A scene of the Purim Story in the Dura Europos Synagogue 244 CE

Why and How a Complete Midrash on Esther was Preserved in the Babylonian Talmud

Dr. Shai Secunda

The end of the first chapter of b. Megillah preserves the only complete Babylonian midrash on an entire biblical book. In my essay Why the Talmud is the Only Rabbinic Work from Babylonia, I explained why the Bavli was the only rabbinic work compiled in late antique Babylonia:1 When Babylonian rabbis wanted to produce and preserve midrashic discussions, they compiled relatively short, oral midrashic collections, using the mishnaic structure underlying the Bavli as a bibliographic “storage system.”2

This essay focuses on two issues:

  1. Why did the Babylonian rabbis compile and preserve a complete midrash on Esther if this was not their regular working method?
  1. What technique did they use to preserve and store this midrash?

The Structure of the Babylonian Esther Midrash

The Babylonian Esther Midrash (BEM) stretches for some five and a half pages of the standard Vilna edition (10b-17a) and is comprised of two parts:

1. Petiḥot: After a brief chain of traditions attributed to R. Levi, the first section includes a set of fourteen petihtot (proems) – a classic midrashic method that involves the citations of verses from elsewhere in the Bible to inform the reading of the current passage or book, in this case the book of Esther (b. Megillah 10b-11a).

For example, the eighth proem in the list makes a connection to a prophecy found in Psalms:

ר’ יוחנן פתח פיתחא להאי פרשתא מהכא: “זכר חסדו ואמונתו לבית ישראל וראו כל אפסי ארץ את ישועת אלהינו’ אימתי ראו ישועת אלהינו? בימי מרדכי ואסתר
R. Yoḥanan opened a proem to this section from here: “He was mindful of His steadfast love and faithfulness toward the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth beheld the victory of Our God” (Psalms 98:3). When did they behold the victory of Our God? In the days of Mordecai and Esther.

2. Commentary: The far larger portion of the BEM (11a-17a) consists of a verse-by-verse commentary on Esther, along with some tangents, the longest of which is a discussion of the seven biblical prophetesses (14a-15a).3

This literary structure of beginning with a set of petihtot, and then proceeding to exegetically interpret the verses of the biblical book, is known to us from other Palestinian midrashic collections such as Eichah Rabbah.

I. Why a Babylonian Midrash
on Esther?

Three possibilities for why the Bavli preserved a complete midrash on Esther are outlined below:

1. The Broader Preservation of Esther: More midrashim on Esther seemed to have survived than on any other biblical work.4 While this fact in and of itself deserves an explanation, for our purposes the great number of surviving Esther midrashim means that the BEM might be understood as part of a broader rabbinic tendency.

2. Esther and Persia: The Purim story may have held special meaning for Babylonian Jewry, who lived within or in close proximity to the Sasanian Persian Empire. Although the Babylonian Esther Midrash normally does not reference contemporaneous Persian rule over Babylonia, in one place the fourth century rabbi, Rava, who lived in the environs of the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon, declares: “אכתי עבדי דאחשוורוש אנן – we (Babylonian Jews) are still slaves to Ahasuerus (b. Megillah 14a),” referring to the ruling Sasanian dynasty, which apparently was perceived as a continuation of Ahasuerus’s Achaemenid Empire. This affinity with the book may have encouraged Babylonian rabbis to make an exception and compile a comprehensive midrash on this biblical book

Scenes of the Purim Story in the Dura Europos Synagogue
A related example of Persian diasporic interest in the Purim story is seen in the remains of a third century C.E. synagogue that stood in Dura Europos. Dura Europos  was a Roman border town in present day Syria that lay dangerously close to the border with the Persian Empire (the town was ultimately overcome by the Sasanian Persian armies in 256/7 C.E.). The Dura Europos synagogue was adorned with monumental drawings that depicted major biblical episodes. Scholars have noted the placement of a large panel representing two Purim-related scenes – Haman leading Mordecai on a horse on one half, and Esther and a royal entourage flanking an enthroned Ahasuerus on the other half – right next to the Torah niche at the very front of the synagogue.  This suggests that the Purim story was central to this community’s religious consciousness.5

3. Talmud “Megillah”: Finally, it is possible that the existence of a tractate Megillah – the only tractate officially dedicated6 to the reading of a biblical book – invited the Bavli to include an entire midrash devoted to its interpretation.

