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The Megillah


 A Perplexing Purim Feast Unfettered By Intellect

Should Mordechai Have Sacrificed His Torah Study?

Publisher's Foreword

In the sichah which follows, the Rebbe offers a unique analysis of a Talmudic passage.

In a manner characteristic of his treatment of subjects in Nigleh, each passage is not seen merely as an isolated point of knowledge, put as a paradigm reflecting principles of a larger scale.

Moreover, these principles are not treated merely as theoretical abstracts, but rather as practically applicable guidelines regarding Jewish leadership.

From the narrative in the Megillah and its interpretation by our Sages, the Rebbe charts a course of purposeful action for a Jewish leader.

The Rebbe desired that leadership not remain the province of a select few, but rather become the prerogative of every individual.

At home, at the workplace, and in one's community, every man and woman can - and should - exercise leadership potential.

May the study of the Rebbe's teachings enable us to realize this goal, and may our efforts draw down overtly apparent Divine good and blessing, including the ultimate blessing, the coming of the Redemption, and the fulfillment of the prophecy, [Yeshayahu 26:19] "And those who repose in the dust will arise and sing."

Sichos In English
21 Adar I, 5755

Favored by Most, but not All

The Megillah concludes [1] by describing Mordechai as: "favored by the majority of his brethren, seeking the welfare of his people, and speaking [words of] peace to all his seed."

Our Sages infer, [2] however, that these words of praise contain a subtle hint of criticism: He was favored by "the majority of his brethren," but not all of his brethren.

"Some of the Sanhedrin disassociated themselves from him," because "he negated the words of Torah, and became involved with government affairs." [3]

Our Sages continue, stating that with Mordechai's assumption of court responsibilities, his station among the Sages declined; originally he was mentioned as fifth in stature among the Sages, [4] and afterwards he was mentioned as the sixth. [5]

This leads the Sages to conclude that "the study of the Torah surpasses saving lives."

This passage raises several questions:

  1. Since "the study of the Torah surpasses saving lives," why was Mordechai demoted only one position? Why wasn't he removed from the Sanhedrin entirely?
  2. Why didn't Mordechai himself realize his failing and correct his behavior? Moreover, the above-mentioned verse indicates that he was "favored by the majority of his brethren." Although "some of the Sanhedrin disassociated themselves from him," the majority of his brethren, the Sages of the Sanhedrin, approved of Mordechai's course of action.

These questions lead to the conclusion that Mordechai's conduct was in fact considered desirable by the majority of the Sages, and it was appropriate for him to serve as one of the leading Sages of the Sanhedrin. [6]

Indeed, even those Sages who disassociated themselves from him did not do more than that. They did not censure him, nor did they seek to have him rebuked. They merely sought a different path of Divine service themselves; they did not maintain that Mordechai's approach was not consistent with the Torah's ways.

"Blessed" or Merely "Protected"

The motivating principles for these two approaches can be traced to a difference of opinion between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. [7]

The Babylonian Talmud states [8] that the pious men of the early generations would spend nine hours every day in prayer and in preparation and as a corollary for this Divine service.

The Sages ask: Given this commitment of time, "How is their Torah protected, and how is their work conducted" (i.e., how was it possible that in the few short hours left them, they were able to maintain their level of Torah study, and support themselves financially)? And the Sages answer: "Since they were pious, their Torah (knowledge) was protected and their work was blessed."

The Jerusalem Talmud [9] raises a similar question, and explains "Since they were pious, their study and their work were endowed with blessing."

The phrase "Their Torah (knowledge) was protected" indicates that their piety prevented their Torah knowledge from being forgotten. [10] In the brief time they had to study, they could not, however, advance further in the study of the Torah.

The phrase used by the Jerusalem Talmud, "their study... [was] endowed with blessing," by contrast, implies that they were also able to grow in the knowledge of Torah. Despite the minimal amount of time available to them, "they succeeded in understanding and comprehending ideas immediately, without delay." [11]

Thus there were some Sages who - following the approach of the Babylonian Talmud - saw Mordechai's approach as necessary to maintain the existence of the Jewish people, but as possessing an inherent limitation. It would lead to the preservation of the reservoir of Torah knowledge which he possessed, but not to its expansion. Therefore, they "disassociated themselves from him."

The majority of the Sages - following the approach of the Jerusalem Talmud - realized that Mordechai's self-sacrifice in taking on the yoke of court affairs would, like the piety of the Sages mentioned previously, bring blessing to his Torah study, and enable him to advance to new frontiers. Therefore they continued to support him. Similarly, Mordechai himself, aware of this dynamic, persevered in his court responsibilities despite the spiritual sacrifice it entailed.

Light and Darkness

This difference of opinion between the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud is not merely an isolated, particular issue, but rather points to a more encompassing difference in approach between the two Talmuds.

