem. By 200 CE, when the Sages begin to write the Talmud, it has become the problem, as Christianity becomes ascendent throughout Palestine and Rome. So sages now have a dilemma. It is urgent to address the threat, but they have to do so furtively. After all, they are living precariously as guests of idolators and Christians. They often have to speak about it in code. They remember how gruesomely the Romans martyred the rabbis and leaders of the Jews. They are witnessing Romans slaughter Christians around them, many of them former Jews. Although Judah the Prince may have enjoyed periods of peace under enlightened rulers like Marcus Aurelius and even been his personal friend (“Antoninus” in the Talmud), it could all turn on a dime (or a rather, a denarum). It’s precarious, but too much is at stake, and the people are too vulnerable. They must understand how to tell false prophecy from true. For this, they summon Esther, the queen of living precariously, in code, in diaspora, and press her story in the Megillah, into service.
Esther Gets and then Loses Her Mojo
Queen Esther is the central figure of the Purim, the story of how the Jews of Persia during their exile there, survive a terrible threat. The villain Haman is plotting to kill all the Jews throughout Persia’s vast kingdom, and he has the ear of King Ahashveros. Esther is a Jew, but the King doesn’t know it. Now she’s in a terrible, existential dilemma. If she exposes herself, especially by coming to the King unbidden, she is pretty sure the King will kill her like he did her predecessor, Vashti. If she doesn’t, the Jews will be exterminated.
Mordechai, who both raised her and is leader of the Jews, tells her, “Perhaps you have been put in this position for just this moment.”
At this moment, the sages tells us, when the fate of the Jews rests in the balance, prophecy descends on her. This detail is missing in the Megillah’s original text, but the Talmud devotes an entire volume (or mesechet), also called Megillah, to uncovering the hidden messages and elaborating the transcendent impact of the Purim story. God, at this fateful moment in history, speaks to Esther. She finds the courage to reveal herself to her King. Her intercession saves the Jews. Haman and his ten sons are executed, and the Jews throughout Persia celebrate. Jews til this day do, too, in the most festive day of the year.
When the storm is over, the Talmud tells us, Esther reaches for her personal line to God only to find that it was a one-night stand. She is completely forlorn, and the sages tell us she cries out in a heart-rending line that echoes through the centuries:
The Divine Presence departed from her and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me’.
Masechet Megillah (Talmud) 15a-b:
True and False Prophets
The sages’ expansion of the Megillah is not a casual bit of tale-telling (aggadatah), and their recruitment of Esther is not just a convenience. Rather, as we will see as we peel back the layers of references contained in this line they put in Esther’s mouth, they have constructed a profound and complex palimpsest. Many meanings are layered on top of and wind around each other, hiding and revealing aspects and interpenetrating each other at once. In this way, the Talmud re-reads the first diaspora in the second, and Esther, that figure of doubled meanings, names, identities, and veils, is an avatar of their cryptographic project.
Now to the most shocking part of this. The sages are writing circa 200 CE. What Jews in the marketplace around them would hear (should they be interested in the scribblings of the rabbis at all) might be very familiar to them. It is the same lament attributed to Jesus.
According to the Gospels, Jesus cries out during his execution:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46
(Mark and Matthew use the word ‘sabachthani’, it is the Aramaic equivalent of azvatani from the Greek root shebaq = σαβαχ = סבאח = “abandon”).
In other words, Esther’s cry and the final words attributed to Jesus on the cross are identical! Mark and Matthew are among the earliest of the gospels, composed around 70- 90 CE, so they would have had both profound resonance and enough of a history to be widely known among the Jews. For a century after Jesus, his story and Judaism may even have been entangled in the minds of most average Jews. By 200 CE, the real threat of a “new covenant” replacing the Torah would have been quite clear, as an unknown but very large number of Jews became Christians.
How could the sages be so bold to steal signals from the opposing team? Why would they cite from a source they certainly saw as inimical to theirs? What message are they sending?
The line is striking because at first glance it seems to be borrowed from the gospels of Mark and Matthew: Jesus cries out the same thing just before he dies. They seem to be deliberately contrasting Esther’s true prophecy to Jesus’. On second look, however, there is even more than meets the eye, as everything else in the Purim story.
It goes without saying that the exemplar of the false prophet for the Sages was Jesus. A Jew, he and his disciples expertly re-tell all the stories of the Jewish Scriptures and deeply re-purpose it – the Seder becomes the Last Supper, Isaac is the sacrificed son and sacrificial lamb, Moses the archetype for the messiah, etc. – to craft a comfortingly familiar way to deliver a radical re-interpretation of humanity’s relationship to God. The Torah becomes the “Old” Testament, an honored but obsolete allegory of the “New” one, and it is filled with echoes and cribbings and appropriations of the symbology of the Jews.
So it is not surprising that we find Jesus’ cry has its true source in the stunning opening line of Psalms 22, one of the soaring poems by King David (10th C BCE):
“My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”
[אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי – Eli, eli lama azvatani?]
