As the Jewish world prepares to celebrate Purim on Monday night, March 9, and Tuesday, March 10 (one day later in Jerusalem), a new edition of the Megillah (The Scroll of Esther) offers a comprehensive new look at the Purim story, including fascinating insights in the light of Chassidism.

Translated and interpolated by Rabbi Yosef Marcus, with additional material by Rabbi Eli Block, the volume includes a new commentary anthologized from Talmud, Midrash and classic Rabbinic commentators, as well as insights from the Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbes, and is copiously annotated, with a sweeping bibliography of sources and comprehensive indices.

Rabbi Yosef Marcus and Rabbi Eli Block recently discussed the groundbreaking new work with

Q: Megillat Esther is one of the most widely read, studied and cherished of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, with numerous editions in print. What was the motive behind this new edition? Who are your target readers?

YM: Our goal, as in the other books in this series, is to present a wide array of commentary, all on one page. Readers should be able to see the straightforward meaning, the Midrashic homilies, which are the “between the lines” elements that have been passed down by tradition, as well as the mystical elements, particularly as conveyed by the Rebbes of Chabad.

Our target reader is anyone interested in delving deeply into the Megillah text, beginner or scholar, who wishes to analyze it intellectually, as well as finding the spiritual guidance it can personally provide in this day and age.

Q: To the best of our knowledge, who wrote Megillat Esther, when was it composed, and when was it entered into the Jewish canon?

YM: There are various opinions on the matter. The Megillah itself, in chapter nine, attributes it to Mordechai (verse 20) and then to Esther and Mordechai together (verse 29). Some commentators suggest that Mordechai initially recorded the story briefly, and a year later, they wrote a more detailed description together. Rabbi Moshe Alshich points out that the Megillah names Esther before Mordechai in the second instance, which suggests that she initiated the writing of the longer version. The Talmud seems to attribute it to the Men of the Great Assembly, which means that they canonized it or finalized the text to its current form (see Bava Batra 15a and Lekach Tov to Esther 9:20).

According to tradition (Seder Olam), the Megillah was initially written a year after the original Purim triumph.

(Read more: Who Wrote the Book of Esther? -ed)

The Leading Characters

Q: Why do you think Esther is considered one of the great heroines of world literature? What are some of the features about her that have captured the imaginations of people around the world?

YM: There is a dramatic shift that you notice in how Esther is portrayed, which occurs at the end of chapter four. Until that point, she is described in the passive. She is adopted, taken to the pageant, taken to the king. She is loyal to Mordechai, and does not reveal her religion and lineage. While it is certainly an incredible act of courage and self-sacrifice to deny the king’s desire to know, it is still a passive act, framed in the Megillah as part of her loyalty to Mordechai.

At the end of chapter four, however, after Mordechai has inspired Esther to risk her life and approach the king on behalf of her people, we suddenly see a new Esther. She begins giving the orders—namely, that all the Jews of Shushan should gather and fast for three days. The Midrash records that Mordechai initially pushed back at her idea of fasting for three days since that would involve fasting on Passover, which is normally forbidden. She wins that argument, perhaps invoking her authority as a prophetess to temporarily override a law (see our commentary). From that point on we see that Esther is acting on her own, taking the initiative on how to neutralize Haman.

Certainly, the most compelling and inspiring aspect of Esther’s story is her willingness to endanger her life to save others. She demonstrated that one person can avert a catastrophe and save an entire people. Furthermore, the way she went about it showed incredible patience, fearlessness and wisdom. She did not simply go to the king and beg for her people. She patiently set up a web in which to entrap Haman, while very wisely intuiting what would work with the mercurial king.

Q: What do you say about another female character in the book, Vashti? The classical narrative portrays her as a villain, but she has recently gained traction as a feminist icon speaking truth to patriarchal power. What is your reply to that?

YM: The Megillah itself does not say much about her. But like the rest of the Written Torah, we have a tradition, an oral Torah, that provides us with the between the lines. Just as the Torah does not spell out how to make tefillin or how to slaughter an animal in the kosher manner, or how to define “work” on Shabbat, the Torah does not give us all the detail about the characters in its narratives. That’s where the oral tradition comes in, and in that tradition, Vashti is identified as the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezar, one of our worst foes, who destroyed the Temple. She apparently did not fall far from that tree and inherited grandpa’s animus for Jews, encouraging her husband to prevent the rebuilding of the Temple (“what my grandfather destroyed you wish to rebuild?!”) and humiliating her Jewish maids, whom she forced to work on Shabbat.

(Read more: Was Vashti a Heroine? -ed)

Q: One of the things that leaps out about the work is its chronicling of individual power struggles between the major characters in the drama: Achashverosh, Vashti, Esther, Mordechai and Haman. How are some of these dynamics illuminated in the commentaries?

