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What Is the Book of Esther?

What Is the Book of Esther?

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Esther is the heroine of the Purim story, in which the Jewish people who live in the sprawling Persian Empire are saved from Haman’s evil scheme to annihilate them. The dramatic saga was written down so that Jewish people could read about the amazing turn of events every year on the holiday of Purim, the anniversary of the Jews’ victory over their enemies.

The Megillah of Esther (megillah means “scroll” in Hebrew) is one of the five megillahs that are included in the biblical canon. These books are all relatively short and are part of Ketuvim (the Writings portion of the Torah that comes after the Pentateuch and the Prophets). They are: The Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), Ruth, Lamentations (Eicha), Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) and Esther. Of these, Esther is the only one to be commonly read from a handwritten parchment scroll.

What’s in It?

The book of Esther is written in Hebrew. However, since it was written by Jews who had been exiled in Persia and dealt with Persian court proceedings, it is only natural that it borrows words from the vernacular. Some of these words are the hard-to-pronounce “achashdarpanim,” which means “satraps” (or “governors”), and dat, which means “law,” and is related to the word “data.”

The book is divided into 10 chapters. Here is a quick summary of their contents:

Chapter 1: King Achashveirosh of Persia holds two giant parties, and he has his wife, Vashti, executed.

Chapter 2: A search for a new queen results in Esther (cousin of the Torah sage Mordechai) being taken to the palace, but not sharing her Jewish identity. Together, they save the king from two plotting palace staffers.

Chapter 3: The evil advisor, Haman, convinces the king to have all the Jews in his empire executed on one day: Adar 13.

Chapter 4: Mordechai prevails upon Esther to intercede before the king.

Chapter 5: Esther invites the king and Haman to a private party, at which she invites both of them to a second party. Haman decides to erect gallows on which to hang Mordechai, who bravely refuses to bow to him.

Chapter 6: The king is unable to sleep, and on that night is reminded that he never rewarded Mordechai for saving his life. He asks Haman to parade Mordechai around town, dressed in royal clothing, riding the king’s horse.

Chapter 7: At the second party, Esther tells the king that Haman wishes to exterminate her people. Enraged, the king has Haman strung up on the gallows he had prepared.

Chapter 8: Orders are issued in the king’s name, authorizing the Jews to defend themselves and kill those who wish to kill them.

Chapter 9: The Jews defend themselves on on Adar 13 and rest on Adar 14. In the capital of Shushan, an extra day is needed, and the rest is delayed to Adar 15. Esther has the events recorded, and scrolls are sent to Jews all over.

(At the point in the story that describes how the 10 sons of Haman were killed and hanged on the gallows, the words in the Megillah are actually stacked in a column, using a format seen in just a few places in scripture.)

Chapter 10: The events are included in the records of Persia and Media, and Mordechai is a wildly popular viceroy.

Read a longer telling of these events.

What We Do With It

As per Mordechai’s instruction, the Megillah is read on Purim: once on Purim night, and again on the following day. The Megillah reading is preceded and followed by special blessings.

It is a mitzvah to hear all of the Megillah reading. Thus, it is very important to be absolutely quiet during the reading, allowing everyone to hear every word clearly. It is customary to follow along with the reader.

For those unable to make it to synagogue, Megillah may be read at home, provided that it is read from an authentic scroll by someone familiar with the exact pronunciation of the Hebrew words, many of which are unusual (see above) and are pronounced differently than they are written. You can use this interactive trainer to learn the pronunciations and tune.

Here are some great Megillahs:

Printable Megillah With Hebrew-English Translation (PDF)

Megillah With Side-By-Side In-Depth Commentary

Megillah With Linear Translation and Rashi’s Commentary

In addition to hearing the Megillah twice, there are three other mitzvahs the Megillah tells us should be done on Purim day:

Sending mishloach manot (food gifts), at least two portions of food to one person.

Distributing matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor) to at least two needy Jews.

Enjoying a mishteh (feast).

Read more about how Purim is celebrated.

Final Thoughts

The Megillah is among the only books in the scripture not to mention G‑d’s name at all. You may wonder what is so holy about it? In a sense, this omission itself is what makes the story of the Megillah unique. Hidden under the drama of palace intrigue and politics, G‑d’s hand is apparent. From the very outset, He stacked the circumstances so that as soon as the Jews would repent and pray, things would fall into place and the Jews would be saved.

In our post-biblical reality, we are often in the situation of the Jews at the time of the Purim story. We do not see seas splitting, or hear G‑d speaking from mountaintops. But when we look just a little bit deeper, we can see Him guiding and sustaining us.

Happy Purim!

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