Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Purim Afterthoughts: No Speak the Language

After killing his wife Vashti, Achashveirosh justifies his violence with a quizzical new decree: “Every man must be the master of his household and speak the language of his nation” (Esther 1:22). In cases when spouses hail from different states of the Empire, husbands may no longer opt to speak their wives’ native tongue. Rather, all women must learn to speak their husband’s language.

Strange law. As far as P’shat is concerned, it seems to support the opinion that Achaveirosh was a fool (cf. Talmud, Megillah 12a). But, as in all things Megillah, there is more here than meets the eye.
The first thing we need to understand about the holiday of Purim is that it is a celebration of the power of prayer.
The prophets in conjunction with the court legislated and commanded the annual reading of the Megillah in order to recall God’s qualities, the salvations that He performed for us, and the fact that He was nearby when we called out [to Him]. This leads us to bless Him and sing His praises and makes known to future generations that the Torah’s promise is true: “Which other nation has a god that is close to it like Hashem our God [is close] to all who call out to Him!” (Devarim 4:7).
Rambam, postscript to Minyan HaMitzvos
The Rambam is referring here to the three-day fast which Esther declared for the Jews of Shushan (cf. Esther 4:16). Those three days of prayer saved the Jews and, according to the Rambam, it is the efficacy of those prayers that we are commemorating and celebrating on this holiday. This understanding of Purim’s central message is alluded to long before the prayers begin, in the Megillah’s introduction of Mordechai: “There was a Jew in the capital city of Shushan. His name was Mordachai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (Esther 2:5). The Talmud expounds the verse:
“Son on Yair” – a son who illuminated the eyes of the Jews with his prayers. “Son of Shimi” – a son whose prayers were heard [by God]. “Son of Kish” – for he knocked on the Gates of Compassion and they were opened for him.
Talmud, Megillah 12b
The role of prayer in the salvation of Purim is easily understood in light of the national sin which doomed the Jews to annihilation. For Haman’s decree was no mere anti-Semitism; it was rooted in a very real verdict made in the Heavenly Court: the Jews of Babylonia were guilty of bowing to the statues of Nebuchadnezzar (Talmud, Megillah 12a). Since it was idol worship that needed to be rectified, prayer – the worship of the One God – was the only viable response.  

This also explains Esther's directive to fast for three days and three nights. According to the Rambam, the offering of animal sacrifices on the Temple's altar functioned to counter and rectify the mistaken belief in other gods (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46; cf. Ramban to Vayikra 1:9). Fasting is nothing less than an offering of our very own flesh and blood (cf. Berachos 17a), so it presumably has the same effect. And prayer serves as a stand-in for sacrifices (cf. Berachos 26b), especially when the Jews are in exile and lack a Temple. It follows that the extraordinary self-sacrifice of fasting for three days straight, coupled with and directed by intense prayer, cleansed the Jewish mind of paganism and reset their hearts with a pure faith in the One God.
Since Purim is about prayer, it wouldn’t be off-topic here to ask a basic question about our Siddur. Originally, every Jew composed his own personal prayers. No text existed and the daily Mitzvah of Tefillah was fulfilled by simply praying for your needs in your own words. That is the way it was until two and half millennia ago when the Great Assembly produced the Siddur and required every Jew to say the same thing three times a day: the one and only “Shmoneh Esrei.”
Why the change? The Rambam has a theory.
When the Jews were exiled in the days of the evil Nebuchadnezzar they began to assimilate in Persia, Greece and other nations. Their children were born in the lands of the gentiles and were linguistically challenged. These [second generation refugees] spoke in a blend of languages and were incapable of expressing themselves in any one language without error, as the verse states, “Their children spoke half Assyrian and didn’t know how to speak Hebrew or the language of any nation” (Nechemia 13:24). As a result, when one of them would pray, he would be limited in his ability to express his needs or to praise God in Hebrew without also including words from other languages. When Ezra and his court recognized this [problem], they rose [to the occasion] and established the ordered brachos of Shmoneh Esrei.
Rambam, Laws of Tefillah 1:4
The above quote gives the impression that prayers must be said in Hebrew. A clear, unadulterated Hebrew. But things are not so simple. It is actually permitted to pray in any language and the Shmoneh Esrei may be read in translation (cf. Shulchan Aruch O.C. 101:4). So why did the men of the Great Assembly choose to compose our prayers in Hebrew and not in the spoken language of the Diaspora?
Some may suggest that Hebrew is the language of the Jews. Having all Jews pray in Hebrew would certainly go a long way to strengthen our national identity and unity in exile. Others would say that the use of Hebrew expressed the great longing of our people to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild. There may be truth to these ideas, but I believe they miss the point.
Hebrew is God’s language. It is the language He used to create the universe and the language He used to speak to His prophets. This is why Hebrew is called the “Holy Tongue” (Ramban to Shemos 30:13). If we must select a language for prayer, Hebrew is the natural choice; we should speak to God in His language. And if we don’t understand it, then we’d better learn it.
The Medrash tells us that whenever the Megillah speaks of “the king” (HaMelech), it refers not only to King Achashveirosh, it refers also to the King of kings, God Himself. This allows us to suggest a Midrashic reading of the King’s strange decree at the beginning of the Megillah.
This Megillah is going to be a story about prayer, and God, always setting up the cure before the strike, is giving us some helpful advice right at the outset. When a wife (i.e., the Jews) wishes to speak to her husband (i.e., God), it is recommended that she speak in His language, not hers.
The Jews took the hint and composed the Shmoneh Esrei in Hebrew, to great effect. The Jews prayed and God responded. And they lived happily ever after.
Continue with part-two here.

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