Our Sages interpret [12] the verse: [13] "He has set me down in dark places," as a reference to the Babylonian Talmud. For the Babylonian Talmud is characterized by darkness: questions and challenges, [14] arguments and disputes. Solutions are proposed and rejected in a lengthy process of analysis that can be compared to a person groping in the dark.

The Jerusalem Talmud, by contrast, is characterized by light. Concept follows concept in a natural progression. And when questions do arise, they are answered directly without an extensive process of search.

Based on the Midrash, [15] it is possible to conclude that the difference between these approaches depends on "spiritual geography." In Eretz Yisrael, spiritual truth is more apparent. As such: "No[where] is Torah study comparable to the Torah study of Eretz Yisrael."

The spiritual darkness which characterizes Babylonia - and all lands of exile, by contrast, causes the search for truth to be more protracted, and to involve hypotheses which must ultimately be dismissed. [16]

The Effects of "Spiritual Geography"

To relate these concepts to the issues mentioned above:

Since the process of analysis which characterizes the Babylonian Talmud is lengthy and involved, it was impossible for the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud to conceive of a person progressing in Torah study without devoting a large block of time to this endeavor. Therefore, when considering the Torah study of "the pious men of the early generations," they could not envision the possibility for growth. All they could see was that the attainments that they had already achieved would be protected because of their piety.

On the other hand, the Sages of the Jerusalem Talmud whose approach to Torah study was more focused and more direct, appreciated the possibility that a person could "succeed in understanding and comprehending ideas immediately, without delay." [10]

Accordingly, the study of the pious could be "endowed with blessing" [8] that would enable them to advance to new frontiers, instead of merely protecting the reservoirs of knowledge which they already possessed.

Since, as mentioned above, these two approaches are dependent on the spiritual influence of Eretz Yisrael, similar concepts can be explained with regard to Mordechai's involvement in the Persian court at the expense of his occupation with the study of the Torah.

At the time of the Purim story, the Sanhedrin, the High Court in Eretz Yisrael, followed the approach to study which characterized the Jerusalem Talmud. Therefore, Mordechai and the majority of the other Sages of his era maintained that it was proper for him to sacrifice his complete involvement in the study of the Torah for the welfare of the Jewish people.

They felt that the spiritual influence aroused by his efforts on behalf of his people would "endow his study with blessing" and he would be able to continue to progress in the study of the Torah despite his court duties.

There were at that time, as there were in the subsequent generations, [17] Sages who came from Babylonia and whose pattern of thinking was nurtured in that land. [18] Therefore they were unable to conceive of the possibility that Mordechai would grow in Torah study while burdened with the responsibilities Achashverosh placed upon him. Accordingly, they "disassociated themselves from him" and sought other individuals to serve as spiritual mentors and guides.

Giving up Greatness for Others

There is, however, no question that Mordechai's court duties involved a certain dimension of spiritual sacrifice on his part, as reflected in his loss of position in the Sanhedrin.

Even according to the approach of the Jerusalem Talmud which sees the possibility of Divine blessing enabling a person to continue to advance in Torah study despite a small investment of time, there is no question that a constant involvement in Torah study endows a person with a dimension of greatness that cannot be attained through any other endeavor.

In this vein, our Rabbis [19] point to the uniqueness of those "whose Torah is their occupation," who do not interrupt their study of the Torah for any reason whatsoever, for their study crowns them with a singular aura of personal magnitude.

For this reason, our Sages say [2] that "the study of the Torah surpasses saving lives," for the dimension of greatness with which the study of Torah endows one is truly unsurpassable.

Because he was forced to forego this dimension of personal greatness, Mordechai descended in stature among the Sages. Nevertheless, it was - in the opinion of Mordechai and the majority of the Sanhedrin - necessary for him to make this individual sacrifice for the welfare of the Jewish people at large. [20]

A Judge's Duty

A slight difficulty still remains.

Although Mordechai's court responsibilities did not prevent him from growing in the study of the Torah, and it was acceptable for him to sacrifice the personal greatness he could have attained for the sake of the welfare of the Jewish people, one still might suspect that he should have resigned his position in the Sanhedrin because of his court responsibilities.

Seemingly, the Sanhedrin should be made up of individuals "whose Torah is their occupation." Without discounting the virtue of Mordechai's conduct and the necessity for it, one might presume that it is not befitting for a member of the Sanhedrin.

On the surface, a member of that august body should have no other concern in life aside from the determination of Torah law.

This approach, however, misconstrues the purpose of the Sanhedrin.

The purpose of the Sanhedrin was not to serve as an authority on Torah law in the abstract, aloof from the people at large.

Instead, our Sages counseled [21] that the members of the Sanhedrin should "gird their loins with bands of steel, lift their robes above their knees, and traverse from city to city... to teach the Jewish people."

