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
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:
King Achashveirosh of Persia holds two giant parties, and he has his wife,
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.
The evil advisor, Haman, convinces the king to have all the Jews in his empire
executed on one day: Adar 13.
Mordechai prevails upon Esther to intercede before the king.
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.
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.
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.
Orders are issued in the king’s name, authorizing the Jews to defend themselves
and kill those who wish to kill them.
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.)
The events are included in the records of Persia and Media, and Mordechai is a
wildly popular viceroy.
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
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)
Side-By-Side In-Depth Commentary
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
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.
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.