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Rachel Friedman





Purim: Mocking Persia’s Dat and Reaccepting the Torah



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Rachel Friedman





Purim: Mocking Persia’s Dat and Reaccepting the Torah






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Purim: Mocking Persia’s Dat and Reaccepting the Torah

Pettiness and personal agendas characterize Persian law, called dat in the book of Esther. The Talmud, on the other hand, presents the Torah as ʾeshdat, given with “white fire etched on black fire,” and imagines the Jews in Shushan reaccepting the Torah after being saved from Haman’s dat to destroy them.


Purim: Mocking Persia’s Dat and Reaccepting the Torah

Purim, Arthur Szyk 1948. Wikimedia

The book of Esther centers on the action and intrigue at the royal court of King Ahasuerus in the Persian capital of Shushan (Susa), repeatedly calling attention to its silliness and eccentricities.[1] Nowhere does the Persian court appear more ridiculous than in its use of the דָּת (dat)—a Persian loanword denoting a decree, edict, or commission—to create rules and legalisms that center on frivolity, whim, and individual excess.[2] The opening feast follows the dat that there is no restriction on drinking:

אסתר א:ח וְהַשְּׁתִיָּה כַדָּת אֵין אֹנֵס כִּי כֵן יִסַּד הַמֶּלֶךְ עַל כָּל רַב בֵּיתוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת כִּרְצוֹן אִישׁ וָאִישׁ.
Esth 1:8 Drinking was by ordinance without restraint, for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.[3]

Indeed, there is an implicit irony in the juxtaposition of dat or law and the clauses “without restraint” as well as “complying with each man's wishes.” [4]

The Dat to Demote Queen Vashti

The frivolous nature of Persian dat is also reflected in the royal decree that the king enacts when Queen Vashti refuses to appear before him to display her beauty to the guests at his royal banquet. The author, poking fun at a drunken king who attempts to solve a personal problem through the dat—or law of the land—describes how Ahasuerus turns to his legal consultants for advice in dealing with Vashti’s conduct (1:13–15).

The king’s consultants are all too ready to paint this petty domestic challenge as a national crisis. Memucan, one of the king’s seven advisors, urges Ahasuerus to take a firm stand against his queen by exaggerating the potential effect of Vashti’s refusal on all Persian wives—Vashti’s conduct will encourage all wives to disobey their husbands (1:18).

He thus suggests that the king declare a new dat that will transfer Vashti’s position as queen to a more worthy woman:

אסתר א:יט אִם עַל הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב יֵצֵא דְבַר מַלְכוּת מִלְּפָנָיו וְיִכָּתֵב בְּדָתֵי פָרַס וּמָדַי וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר אֲשֶׁר לֹא תָבוֹא וַשְׁתִּי לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ וּמַלְכוּתָהּ יִתֵּן הַמֶּלֶךְ לִרְעוּתָהּ הַטּוֹבָה מִמֶּנָּה.
Esth 1:19 If it pleases the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus, and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she.

Writing Vashti’s punishment into the Persian national laws gives her disobedience more weight than it deserves and makes the law as a whole seem personal and petty. Memucan further asserts that the law will have a broad impact on all wives:

אסתר א:כ וְנִשְׁמַע פִּתְגָם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה בְּכָל מַלְכוּתוֹ כִּי רַבָּה הִיא וְכָל הַנָּשִׁים יִתְּנוּ יְקָר לְבַעְלֵיהֶן לְמִגָּדוֹל וְעַד קָטָן.
Esth 1:20 “So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, vast as it is, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.”

Seeking domestic felicity through a royal proclamation is a ridiculous misuse of Persian law.

The Dat against the Jews

The capriciousness of Persian dat is also present in the ways that the king and his court advisors manipulate the dat to settle personal scores. When Mordecai refuses to kneel or bow before Haman,[5] Haman uses a dat to punish not only the actual culprit but to do away with all of Mordecai’s people in the Persian kingdom.

It is significant that Haman uses dat as the pretext for his plan—he accuses the Jews of having laws, or dat, that are different than those of other people and of violating the king’s dat:

אסתר ג:ח וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם וְאֶת דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין שׁוֶֹה לְהַנִּיחָם.
Esth 3:8 Then Haman said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.

Haman’s proposed solution, which the king approves, is to enact yet another dat to be publicized in writing and sent to every province of the kingdom declaring that all Jews are to be exterminated on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month:

אסתר ג:יג וְנִשְׁלוֹחַ סְפָרִים בְּיַד הָרָצִים אֶל כָּל מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים מִנַּעַר וְעַד זָקֵן טַף וְנָשִׁים בְּיוֹם אֶחָד בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר הוּא חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר וּשְׁלָלָם לָבוֹז.
Esth 3:13 Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, children and women, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.

Haman’s translation of a personal vendetta into a national legal initiative parallels that of Memucan—all Jews must pay the price for Mordecai’s disobedience just as all wives must be warned not to disrespect their husbands because of Vashti’s defiance.[6] And in both cases, the promulgators of the dat are quick to enact them on a whim, to protect their personal honor, without a valid national purpose.

