In a remarkable midrash on Mishlei, we read the following:
“All of the festivals will be nullified in the future [the messianic age], but Purim will never be nullified” (1).
This assertion seems to fly in the face of Jewish tradition, which states categorically that the Jewish festivals mentioned in the Torah, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot will never cease to be celebrated. This is mentioned by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah:
All the books of the Prophets and all the Scriptures will be nullified in the days of the Mashiach, except for Megillat Esther, which is as permanent as the Five Books of Moshe and the laws of the Oral Torah [including the festivals], which will never lose their relevance (2).
Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, in his famous commentary Torah Temimah (3), explains this contradiction – in the name of his father, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein – in the following most original manner:
The miracle of Purim is very different from the miracles mentioned in the Torah. While the latter were overt miracles, such as the ten plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai and the falling of the man (manna) in the desert, the miracle of Purim was covert. Unlike with the miracles narrated in the Torah, no law of nature was ever violated in the Purim story, and the Jews were saved from the hands of Haman harasha (the evil Haman) by seemingly normal historical occurrences. Had we lived in those days we would have noticed nothing unusual, and many secularists would have explained the redemption of the Jews in Persia as the logical outcome of a series of natural and coincidental events. Only retroactively, when looking back at the story, would we have been astonished by all the incidents, their unusual sequence, and the seemingly unrelated and insignificant human acts that led to the complete redemption of the Jews during the time of Achashveirosh’s reign. The discovery that all these events actually concealed a miracle could only be made after the fact.
Covert miracles will never cease to exist, explains the Torah Temimah. In fact, they take place every day. But overt miracles such as the splitting of the Red Sea have come to an end. In light of this, the midrash on Mishlei is not suggesting that the actual festivals mentioned in the Torah will be nullified in future days, since this would contradict Jewish belief. Rather, it is stating that the original reasons for celebrating the festivals, namely overt miracles, have ceased.
So, one should read the midrash as follows: Overt miracles, which we celebrate on festivals mentioned in the Torah, no longer occur. But covert miracles such as those celebrated on Purim will never end; they continue to occur every day of the year. In other words, all the other festivals will still be celebrated to commemorate great historical events in Jewish history, events to be remembered and relived in the imagination of man so as to make them relevant and teach us many lessons for our own lives. Purim, on the other hand, although rooted in a historical event of many years ago, functions as a constant reminder that the Purim story never ended. We are still living it. The Megillah is open-ended; it was not and will never be completed! Covert miracles still happen.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner z”l, in his celebrated work Pachad Yitzchak (4), (volume on Purim, chapter 33), uses this idea to explain a highly unusual halachic stipulation related to Purim. During all Torah festivals, the congregation sings Hallel, the well-known, classic compilation of specific Psalms. These Psalms praise God for all the great miracles He performed for Israel in biblical times, on occasions for which these festivals were later established. Why, then, asks the Talmud, do we not sing Hallel on Purim? Is there not even more reason to sing these Psalms on the day that God performed the great miracle of rescuing Israel from the hands of Haman? The Talmud answers “Kriyata zu hallila” (5) – the reading of Megillat Esther is in itself praise. When we read the story of Esther, we actually fulfill the obligation of singing Hallel, because telling this story is the greatest praise to God for having saved the Jews. Reading the story awakens in us a feeling of deep gratitude and appreciation for the miracle of Jewish survival against all odds.
Interestingly, one of the most celebrated commentators on the Talmud, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1315), ponders the need to say Hallel on Purim if a person is unable to read or hear the Megillah. In this case, according to his opinion, the person should indeed sing Hallel, since one must thank God for what happened. Rabbi Hutner, however, points out that no other authority agrees with this opinion. They all rule that even if a person is unable to read the Megillah, they should still not sing Hallel.
Rabbi Hutner explains this ruling in a most remarkable way, based on our earlier explanation. The psalms in Hallel speak about overt miracles and praise God for His revealed wonders such as those related in the Torah. Hallel intentionally does not include praise to God for covert miracles, since those must be praised in a hidden way so as to remind the worshipper that such miracles occur on a daily basis. This is the reason why on Purim we read Megillat Esther and do not recite Hallel. Megillat Esther is the story of a hidden miracle, and through the reading of this story in front of a congregation, God receives praise in the appropriate way – in a subtle and hidden manner. After all, it is not God who needs praise, but people who need to praise; they must therefore do it in a way that corresponds to the actual miracle. They have to realize what kind of miracle took or takes place. Singing Hallel, instead, would be missing the point.