II. Finding a Place for the
Babylonian Esther Midrash

Once the midrash was put together, the Bavli’s redactors had to figure out where to orally “store” it. Unlike smaller midrashic collections, which were more easily linked to nominally relevant talmudic discussions, the sheer size and comprehensiveness of the BEM was not well suited to the Talmud’s taxonomic system which, of course, was structured according to the order of mishnaic tractates and not biblical books. This created an acute bibliographic challenge.7

Why at the end of b. Meg Chapter One?
Although chapter two, which focuses on the laws of Megillah reading, may seem like a more natural place to preserve the BEM, the talmudic redactors’ decision to place the BEM at the end of chapter one  is likely due to the peculiarities of oral text preservation. Specifically, given the size of the BEM, the Bavli’s redactors looked for an out of the way “place” – or to again invoke the library metaphor, a clean “shelf” – in the tractate for preserving this midrash.

Early Evidence for Chapter One 1 Preserving other Material
Already within the structure of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s Mishnah, the end of m. Megillah chapter one had served as a storage area for material otherwise unconnected to the tractate.  Only the first four mishnayot of m. Megillah deal with Purim-related laws, while the rest of the chapter consists of an extended collection of mishnayot organized according to the opening formula אין בין – “there is no difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’ other than ‘X.’”8 Once the Bavli completed its discussion of the last mishnah in this אין בין series, it could present its own, very lengthy collection of rabbinic material unrelated to the ritual focus of the tractate – the BEM.

Scribal Evidence for the BEM being preserved on a “Clean Shelf”
A brief comment by a medieval scribe helps to explain the placement of BEM. Specifically, MS Vatican 134 – an early 13th century Ashkenazi manuscript – records the words סליק גמרא – “the Gemara has concluded” following the final Mishnah-related discussion and right before commencing the BEM.megillah ms vatican 134

This brief comment by a medieval scribe seems to confirm the idea that the BEM resides in a kind of textual no-man’s land – after the regular talmudic discussions of chapter one have concluded, and before the sugyot of chapter two commence.

Anchoring the BEM to its Place: A Matter of Tradition

Given the instability of oral texts and the possibility that the location of the BEM could shift, and/or its content disintegrate, during the course of oral transmission it was critical to anchor the midrash in place by linking it to the preceding talmudic discussion.

Again, although the Bavli’s redactors do not tell us how they operated, it seems that they looked for a midrashic tradition within the BEM that bore a linguistic connection to the preceding talmudic discussion, and then moved it to the very beginning of the BEM – even before its initial section of petithtot.

Ancestral, Exilic Traditions about Cities
and Midrashic Approaches: The Connection

The linkage consisted of a halakhic and an aggadic tradition both attributed to forefathers returning from the Babylonian exile.

The end of the final mishnah in m. Megillah chapter one, immediately prior to the BEM, discusses the ritual differences between the holy cities of Jerusalem and the pre-Davidic cultic center at Shiloh:

קדושת שילה – יש אחריה היתר, וקדושת ירושלים – אין אחריה התר.
[After the] sanctification of Shiloh it was permissible [to set up private altars elsewhere]; but [after the] sanctification of Jerusalem it was not permissible [to set up private altars elsewhere].

In the course of interpreting this Mishnah, the Bavli considers a variety of “sanctified” cities, including places like Shiloh and Jerusalem as well as former Canaanite towns “consecrated” by Israelite conquest. The Bavli also mentions some halakhot applicable to these cities, for example, the laws of selling a house in a walled city (Leviticus 25:29-30) and, pertaining to Purim, the rule, stated in m. Megillah 1:1, that “cities surrounded by a wall since the days of Joshua bin Nun read [the Megillah] on the fifteenth of the month.”

