The Scroll of Esther, or in Hebrew, Megillat Esther, tells the story of Purim in such a way that many ideas are alluded to, but are not stated explicitly. The Talmud explains that the name Esther is from the Hebrew word hester, meaning “concealment.” The word Megillah ("scroll"), by contrast, is from the word gilui, meaning “revelation.” Megillat Esther therefore means “the revelation of the hidden,” because our job is to reveal what’s hidden in the story of Purim.

After Haman’s evil decree was annulled, the Megillah states, LaYehudim hayta orah vesimchah, vesasson, viykar. The literal translation of this is, “The Jews had light, happiness, rejoicing and glory.” However, the Talmud interprets orah as an allusion to Torah, simchah as Yom-Tov, sasson as circumcision and yakar as tefillin — the four mitzvot that Haman wanted to eradicate.

Haman, in addition to wanting to eradicate Jews, whom he hated, was also irked by Judaism—that the Jewish people were different because of their Judaism; as he said to Ahasuerus: “There is one people, dispersed among the nations… who do not observe the laws (i.e., religion) of the king.” Even though this nation is dispersed among all the nations, they haven’t become part of us. They are still different and they don’t listen to our decrees. They have never become part of us. Every time he saw a Jew wearing obviously Jewish clothes and behaving according to Jewish custom, it angered him. The Talmud explains that the four mitzvot that bothered Haman most were Torah study, Jewish holidays, circumcision, and tefillin. Accordingly, when we were victorious over Haman, we were able to have these again.

But why does the verse state, “The Jews had…?” This seems to imply that we received them as a result of Purim, which is not so. All of these are mitzvot from the Torah! The simple answer is that it is as if we received them for the first time, because now we could observe them freely.

The Rebbe explains further that these four mitzvot are all things that on a surface level seem not to be exclusively Jewish. They seem very similar to the way the whole world does things.


Gentiles also appreciate and learn “the Bible.” In every parochial school gentile children study the “Old Testament.” In what way is Torah unique to Jews?

The Rebbe says that non-Jews also have Torah but they read only Scripture, not the Oral Torah. Haman would have been satisfied if Jews would only learn the Written Torah that everybody else learns. What he couldn’t accept is the Oral Torah. You learn the Talmud, it doesn’t seem so G‑dly. The Written Torah does seem G‑dly. It talks about the creation of the world and it talks about things that happened in our history way back. It talks about the giving of the Torah. The Oral Torah, however, appears to be just a discussion between human beings. This rabbi says this, this rabbi says that. If you disagree with them, why don’t you just do what you want? Why do you consider what these human beings said as being holy and G‑dly and overruling your opinion if you feel differently? Why do you have to be bound by what some rabbi says and thinks?

This is clearly a misconception. Every word of the Oral Torah was written with Ruach HaKodesh — Divine Inspiration. When G‑d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai, he gave us the Oral Torah too, except that it wasn’t written down. It wasn’t written down till years later but it was given to Moses at Sinai. Did Moses receive all of the laws as we have them now? Most opinions say no. However, he was given all of the principles of deduction and exegesis by which the rabbis later derived all of the laws and developed the Oral Torah.

If you ask why it is that G‑d wanted the Torah to be developed by human beings, why He did not give it fully developed? We could ask the same question regarding other things also, such as modern technology. Why didn’t G‑d give us electricity in the first week of creation? After all, electricity is part of creation. It’s not a thing that man invented. Why did G‑d wait till Edison, Watts and all these people discovered the powers that are really part of the creation? Why did G‑d wait until Marie Curie discovered radiation, x-rays and so on? Why didn’t he give them to us right away? The answer is that G‑d wanted mortals to be partners in the discovery. This was part of G‑d’s divine plan. He wanted these things to be revealed by different individuals, even though it was all given to Moses. Indeed, the Oral Torah is just as holy as the Written Torah.


Simchah refers to holidays. What is exclusively Jewish about holidays? The gentiles also have their holy days—Thanksgiving, New Year, and so on. They also have a celebratory meal, which does not look essentially different from a Jewish holiday meal. People get dressed up in their holiday finery; we get dressed in our holiday clothes. So what’s the difference between our holidays and their holidays? The Rebbe explains that secular holiday don’t lead to holiness. Instead, it often leads them to frivolity, and worse. It’s more or less an excuse to indulge. In Judaism, every single holiday has the admonition that we must not forget the stranger and the orphan and the widow. On Passover we right away remember to help those that don’t have what they need for the holiday. Similarly with Purim, and the High Holy Days. There is always an emphasis on the holiday prayers, study, and so on. The objective of a Jewish holiday is to ascend a step or two from the mundane world. On a Jewish holiday we withdraw from the material world, rather than taking a steep descent into it. That is the difference between the Jewish holiday and secular holidays.