Moreover, one often wonders why the story of Purim is still relevant at all after the Holocaust. Not even a hidden miracle was performed to save the Jews from the hands of Hitler, a greater enemy than Haman. Why continue to praise God for a hidden miracle when it seems that even hidden miracles came to an end with the Holocaust? This question should be on the mind of every Jew who celebrates Purim. And it is not only the Holocaust that should raise this issue. The Spanish Inquisition; the many pogroms; and the various forms of exterminating complete Jewish communities throughout all of Jewish history, in which God’s saving hand was absent; all of these beg that very question. Shouldn’t these events convince Jews to abolish Purim altogether? History has proven Purim to be irrelevant and even offensive. How can we continue celebrating Purim when six million Jews, collectively, did not see the hidden hand of God and were left with no divine intervention? Is celebrating Purim not an affront to all those millions who were tortured and died under the most hideous circumstances?
Hundreds of personal stories describe how Jews risked their lives to rejoice in their Jewishness while facing the Nazis’ atrocities. In the extermination camps, they celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and even Purim, and they literally had to decide whether to sing Hallel after failed attempts to find a Megillah. What was it that kept them going? Was it just wishful thinking? What they realized then, as never before, was the eternity and indestructibility of the Jews. Perpetuity is the very essence of the Jews. When Rabbi Moshe Friedman of Boyan, a towering personality and great Talmid Chacham in pre-war Poland, was brought to Auschwitz with a transport of deeply religious Jews, during Pesach 1943, he was asked to undress prior to the “shower.” He turned to the Oberscharführer, grasped the lapel of his Nazi jacket and said to him: “You, the most despicable murderers in the world! Don’t imagine for one moment that you will succeed in destroying the Jewish people. The Jewish nation will live forever. It will not vanish from the stage of history; instead, you will be erased and disappear” (6).
It was indeed the famous, somewhat anti-Semitic historian Arnold Toynbee who, with great annoyance, alluded to what history has taught us: any nation that will stand up against the Jews will ultimately disappear. Such was the fate of the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks, and such may yet be the fate of the Germans (7).
Jews have been an ever-dying people that never died. They continuously experience resurrection, like the dry bones that Yechezkel saw in the valley (8). This has become the sine qua non of every Jew. It is the mystery of the hidden miracle of survival in the face of overwhelming destruction. True, the Führer was Amalek, and Haman prevailed, but ultimately they were defeated. We live in spite of peril. Our refusal to surrender has turned our story into one long, unending Purim tale. To this day, a large part of the world does not know what to do with us. We make them feel uneasy because we represent something they can’t put their finger on. Jews are sui generis. More than anything else, it is the existence and survival of the State of Israel that irritates many. The rules of history predicted that the Jews would die a definite and final death; instead, we have become the greatest success story in all of modern history. Perplexity morphed into aversion. Where does this small nation, which does not comprise even one percent of the world population, have the chutzpah to play such a crucial role in science, technology, and many other areas of human knowledge?
What would the world do without Jews, who are responsible for so many inventions that are vital to the survival of the modern world? Great progress and major breakthroughs in the world of medicine, such as the treatment of paralysis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and DNA breakdown, are Israeli accomplishments. What about Windows, voice mail, and the most advanced anti-terror systems? Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, and in proportion to its population has the largest number of start-up companies in the world. It is ranked second in the world for venture capital funds. And the list goes on.
Even if, God forbid, the State of Israel would not survive Iran – the Haman of our day – every Jew instinctively knows that the Jewish people will endure, even without their homeland, and will climb the ladder and surprise the world once again. Purim will never cease.
As the camp commander…took a number of young Gerer Chassidim to be put to death, one of them, Israel Eisenberg, asked for permission to say a few words of farewell to his friends. I stood opposite them and heard every word. He did not speak many words….He got hold of the hands of another young man and started singing. They were calling to each other: “Kiddush Hashem, the most important thing, let us rejoice!” They all began to sing and to dance as if a fire had been lit within them. Their sidelocks, which were then hidden under their hats, they now pulled out and let them hang over their faces. They paid no attention to what was going on around them. They were dancing and singing. And I thought I would lose my senses; that young people should go to their death as one goes to a dance! Thus dancing, they jumped into the pit as a rain of bullets was pouring down on them (9).