In the course of the discussion, the Bavli cites three baraitot that emphasizes the importance of ancestral traditions from “the people who came up from the Exile” or from “your forefathers”:

[א] אמ’ ר’ ישמעאל בר’ יוסי למה מנו חכמים את אלו? שכשעלו בני הגולה מצאו אילו וקדשום…

[ב] אמ’ ר’ ישמעאל בר’ יוסי וכי אלו בלבד היו והלא כבר נאמר ששים עיר כל חבל ארגוב כל אלה ערים בצורות חומה גבוהה דלתים ובריח אלא למה מנו חכמים את אלא שכשעלו בני הגולה מצאו אלו וקדשום…

[ג] ולא אלו בלבד אמרו אלא כל עיר שתעלה בידך מסורת מאבותיך שמוקפת חומה מימות יהושע בן נון כל המצות האלו נוהגות בה מפני שקדושה ראשונה קדשה לשעתה וקדשה לעתיד לבא.

[A]‘R. Yishmael son of R. Yose said: Why did the Sages enumerate these (cities listed in a baraita in tractate Arakhin)? Because when the exiles returned they found these (cities) and sanctified them…

[B] R. Yishmael son of R. Yose said: Were these all? Do we not find it said, Sixty cities, all the region of Argob, (and it is written,) All these were fortified cities with high walls?” Why then did they enumerate these? Because when the exiles returned, they found these [still walled] and sanctified them…

[C] And not only in these alone, but in every one in regard to which you shall find a tradition from your forefathers that it was walled from the days of Joshua son of Nun, all these precepts are to be observed, because the first holiness was conferred for the time being and for all future time.

Each of the baraitot discusses special cities and refers to ancient, and in some cases, exilic traditions about them.

BEM opens:

“ויהי בימי אחשוורוש”

אמ’ ר’ לוי ואיתימא ר’ יונתן:

דבר זה מסורת בידינו מאבותינו9 מאנשי כנסת הגדולה:

כל מקום שנאמר ויהי אינו אלא לשון צער.

ויהי בימי אחשוורוש – היה המן…

“And it was in the days of Ahasuerus (Esther 1:1)”

Said R. Levi and some say R. Yonatan:

This matter is a tradition in our hands from our fathers, from the Men of the Great Assembly:

Wherever it says “And it was (ויהי),” it is only a language of pain: (For example,):

“And it was in the days of Ahasuerus” – there was Haman…

Invoking the Post-exilic Men of the Great Assembly
The attribution of the opening line of the BEM to “our fathers from the Men of the Great Assembly” connects the midrash to the preceding talmudic discussion, with its references to cities sanctified by returning exiles, and those which bear traditions handed down to “our fathers.”10 The “Men of the Great Assembly” is the name of a council of leaders who, according to Ezra and Nehemia, returned to Judea from the Diaspora. The connection between the midrashic teaching about ויהי (or really, ויהי בימי, as the Bavli later clarifies) and a postexilic teaching is also apparent in a parallel passage in Bereishit Rabbah, which links this idea with rabbis “who brought this midrash back from the Exile in [their] hands 11(“זה מדרש עלה בידינו מן הגולה”).

This would explain why R. Levi’s statement was placed at the beginning the BEM, even before the petiḥot. Given its content and form, it is likely that R. Levi’s teaching originally appeared at the beginning of the midrash’s exegetical section, but was moved to the opening of the BEM in order to link it the final talmudic discussion in b. Megillah chapter one.

Connecting “Exilic” Halakhic and Aggadic Traditions

The linkage between the BEM and the preceding talmudic discussion is first and foremost a practical technique to stabilize a lengthy midrash within the (initially oral) fabric of the Bavli. But the fact that the content of this linkage consists of a reference to traditions ascribed to Babylonian returnees may have been intentional. By using such a ascription at the beginning of the only comprehensive Babylonian midrash, the Talmud may also be highlighting the value of Babylonian Jewry’s contribution to midrasic learning.12

___________________

Shai SecundaDr. Shai Secunda is a Martin Buber Society fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he lectures on rabbinic literature and comparative religion. He is a founder and co-editor of the Talmud Blog. His first book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context was published by UPenn press in 2013. His forthcoming book, Like a Hedge of Lilies: Menstruation and Difference in the Talmud and its Sasanian Context explores the development of the laws of menstruation in the Babylonian Talmud against approaches to menstrual impurity held by Babylonian Jewry’s neighbors.

