How the Book of Esther Contrasts Persian and Jewish Law

March 7, 2023 | Rachel Friedman
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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.