The basic founding of the Oral Torah began with the men of the Great Assembly … in that generation lived the last prophets … for with the demise of that generation prophecy was stopped up and the writing of the Torah became forbidden, just as was the writing of prophecy … Even though this is a type of concealment, it led to greater revelation … for according to the strength of the concealment is the strength of the revelation. (Machshevet Charutz. See Yaakov Elman’s essay, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halacha,” for a comprehensive explication of this idea in R. Zadok Hakohen)
The Midrash Tanhuma (Noah, 3) states that it was necessary for God to coerce the Israelites to accept the oral law at Sinai by holding the mountain over their heads. The oral law, with its details and complexities, was more difficult to observe, more demanding of the human intellect, and therefore the Israelites were more reluctant to take on the responsibility of developing the oral law while prophecy still existed. It was during the time of Purim, according to the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, 88a, that the Jews voluntarily reaccepted the Torah. “Rava said, Nevertheless, they accepted the Torah again in the days of Achashverosh, as it says The Jews established and accepted (Esther 9:27).” They established that which they had already accepted.” According to R. Zadok, connecting these two rabbinic sources, it was specifically the oral Torah that was coerced at Sinai and reaccepted during the time of Esther.
Esther played a pivotal role in the transition from the written to the oral law. Esther was the last of the prophetesses according to the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Megilah, 14a “Who were the seven prophetesses? Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Avigail, Chuldah and Esther.” She was also the person who initiated the process of human legislation that established Purim as a permanent holiday and the book of Esther as sacred scripture.
R. Samuel b. Judah said: Esther sent to the Wise Men saying, Commemorate me4 for future generations. They replied, You will incite the ill will of the nations against us.5 She sent back reply: I am already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia…Esther sent to the Wise Men saying, Write an account of me for posterity. They sent back answer, Have I not written for thee three times — three times and not four? [And they refused] until they found a verse written in the Torah, Write this a memorial in a book, [which they expounded as follows]: ‘Write this’, namely, what is written here and in Deuteronomy;10 ‘for a memorial’, namely, what is written in the Prophets; ‘in a book’, namely, what is written in the Megillah. (Babylonian Talmud, Megilah, 7a)
Esther, according to the Talmud, appealed to the sages, perhaps the Men of the Great Assembly, to legislate a new holiday for all generations, Purim, and to include the narrative describing the historical events that led to the holiday among the holy writings of the Jewish people. Esther did not appeal to her prophetic powers or to a revelatory experience. Instead, she initiated a human process of legislation and interpretation, a process that called upon the sages to take responsibility for enacting new forms of religious law, ritual and even sacred scripture.
Purim is the first holiday that was established by human legislation, and not Divine decree. Esther, with a deep understanding of the transition that was required of the Jewish people, a transition from divine prophecy to human process, can be considered the catalyst for the unfolding of a new era in Jewish history, a new chapter in the ongoing revelation of divine wisdom in which the human intellect and human agency takes center stage.
Esther, the heroine who saves the Jewish people from the physical threat of annihilation at the hands of Haman, is also the heroine who pulls the Jewish people out of the darkness caused by the demise of prophecy. She is willing to sacrifice her life, approaching the king on her own, as she reveals her Jewish identity and orchestrates the reversal of her people’s fortune. Similarly, she sheds her prophetic privilege in order to instigate a process that expands human participation in the development of religious law and forces human leaders to take responsibility for religious legislation and innovation.
It is not incidental that Esther, a woman and a Jew of the Diaspora, embodies this critical transformation and expansion of revelation through the blossoming of human forms of “halacha,” Jewish law. The participation of all Jews, including women, and the drawing from the inherent complexities of living in the multicultural environments of the Diaspora, are critical components in the development of our interpretive community.
Esther is more than a pretty face and a clever political powerhouse. She is the mother of one of Judaism’s most distinctive contributions to religious progress, the sacred process of legislation and innovation through human hermeneutics.
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is president of Hebrew College.