As with the dat demoting Vashti, the efficacy of Haman’s dat is also questionable. It is not clear that by destroying all the Jews, Haman will be able to change Mordecai’s current disrespectful behavior. Furthermore, it seems odd that Haman chooses to delay his action against Mordecai for a whole year so that he can destroy all the Jews.[7] The fact that Haman’s dat is publicized and then postponed for many months ultimately undermines his plan, allowing ample time for the Jews to prepare a defense.

Esther Violates the Dat and Saves Her People with a Counter-Dat

Mordecai and Esther provide a route for the people’s physical salvation through the use of dat—both through its invocation and through its violation. Mordecai initiates this process by sharing with Esther Haman’s dat against the Jews (4:8). To save her people, Esther approaches the king uninvited, violating a dat of Persia for which the punishment is death (4:11).

Esther’s gambit results in the king ordering that Haman be hanged and empowering Mordecai and Esther to issue in the name of the king a counter-dat—or counter-law—to Haman’s earlier dat against the Jews (chs. 7–8). The initial dat is not removed, as the king’s laws cannot be revoked (8:8);[8] rather, it is undermined by the counter-dat that authorizes the Jews throughout Persia to gather and fight for their lives on the same day that Haman’s dat condemns them:

אסתר ח:יא אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל עִיר וָעִיר לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת כָּל חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם טַף וְנָשִׁים וּשְׁלָלָם לָבוֹז.
Esth 8:11 By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, their children, and their women, and to plunder their goods.

The Jews’ final victory is thus achieved by means of Mordecai’s and Esther’s manipulation of Persian dat.

Reading ‘Eshdat in Deuteronomy 33:2 in Light of Dat in Esther

The book of Esther makes a mockery of Persian dat by employing royal decrees for personal agendas and by undermining existing dat by issuing counter-dat measures. Conversely, the Rabbis praise the Torah as given with white fire etched in black fire:

ירושלמי שקלים ו׳:א ר׳ פינחס בשם רבי שמעון בן לקיש התורה שנתן לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה נתנה לו אש לבנה חרותה באש שחורה היא אש מובללת באש חצובה מאש ונתונה מאש הדא הוא דכתיב מימינו אש דת למו
y. Sheqalim 6:1, 49d R. Phineas in the name of R. Simeon ben Laqish: The Torah which the Holy One, Praise to Him, gave to Moses, was white fire engraved in black fire. It was fire mixed with fire; hewn from fire, given from fire: That is what is written: “From His right hand, the fiery law (ʾesh dat) to them” [Deut 33:2].

The Masoretic Text (MT) of Deuteronomy 33:2 presents אֵשְׁדָּת (ʾeshdat) as a Ketiv-Qeri; it is written as one word, but meant to be read aloud as two.[9] The Talmud reads it as two words, ʾesh dat, translating dat as “law” (see Appendix for other interpretations). Thus, ʾeshdat is rendered literally as “fire law,”[10] which cannot be corrupted or undermined by a human king like Ahasuerus.[11]

The Rabbinic Conception of Purim’s Significance

The import of Purim in Judaism goes well beyond a commemoration of the physical rescue of the Jewish people in the book of Esther.[12] One Talmudic sage presents it as the second and permanent acceptance by the Jewish people of the Torah:[13]

בבלי שבת פח. אָמַר רָבָא: אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הֲדוּר קַבְּלוּהָ בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, דִּכְתִיב: ״קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים״ — קִיְּימוּ מַה שֶּׁקִּיבְּלוּ כְּבָר.
b. Shabbat 88a Rava said: the Jewish people again accepted the Torah in the days of Ahasuerus as it is stated: “the Jews fulfilled and accepted (qibbelu)” [Esth 9:27]—they fulfilled anew what they had previously accepted [at Sinai].

The traditional formulation of Israel’s acceptance of the Torah at Sinai—kabbalat haTorah—uses the same root, ק.ב.ל, that appears in Esther 9:27 (qibbel).[14] This root is also used in opening words of the Mishnah Avot: משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, “Moses received (qibbel) the Torah at Sinai.”

The rabbinic choice of Esther 9:27 as a verse that signals the spiritual revival of Persian Jewry is also fitting in another respect, as it stresses that the acceptance of Purim by the Jews was an obligation that could never be revoked: לֹא יַעֲבוֹר (loʾ yaʿavor).[15]

אסתר ט:כז קִיְּמוּ וְקִבֵּל הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל זַרְעָם וְעַל כָּל הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה.
Esth 9:27 The Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed.

The only other time this expression appears in Esther is in 1:19 which describes the dat that dethrones Vashti in favor of a better queen: וְיִכָּתֵב בְּדָתֵי פָרַס וּמָדַי וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר, “let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be altered.” Mordecai and Esther establish an irrevocable holiday, not to mark the personal agenda of aggrieved individuals, but rather to memorialize the salvation of an entire nation—the Jewish people.[16]

In the eyes of the Rabbis, the book of Esther conveys that the Jewish diaspora in Persia was in imminent danger of losing its religious and spiritual identity.[17] The Rabbis thus consider the acceptance by Persian Jewry of the newly enacted Purim holiday an irrevocable obligation precisely because it reflects a recommitment to the entirety of Torah law and a reclaiming of those identities.

