Kol Isha: In Esther’s shoes

Our celebration of Purim today takes for granted the significance of what it means to invent a mitzva, as well it should – such is the way of the world.

Each year on Purim night, after my husband has read the Megila at shul, and repeated the reading again and again for women, guards, elderly people and others who could not attend the public reading, he sits beside me on the couch and listens as I recite the Megila for myself. Our seven-year-old daughter sits by my side, her own copy in hand, and my younger children who do not yet read hold their picture versions for this family event.
When I was younger, I attended and participated in readings by women for women. Over the years I read several different chapters, and with time came to know the entire Megila. As my family grew and the mutual need for time together and focus on education grew with it, I have come to enjoy fulfilling my obligation within the family context rather than in the company of other women. I assume a stage of life will come when I can become active, once again, in the larger community outside my home. But for now, I cannot imagine a more satisfying and meaningful way to read the Megila on Purim night.
Not so long ago, the notion of women’s Megila reading was so innovative that several days of study, halachic justification, arguments and inner searching were a necessary preparation for reading the Megila in the company of other women. I look at my daughters and realize that when they grow up, there might be no debate; there may even be no wonderment and delight at the very fact that women are assuming an ever-growing role in the fulfillment of their own halachic obligations. This matter which was – and in some places still is – much of an issue, may not be an issue at all as far as they are concerned. They will read the Megila with the memory of their mother’s reading – which was so novel to her generation – and will think nothing of it.
This process is not all that different from the process of acceptance of Purim as a Jewish holiday. Whereas today the sanctity of Purim as a rabbinically ordained mitzva is clear and uncontested, this was not always the case. This process is hinted to as early as the text of the Megila itself. A close read of Chapter 9 reveals several stages, over the course of many years, until Purim was established as an accepted holiday. Initially, spontaneous celebrations erupted among the Jewish people, who had just been saved (Esther 9:18). The following verse indicates that in subsequent years the nation continued to commemorate the event on days which were relevant to the various communities. Finally, Mordecai sought to establish Purim as a national holiday, and sent letters to that affect to every Jewish community (9:20).
However, the acceptance described in Esther 9:23 is clearly not universal, since we hear a few verses later of the acceptance of the holiday again (9:27), indicating that it was not observed by all. Even after the secondary acceptance, we are told that Esther and Mordecai wrote additional letters pleading with the Jews to accept the celebrations as an established holiday (9:29).
The Megila touches upon a controversy, which is further developed in talmudic texts (such as B. Megila 7a), surrounding a new phenomenon: the establishment of a rabbinic mitzva. Adding an entirely new commandment is forbidden by Torah law. The establishment of Purim would seem to transgress this prohibition. However, it was determined through the establishment of Purim that the acceptance of an obligation not of biblical nature was not prohibited. If the nation should decide to accept an obligation upon itself in recognition of God’s miracle, it is permitted to do so.
Jewish history and custom determined that Purim, and later Hanukka and other rabbinically ordained commandments, are today an integral part of our relationship with God. Our celebration of Purim today takes for granted the significance of what it means to invent a mitzva, as well it should – such is the way of the world.
The beauty of this renewed aspect of our relationship with God is that it came from us. It is a testimony to the fact that this relationship is not unilateral. Rather than being passive in the acceptance of mitzvot, we wish to invent them. We seek to relate to God by adding additional elements to this dynamic relationship, and so we celebrate Purim, the holiday invented by our nation’s leaders and accepted by our nation, stringently observing all of its accompanying obligations.
Women of our generation have recreated this aspect of Purim by assuming the responsibility of reading the Megila themselves. We rejoice in the celebration of an obligation we have taken upon ourselves to strengthen our relationship with God. Someday this will be taken for granted regarding women’s Megila reading, as it is today about Purim itself.
The writer is a lecturer at Matan, and holds a master’s degree in Bible and exegesis from Matan and the University of Haifa. She is a freelance writer and professional translator, and an active adviser in rabbinical courts in her community. She resides in Alon Shvut with her husband and four children.