Moreover, we find that undertaking such endeavors will detract from the Sanhedrin's authority, for a quorum of twenty three judges are necessary to render decisions, [22] and moreover, certain rulings, e.g., cases of capital punishment, can only be made when the Sanhedrin holds court in Jerusalem, next to the Beis HaMikdash. [23]

Nevertheless, this is the pattern advised by our Sages, to sacrifice the authority of the court, and have the judges travel from city to city to spur the nation to a deeper commitment to the Torah.

Following a similar rationale, Mordechai was willing to sacrifice his own position in the Sanhedrin for the welfare of our people as a whole.

In the Present as well as in the Past

The Baal Shem Tov [24] interpreted the Mishnah: [25] "A person who reads the Megillah in a non-sequential order (limafreiah) does not fulfill his obligation" to mean that a person who considers the Purim saga as merely a chronicle of history without deriving a contemporary lesson does not fulfill his obligation.

Instead, the directives to be derived from the Megillah, including its final verse, are relevant in all times, and in all places.

A Jewish leader must know that his main concern is not his personal greatness, nor the contributions to Torah study that he can make, but the welfare of our people as a whole.

When a leader commits himself to this goal, he should not be deterred by the fact that "some of the Sanhedrin disassociate themselves from him."

Instead, he should persevere in his efforts, confident that "since [he is] pious, [26] [his] study and [his] work [will be] endowed with blessing."

He will be given Divine assistance to advance the frontiers of Torah study, and his "work," his efforts on behalf of his brethren, will be crowned with success.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVI, p. 373ff


  1. (Back to text) Esther 10:3.

  2. (Back to text) Megillah 16b, quoted by Rashi in his commentary to the above verse.

  3. (Back to text) Rashi, Megillah, op. cit.

  4. (Back to text) Ezra 2:2.

  5. (Back to text) Nechemiah 7:7

  6. (Back to text) Note the commentary of the Ben Yehoyeda to the passage in Megillah who offers a similar interpretation.

  7. (Back to text) The connection between this issue (the concern for the communal welfare of the Jewish people as weighed against the study of the Torah) and the passages which follow was made by the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Yosef Rosen. When asked by the Previous Rebbe to participate in a Rabbinic committee to protect the interests of Russian Jews, he demurred, explaining that his refusal was dependent on the difference of opinion between the passages from the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud which follow.

  8. (Back to text) Berachos 32b.

  9. (Back to text) Berachos 5:1.

  10. (Back to text) Rashi, Berachos, op. cit.

  11. (Back to text) P'nei Moshe to the Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit.

  12. (Back to text) Sanhedrin 24a.

  13. (Back to text) Eichah 3:6.

  14. (Back to text) See the Zohar III, 124b quoted in Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 26, which states that a question stems from the side of evil.

  15. (Back to text) Bereishis Rabbah 16:4.

  16. (Back to text) Nevertheless, generally, when there is a difference of opinion between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, the halachah follows the viewpoint of the Babylonian Talmud. For the detailed process of analysis of the Babylonian Talmud though more prolonged and difficult, and involving hypotheses that must be rejected, ultimately results in a more thorough sifting of the ideas.

  17. (Back to text) E.g., Hillel who came from Babylonia (Pesachim 66a), and Rabbi Nosson of Babylonia (Gittin 65b).

  18. (Back to text) Indeed, many of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah who returned to Eretz Yisrael with Ezra from Babylonia had their thinking processes shaped in that land.

  19. (Back to text) See Shabbos 11a; Ramah (Orach Chayim 90:18), Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 106:2).

  20. (Back to text) The reason why this sacrifice was necessary is alluded to in Rashi's commentary to the opening words of the Megillah which interpret the name Achashverosh as meaning that "he persevered in his wickedness from the beginning to the end.' Because Achashverosh was so wicked, Mordechai had to retain a position of power in the court, lest that wickedness be vented on the Jewish people again.

    This enables us to see a connection between the beginning and the conclusion of Rashi's commentary to the Megillah. Why was Mordechai required to make the personal sacrifice that caused him to be "favored by [only] the majority of his brethren"? Because of the continuing wickedness of Achashverosh.

  21. (Back to text) Tanna d'Bei Eliyahu Rabbah, ch. 11. Although this text speaks specifically about the era of the Shoftim, the intermediate era between the entry into Eretz Yisrael and the establishment of the monarchy, the principle applies beyond this specific period as well.

  22. (Back to text) Sanhedrin 37a; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sanhedrin 3:2.

  23. (Back to text) Avodah Zarah 8b; Rambam, loc. cit. 14:11-13.

  24. (Back to text) Kesser Shem Tov, Hosafos p. 78.

  25. (Back to text) Megillah 2:1.

  26. (Back to text) See Niddah 17a which states that a pious man is one who burns his nails after cutting them. As explained by Tosafos, this implies that he is willing to accept personal harm in order to benefit others.
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