Purim: A Reacceptance of Divine Law

It seems evident that there is a direct connection between the rabbinic conception of dat in the book of Esther and the Rabbis’ understanding of ʾeshdat in Deuteronomy 33:2 as referring to Torah law. To the Rabbis, the dat of the royal Persian court—a whimsical and loose system of arbitrary royal decrees—stood in sharp contrast to Torah law—a just, comprehensive and definitive legal system given by YHWH, the universal king, to the nation of Israel at Sinai. Far from being driven by personal human agendas like the Persian dat, the Torah defined Jewish peoplehood and religion. And far from being manipulable and changeable at the whim of a human king, the ʾeshdat of the Torah is the eternal law of the divine king.

Thus, to the Rabbis the essence of the story of Purim was the reacceptance of divine dat. And, as we have seen, the vehicle for that reacceptance was the use and misuse of the human dat of the Persian court. Taking these two ideas together, it would seem natural—perhaps inevitable—that the Rabbis would see the term ʾeshdat in Deuteronomy 33:2 as referring to the divine dat of Sinai.

Appendix ʾ

Eshdat in Context

Deuteronomy 33:2–5 presents YHWH meeting Israel in the desert and Israel submitting to YHWH as king. The scene includes a particularly mysterious image of YHWH having an אֵשְׁדָּת (ʾeshdat) at His right hand:

דברים לג:ב וַיֹּאמַר יְ־הוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ מִימִינוֹ אֵשְׁדָּת לָמוֹ.
Deut 33:2 He said, “YHWH came from Sinai and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran. With him were myriads of holy ones, at his right, an ʾeshdat of his own.”

ʾEshdat is a hapax legomenon; that is, this is the only time the word appears in the Hebrew Bible. Its meaning is, therefore, difficult to determine.

Most modern scholars interpret ʾeshdat, in light of its contextual placement, as referring to the location from which YHWH appears or to a power that YHWH wields in the scene describing the acclamation of YHWH as the savior and king of Israel. Some possible interpretations include:

Slope – The singular of אַשְׁדֹּת (ʾashdot), a “slope”, as in the אַשְׁדֹּת הַפִּסְגָּה, or the slopes of Pisgah referred to in Deuteronomy 3:17 and 4:49, interpreting מִימִינוֹ as “south” instead of “right.” The line would thus mean: “From south of the slope [of Pisgah] [He came] to them” or “From the south [He came] to them at the slope [of Pisgah].[18]

You proceeded – From an original text that read ʾisharta, “You proceeded” (from the piel verb אִשֵּׁר, “to go forward”) instead of ʾeshdat. This emendation would lead to the interpretation: “From the southland You (YHWH) proceeded to them (Israel).”[19]

Fire flew – A two-word expression comprised of אֵשׁ (ʾesh), “fire,” and דת (dat) as an irregular spelling of the verb דאת, which means “flew.” Accordingly, the clause reads: “From His right, fire flew to them.”[20]

A blazing fire – An emendation of a two-word expression comprised of ʾesh and a second word that modifies ʾesh, of which only some letters have survived, such as doleket or yokedet, “blazing,” or lapidot, “a torch.”[21] Thus, the phrase ʾesh dat could denote a blazing or torch-like fire at YHWH’s right.[22]

The ancient translations may have drawn on the phrase’s literary context, picking up on the verses that follow it, which mention קְדֹשָׁיו, “His hallowed ones,” possibly referring either to Israel or to YHWH’s angels,[23] the people accepting YHWH’s pronouncements (v. 3), and Moses charging them with the Torah (v. 4).

LXX – ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ ἄγγελοι μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ, “at his right, angels with him.”[24]

Vulgatein dextera eius ignea lex, “in his right hand a fiery law.”

Targum Onkelos – כְתָב יַמִינֵיה מִגוֹ אִישָׁתָא אוֹרָיתָא וִיהַב לַנָא, “The writing of His right hand from the midst of the fire is the Torah He gave us.”

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan – כתב ימיניה ואוריתיה מיגוא שׁלהובית אישׁתא פיקודיא יהב להון, “With the writing of His right hand and His Torah from the midst of flaming fire, He gave the commandments to them.”

Targum Neofiti – ופשׁט ימיניה מן גו להבי אשׁתה ואוריתה יהב לעמיה, “Then He stretched out His right hand from the midst of the flames of fire and He gave the Torah to His people.”

Peshitta – ܡܢ ܝܡܝܢܗ. ܝܗ݂ܒ ܠܗܘܢ, “from his right, he gave to them.”


March 3, 2023


Last Updated

April 3, 2024


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Rachel Friedman is the founder and Dean of Lamdeinu, the center for Jewish learning in Teaneck, New Jersey. She served for many years as Associate Dean and Chair of Tanakh Studies at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City. She holds an M.A. in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School at Yeshiva University and a J.D. from Columbia University School of Law. Friedman has been a scholar-in-residence at synagogues and educational institutions throughout the United States and abroad.