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

When Babylonian rabbis produced and preserve midrashic discussions, they compiled them into relatively short, oral collections, using the mishnaic structure underlying the Bavli as a bibliographic “storage system.” Why did the Babylonian rabbis compile and preserve a complete midrash on Esther if this was not their regular working method? What technique did they use to preserve and store this midrash? 

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

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).[1]

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.[2] 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

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.[3]

3. Talmud “Megillah”

Finally, it is possible that the existence of a tractate Megillah – the only tractate officially dedicated[4] 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”[5] 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.[6]

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.’”[7] 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.

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.

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…
[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…
[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…
[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…
[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.
[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:
“And it was in the days of Ahasuerus (Esther 1:1)” Said R. Levi and some say R. Yonatan:
דבר זה מסורת בידינו מאבותינו [8] מאנשי כנסת הגדולה: כל מקום שנאמר ויהי אינו אלא לשון צער.
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,):
ויהי בימי אחשוורוש – היה המן…
“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.”[9] 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(“זה מדרש עלה בידינו מן הגולה”).[10]

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.[11]



Prof. Shai Secunda is Jacob Neusner Professor of Judaism at Bard College. He is a founder and co-editor of the Talmud Blog, fellow at Project TABS, and editor of TheGemara.com. He is the author of The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context and Like a Hedge of Lilies: Menstruation and Difference in the Talmud and its Sasanian Context