How the Book of Esther Contrasts Persian and Jewish Law

According to rabbinic tradition, the holiday of Purim, which began yesterday evening, is a celebration not only of the salvation of Persian Jewry from the wicked designs of the courtier Haman, but also of the contemporaneous Jewish reaffirmation of the Covenant under the leadership of Ezra. With this in mind, Rachel Friedman examines the book of Esther’s frequent use of the word dat—which in modern Hebrew means “religion” but in the Bible is usually translated as “law” or “custom.”

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. Nowhere does the Persian court appear more ridiculous than in its use of dat—a Persian loanword denoting a decree, edict, or commission—to create rules and legalisms that center on frivolity, whim, and individual excess. The opening feast follows the dat that there is no restriction on drinking: “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.”

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 dat—or law of the land—describes how Ahasuerus turns to his legal consultants for advice in dealing with Vashti’s conduct.

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 God, 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 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.


More about: Ancient Persia, Esther, Jewish law

What Israel Can Achieve in Gaza, the Fate of the Hostages, and Planning for the Day After

In a comprehensive analysis, Azar Gat concludes that Israel’s prosecution of the war has so far been successful, and preferable to the alternatives proposed by some knowledgeable critics. (For a different view, see this article by Lazar Berman.) But even if the IDF is coming closer to destroying Hamas, is it any closer to freeing the remaining hostages? Gat writes:

Hamas’s basic demand in return for the release of all the hostages—made clear well before it was declared publicly—is an end to the war and not a ceasefire. This includes the withdrawal of the IDF from the Gaza Strip, restoration of Hamas’s control over it (including international guarantees), and a prisoner exchange on the basis of “all for all.”

Some will say that there must be a middle ground between Hamas’s demands and what Israel can accept. However, Hamas’s main interest is to ensure its survival and continued rule, and it will not let go of its key bargaining chip. Some say that without the return of the hostages—“at any price”—no victory is possible. While this sentiment is understandable, the alternative would be a resounding national defeat. The utmost efforts must be made to rescue as many hostages as possible, and Israel should be ready to pay a heavy price for this goal; but Israel’s capitulation is not an option.

Beyond the great cost in human life that Israel will pay over time for such a deal, Hamas will return to rule the Gaza Strip, repairing its infrastructure of tunnels and rockets, filling its ranks with new recruits, and restoring its defensive and offensive arrays. This poses a critical question for those suggesting that it will be possible to restart the war at a later stage: have they fully considered the human toll should the IDF attempt to reoccupy the areas it would have vacated in the Gaza Strip?

Although Gat is sanguine about the prospects of the current campaign, he throws some cold water on those who hope for an absolute victory:

Militarily, it is possible to destroy Hamas’s command, military units, and infrastructure as a semi-regular military organization. . . . After their destruction in high-intensity fighting, the IDF must prevent Hamas from reviving by continuous action on the ground. As in the West Bank, this project will take years. . . . What the IDF is unlikely to achieve is the elimination of Hamas as a guerrilla force.

Lastly, Gat has some wise words about what will happen to Gaza after the war ends, a subject that has been getting renewed attention since Benjamin Netanyahu presented an outline of a plan to the war cabinet on Thursday. Gat argues that, contrary to the view of the American and European foreign-policy elite, there is no political solution for Gaza. After all, Gaza is in the Middle East, where “there are no solutions, . . . only bad options and options that are much worse.”

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, Israeli Security