When the Talmud tells us Esther says the same thing, far from plagiarizing the gospels, they are loudly re-appropriating the Jewish narrative!
But this opens a whole new textual terrain to scan for what the sages are after, because the Talmud is surely pursuing something less trivial than a copyright claim.
Psalms 22 has the aura of a general prophetic lamentation: God has forsaken Israel. He has put her at the mercy of animals and scavengers, symbols in the Talmud of the pagan nations who will mock Israel if she falls:
“For dogs have encompassed me; a company of evil-doers have inclosed me; like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet.
“I may count all my bones; they look and gloat over me. They part my garments among them, and for my vesture do they cast lots (‘goral’ – גורל).”
The Gospels also borrow this image. According to Matthew 27:35-37, just a few lines before Jesus’ lament, Roman soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes right beneath him where he is hung to die. The process has ancient legal status in Jewish and pagan traditions: when two parties have equal claims to booty or spoils of war, the goral was an official method of divvying them up. But the soldiers’ craps game also invokes the image of a conquering pagan empire Rome.
Is it just coincidence, then, that Purim is named after the casting of lots? Haman casts lots to choose the date on which to execute the Jews. But it’s a completely different word – פור (‘pur’), not ‘גורל’ (‘goral’). But, when we look at Megillat Esther, sure enough, the text uses both words:
“And [Haman] had cast the pur, which is the goral.” – Megillat Esther 9:24
We could have called Purim Goralim!
Prophecy in Exile?
The sages are obviously well aware of the intertextual reference, as well as the gospels’ attempt to appropriate it for what they would consider false prophesy. By connecting their situation to the centuries-older Esther story and connecting hers to the yet centuries-old Davidic psalm, they send many intertwined messages at once. They reflect on their exile in Persia as an analog their own. Dogs and scavengers gamble over the remnants of our glory after prophecy has departed from us. Israel is defeated and exiled. But finally, the furtive battle against Christianity is only part of their intent here. They also seem to be saying something to the Jews about how to resist false prophecy in exile when they have none of their own.
Although the Name of God never appears in Megillat Esther, God’s role in the story is invisible but ubiquitous, like the kinim of Moses’ third plague in Pharaoh’s court. Upon seeing the invisible gnats – the “noseeums” as they call them in the South – arise from dust, the wizards declare, “This is Etzbah HaShem – the Finger of God!” Although invisible, God is as ubiquitous and omnipotent in Ahashveros’ court as He is in Pharaoh’s. He is nowhere on stage in the Megillah, yet everywhere at once, the original Deus ex machina. He trumps Haman’s invocation of the anarchy of mere chance to decide the fate of the Jews by re-asserting His power over mere, anathematic randomness. What day does the lot fall on? A day, like everything else in the Megillah, of doubled and paradoxical symbolism: Haman exults because it is the day of Moses’ death, but also he doesn’t know it’s also the day of his birth! Doom is imminent, but redemption will triumph.
But after the drama is over, He has withdrawn from Esther, and she doesn’t know when He’s coming back, if ever. Purim, the Talmud tells us, is about this loss of prophetic power. Esther’s struggle, like ours in our diaspora, is to continue to believe in God’s ubiquity, omnipotence, and attention to us however heartbreaking that loss. The Sages thus erect the Purim story as bulwark against their – and our – compromised historical condition. They furtively prop up Esther as a David slaying the Goliath of false prophecy they now face – the casting of lots. Like Esther, we inhabit a foreign domain, unsure when and if prophecy will return at any time, consigned to trying to read His mind as best we can from what He has left behind, and tempted to assimilate to false prophets and strange worship.
We are all Esthers today. Prophecy has withdrawn, lamentably. However much we yearn for it, and however much we shape our actions to deserve it, and however much we are seized by inspiration – to the point we want to convince everyone we are right – nonetheless, Talmud tells us, legitimate prophecy doesn’t come to us now. Anyway, we have no one with the authority to declare that anyone’s over-heated inspirations, however charismatic and persuasive, has legitimacy, either. Instead, we are caught in the spin cycle of history’s washing machine. We have to trust that the Finger of God continues to stir the pot, that His Will in our affairs, like the kinim in Pharaoh’s court, acts invisibly but ubiquitously and with a reasonable plan for our fates that is better than a mere casting of lots.
Original draft, Mountain View 2014. Revised, San Mateo 2019
[Thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha for teaching me about the status of the Urim v’Thumim in the Second Temple.
*Thanks to Ziva Hassenfeld, Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, for inspiring this question, leading me to Ziv and providing the halachic context for it in a shiur she gave our Talmud class on Feb 19, 2014.
[*] Masechet Megillah. The Gemara is attributed to R. Elazar in the name of R. Chanina, one of first generation commentators on the Mishnah (Amoraim) and a student of R. Judah HaNasi, around late second century CE (180-200 CE)