In brit milah (circumcision), corresponding to the expression sasson, there is a similar distinction. Non-Jews also often perform circumcision on their children, for health reasons, hygiene, and the like. Their motivations are purely to prevent infection, to prevent perhaps a greater pain later on in the child who would not be circumcised. But this has nothing to do with holiness. Now, even though Moslems do circumcision for supposedly religious reasons, this is because Ishmael was circumcised. In other words, it is more because of historical identity reasons than as a way of bonding with G‑d. When a non-Jew performs a circumcision he just does it because the doctor said so, or because that’s the way everybody does it.

When the Jew does a brit milah, it is a conscious act of elevating the child to a higher level, to have a stronger bond with HaShem, because the moment of the brit is when the nefesh haElokis, the G‑dly soul, starts entering the body. As long as there is the barrier of orlah (the foreskin) the person cannot reach his full level of holiness.

Anyone can have a circumcision, but only a Jew makes a brit — a covenant between himself and G‑d. Moreover, this covenant encompasses the entire Torah—the Hebrew word brit has a numerical value (gematria) of 612. Together with the mitzvah of brit milah we have 613. So it’s as if the brit fulfills the whole number of 613. Thus, brit milah is the idea of bringing G‑dliness into everything, even a physical organ associated with base pleasures. This mitzvah therefore represents the entire service of a Jew, which is to elevate everything and make everything holy and G‑dly.


The last one of the four expressions, viykar, corresponds to tefillin. There are many other nations and religions that wear religious symbols, or make certain marks on their faces, or they may wear necklaces, bracelets or certain kinds of headdresses that show which tribe or which religion they belong to. They have their symbol, we have our symbol. What is so special about tefillin?

The Rebbe explains as follows: Other symbols are somewhat aesthetic. They’re either jewelry, gold, colorful, pretty — something that a person can appreciate and be proud of wearing. But what are tefillin? Animal hide, painted black, with pieces of parchment inside. What is so beautiful and attractive about that? Black isn't even a color. It is the absence of color.

Why then does a Jewish man put these boxes on his hand and on his head? Not because he looks at these objects in and of themselves as something intrinsically attractive and beautiful, but because in these boxes are verses that talk about the unity of G‑d. A Jew knows that by wearing tefillin on his head and around his arm he is subordinating his intellect and his heart and his emotions to G‑d. Tefillin have meaning and holiness to a Jew, not for the way they look — but because this is what G‑d commanded. That’s where tefillin differ from other ornaments. Others choose their ornaments because they look nice, or perhaps because they are believed to have some special property or power. We choose tefillin because G‑d chose them for us. And that’s what makes it beautiful to us, the fact that this is the way we bind ourselves with G‑d.

This is one of the reasons why in Chabad customs you do not find the same kinds of embellishments that you will find in other communities, such as beautiful mezuzah cases, highly decorated sukkot, and fancy holders on the lulav for the hadassim and aravot; a man’s tallit does not have a thick silver ornament on the top; and so on. In Chabad, you will generally find none of these things. Everything is very simple. The mezuzot are generally wrapped just in plastic or paper, the sukkah walls are left bare, the lulav is tied around very plainly so that the hadassim and aravot are closer to the lulav than they are when you make the separate fancy holders for them. This is all because the mitzvah itself is regarded as beautiful to us. We don’t have to do anything else to beautify the mitzvah and make it aesthetic. Its beauty is derived from the fact that it’s G‑d’s will and that’s beautiful to us. You don’t need to add ornamentation or embellishment.

The Rebbe concludes that Purim is the holiday that celebrates this concept. Accordingly, one of the mitzvot of Purim is to eat a celebratory feast, and even to get inebriated. This is something which others do too, and more often than Jews. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two — we do not drink for the sake of getting drunk. When a Jew drinks wine "ad delo yada" — until he does not know the difference between “blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman” — this means that he cannot distinguish the difference between what is better — G‑d’s goodness as expressed in “blessed is Mordechai,” or G‑d’s goodness as expressed in “cursed is Haman.” Subconsciously, a Jew should always know that Haman is Haman and Mordechai is Mordechai. Within his heart of hearts, every Jew knows what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s Jewish and what’s not.

Externally, the celebration of Purim seems to be a celebration like any other, but hidden within the celebration of Purim is a strong identification with the values of Judaism.