Which Jew, even secular, or atheist, dares to betray these young people by not celebrating Purim? Which Jew dares to ignore Judaism, thereby being guilty of spiritual bankruptcy in the face of these fearless Chassidim? This is the ultimate question that all Jews must ask themselves. Not to do so would be a tragic dereliction of duty.
- Midrash Mishlei 9:2.
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:18. For a completely different interpretation, see my booklet The Torah as God’s Mind: A Kabbalistic look into the Pentateuch (Jerusalem: Bep-Ron Publications, 1988).
- Torah Temimah on Megillat Esther 9:28.
- The volume on Purim, chapter 33.
- Masechet Megillah 14a.
- See Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps (New York & London: Sanhedrin Press, 1979) pp. 110-111.
- Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 volumes, 1934-61.
- Yechezkel 37:1-14.
- Eliezer Berkovits, ibid, pp. 111-112, as told by a Kapo in the Plaszow concentration camp.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank
We suggest printing out and discussing at your Shabbat table, if you like
1) Rabbi Cardozo presents one Talmudic reason given for not reciting the Hallel on Purim, namely that the reading of the megillah itself is the praise of Hallel. However the same section in the Talmud (Masechet Megillah, 14a) gives another reason why Hallel is not to be said on Purim, namely that after the miracle of being saved from Haman, we nonetheless remained servants to Achashveirosh. In this regard, it is possible to argue that the covert miracle of Purim saved the Jewish people but did not redeem them whereas the overt miracles associated with Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot did not just save the Jewish people but actually redeemed them. In this framing of the matter, Hallel is to be said over events and miracles which result in a redemption of the Jewish people and not merely when the Jewish people is saved. However if this is the case, why should a holiday where we were merely saved be celebrated in the messianic age when holidays that redeemed us will be abolished?
2) Rabbi Cardozo puts forth the thought that major atrocities which have befallen the Jewish people such as the Holocaust put into question the notion of covert miracles happening to us every day. However, alternative theories have been put forth to explain God’s presence or absence when atrocities have befallen the Jewish people (see for example The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust [Religion and Gender] by Melissa Raphael), usually revolving around the notion of perspective and the lens through which Jewish history is understood.
– Should we be lessening our joy at a time like Purim, considering the tribulations the Jewish people have endured and our state of being an ever‑dying people – or should we rather rejoice at Purim with all our might by changing our perspectives on what a covert miracle is?
3) Part of the tension to which Rabbi Cardozo alludes in his essay is the tension between the individual Jew and the collective of the Jewish people. Whereas the atrocity of the Holocaust is most felt at the individualistic level, from a collective perspective the Jewish people not only survived the Holocaust but, from its ashes, beyond belief, have built an Israel which appears to be more thriving, more successful and more influential than historical Israel during the times of the First and Second Temple, by any account. Relating to that collective perspective appears to be becoming increasingly difficult for the individual in today’s Western climate and culture of individualism.
– How do you relate to the collective of the Jewish people when it requires of you to forego or even sacrifice an aspect of your individualism?
4) Some Jewishly committed and observant people find Purim to be a really difficult day, an experience of forced jollity that they do not really feel. Somehow, the joy of the salvation of the Jewish collective has become lost for them amongst all the revelry, costume-making and drinking.
– How can this be addressed?
– Are you one of these people? What can you do to improve your connection to Purim and discover its inherent “Hallel” for yourself?
5) The question of saying Hallel on Purim can be considered akin to the question of saying Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut in our days. The former Rishon Letzion, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Z”TL, wrote a teshuvah on the matter (Yebiah Omer Section 6) where he weighs in on the various considerations for saying Hallel and for not saying Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut, ultimately saying that there is good reason both for saying it (without a bracha) and for not saying it. He essentially leaves the ultimate decision to do so or not to the individual.
– Based on what Rabbi Cardozo has argued above, would you say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut or would you say that celebrating the day with fellow Israelis (whatever that involves) is in and of itself the Hallel of the day?
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