  1. In the course of their studies, Babylonian rabbis produced smaller collections devoted to specific topics. However, unlike their Palestinian colleagues, they apparently did not produce major compilations devoted to aggadah or halakha.
  2. In my  TABS piece, “Why the Talmud is the Only Rabbinic Work from Babylonia,” I suggested that this may have had to do with a strict Babylonian rabbinic stance against writing down “Oral Torah.” While Babylonian rabbis were willing to justify the circulation of pre-existing midrashic books on the grounds that preserving Torah sometimes, ironically, requires transgressing its own dictates, they would have been reluctant to produce new comprehensive midrashim on biblical writings, given the tendency of these works to adopt the written form of the biblical books on which they comment. In order to preserve midrashic learning in Babylonia, a decision was made to orally “store” this material within the fabric of the oral talmudic discussions that make up the Talmud.
  3. Readers interested in studying the BEM using modern academic methods should consult Eliezer Segal, The Babylonian Esther Midrash: A Critical Commentary, Brown Judaic Studies, 291-293, 3 vols (Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1994), one of the most important critical commentaries on midrashic literature.
  4.  Myron B. Lerner, “The Works of Aggadic Midrash and the Esther Midrashim,” in The Literature of the Sages (ed. Shmuel Safrai et al; Assen, Netherlands, 2006), pp. 133-230.
  5.  There may also have been political significance in the position of the Purim panel. According to some interpretations, the Purim panel, with its depiction of what is essentially a Sasanian enthronement scene and triumph over a non-Persian figure (Haman), draws a connection between Esther’s Ahasuerus and the first Sasanian king, Ardashir (224-242). Furthermore, an inscription marking the visit of Sasanian officials in 253 C.E. states that they “came to this district of the Jews, to this place of worship of the god of gods of the Jews, they saw this painting, they saw and liked …” On the former, see Dalia Levit-Tawil, “The Purim Panel in Dura in the Light of Parthian and Sasanian Art,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 38 (1979): 93-100; on the latter, see Touraj Daryaee, “To Learn and to Remember from Others: Persians Visiting the Dura-Europos Synagogue,” Scripta Judaica Cracoviensia 8 (2010): 29-37. For a tantilizing online resource for Dura Europos art, including the synagogue panels, see this Yale University Art Gallery page.
  6. M. Megillah also contains substantial material relating to other topics, including a chapter about buying and selling synagogues and synagogue furniture.
  7.  I expand on the metaphor of the Bavli’s mishnaic structure as a library-science taxonomy in, “Why the Talmud is the Only Rabbinic Work from Babylonia.”
  8.  This collection is here on account of of m. Megilah 1:4b, which reads:
    אין בין אדר הראשון לאדר השני, אלא מקרא מגילה ומתנות לאביונים.
    There is no difference between the first Adar and the Second (leap-year) Adar, besides the reading of the Megilah and the gifts distributed to the poor.

  9. The word מאבותינו appears in MSS Oxfod, Munich 95, Vatican 134 and was added to the text of MS Munich 140. It appears in almost all witnesses in the second statement in the series (דבר זה מסורת בידינו מאבותינו אמוץ ואמציה אחים היו) and in most witnesses of the third statement (דבר זה מסורת בידינו מאבותינו מקום ארון אינו מן המידה), where some manuscript substitute מאנשי כנסת הגדולה for מאבותינו.
  10. This basic point is made by Avraham Weiss, Studies in the Literature of the Amoraim (Hebrew; New York: Horev and Yeshiva University, 1962), pp. 276-7, but he does not develop it further.
  11.  See Bereishit Rabbah 41:3 and parallels.
  12. Moreover, the rabbis considered Mordecai as a member of the Men of the Great Assembly, also referenced in citing the traditions.
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