YM: The power struggle between Achashverosh and Vashti is very much about her being the descendant of royalty. Rabbi Moshe Alshich points out how the Megillah alternates between calling her Queen Vashti vs. Vashti the Queen. The former is how she thought of herself—the born queen, while the latter is how Achashverosh attempted to label her—Vashti who became queen by marrying him. These varying descriptions match precisely to the back and forth between husband and wife in the narrative. Yet at the end, Achashverosh does refer to her as Queen Vashti, when he asks the wise men what should be done with her, perhaps trying to evoke her born royal status as a cause for leniency.

EB: Mordechai and Esther vs. Haman is much more than a power struggle; it is a battle of ego and selflessness. In the mystical reading, Haman is painted as someone whose success is unearned, who is full of conceit and therefore lacks any empathy. Mordechai and Esther are the opposite. This theme is fleshed out in the Chassidic Perspective section of the book.

Q: As anti-Semitism again rears its ugly head around the world, what does Megillat Esther, and particularly the character of Haman, teach us about how to interact with or react to those who wish to destroy us?

EB: Don’t run and hide. Mordechai is a proud Jew, who is constantly referred to as Yehudi, the Jew, in the Megillah. Haman makes all the arguments of the classical anti-Semite. The Jews are too conspicuous; they are disloyal, they are parasites. Yet, at no point in the Megillah do Mordechai or Esther address Haman’s accusations. On the contrary, Haman points out the Jews’ distinctiveness, and in response, the Jews fast, pray and organize mass study halls!

The Rebbe looked at this and said, this is a Jew’s response to hatred. We have to stop victim-blaming, stop thinking that if we are less this or that, people’s perceptions will change. We need to retrench ourselves in our true identity, be proud Jews, and interact with the world without apologetics. This will earn us the world’s respect, not retreating from who we are.

(Read: When We Became Jewish -ed)

Chassidic Insights

Q: Megillat Esther had been chanted on Purim and studied for more than 2,000 years before the Chassidic masters began to illuminate the work for the Jewish public with insights based on Jewish mystical principles. How would you characterize some of the general approaches to Megillat Esther by Chassidic commentators that were new and revolutionary?

EB: Any text the Chassidic masters handle becomes immediately both cosmic and personal. It is talking about the whole universe, yet is also aimed specifically at you. In the case of the Megillah, the Chassidic literature zooms way out, showing how the plot development, the characters and the dialogue all allude to a spiritually eternal drama of life in exile, life devoid of obvious Divine intervention. Then it zooms all the way in and shows how the Purim story is re-enacted in the heart of every person.

What are those approaches, and how are they revolutionary? For that, I’ll direct you to the book.

Q: What are some of the key approaches and insights to Megillat Esther provided by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory?

EB: The Rebbe had certain themes he would return to again and again in his Purim addresses.

Most prominently, the Rebbe spoke about Jewish pride and the indomitable Jewish soul. The way the Rebbe saw it, the Purim story is evidence that a Jew’s connection to God is eternal. The Jews of the time were intoxicated with Persian culture, they were not spiritually attuned by any stretch. Yet they found within themselves a resolve and dedication that allowed them to remain proud Jews, even while facing the prospect of destruction. This nature of the bond between God and the soul is the subject of many discourses of the Chabad Rebbes, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe in particular.

He would also speak about the power of the Jewish women as exemplified by Esther. As you mentioned, the Megillah is called the “Book of Esther.” The Rebbe dedicated several talks to explaining her centrality to the story, and its message to women today.

(Watch: Esther, Model for Jewish Women -ed)

Purim was also an opportunity to speak about education. The Midrash describes how Mordechai gathered 20,000 children to study in response to Haman’s decree; in response, Haman wanted to kill the children first. The Rebbe used this midrashic commentary as a springboard to discuss the imperative of wholesome Jewish education and how it secures the Jewish future.

And, of course, joy. To spend Purim in the Rebbe’s court was to be witness to pure, unbridled joy. Joy, the Rebbe would say, breaks through every environmental and self-imposed limitation. That’s what Purim is all about. It is the soul unleashing itself from its constraints and rejoicing in its relationship with G‑d, in the Torah and mitzvot.

Q: What are some key insights that you hope readers can take away from this work, both to make the holiday of Purim more meaningful, as well as insights that can be extended throughout the year?

EB: The Megillah has the potential to transform a person’s outlook on contemporary Jewish life. There is no other story in the Torah that bears so much resemblance to our time in the sense of overwhelming assimilation. And the message of the Megillah is clear: Nothing can dampen the inherent Jewishness of a Jew. It is always there. If we develop and express that Jewishness, then we will feel complete and aligned with a purpose, and we become a positive influence on the world around us. So in our public roles, in the workplace or in leadership positions, we should be confident Jews, “Yehudim” as the Megillah calls us. May we merit to experience “light, happiness, joy and glory,” as the Jews of Purim did thousands of years ago.

“Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) With English Translation & Commentaries, Deluxe Edition” is available at Jewish bookstores and online at