“I can name that tune in three notes.”
“I can name that tune in two notes.”
“You can? Well then, name that tune!”
The iconic (and recently rebooted) game show Name that Tune pits music lovers one against the other in a battle to identify popular songs in as few notes as possible. While reading today’s daf, I imagine a talmudic game show that challenges rabbis to show off their abilities to connect disparate biblical texts by using biblical verses to introduce homilies about Megillat Esther.
Yesterday we were introduced to a form of rabbinic interpretation known as a petikhta, which seeks to find novel connections between biblical verses. On today’s daf, and for several more to follow, we find the rabbis applying this method to the Book of Esther:
Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak began his petikhta with this verse: “A song of ascents of David. If not for the Lord who was with us, let Israel now say; if not for the Lord who was with us, when a man rose up against us” (Psalms 124:1–2). The verse speaks of “a man” who rose up against us and not a king.
In this example, Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak quotes from a psalm that praises God for protecting the Jewish people from their enemies. Seizing on the psalmist’s use of the word “man,” he teases out a reference to the story of Purim, where the threat that the Jewish people face is from Haman, a regular person, as opposed to many other biblical stories where a king embodies the threat.
In another example on today’s daf, Rava draws from Proverbs 29:2, in which he finds a reference not only to Haman, but also Mordechai and Esther.
Rava began his petikhta with this verse: “When the righteous are on the increase, the people rejoice; but when the wicked man rules, the people groan” (Proverbs 29:2).
“When the righteous are on the increase, the people rejoice ”; this is Mordechai and Esther, as it is written: “And the city of Shushan rejoiced and was glad” (Esther 8:15).
“But when the wicked man rules, the people groan”; this is Haman, as it is written: “But the city of Shushan was dumbfounded” (Esther 3:15).
Rava’s first move here is to make a connection between the verse from Proverbs and Esther 8:15 because both use a form of the word happiness (simchah). Just as the righteous cause the people to rejoice, so too do Mordechai and Esther, righteous in the eyes of the rabbis, bring joy to the people as they save the Jewish people from Haman.
Then he equates the dumbfoundedness of the people in response to the royal edict that damns the Jews to the groan of a people ruled by a wicked person. Unlike some petikhtot, which establish a connection linguistically, dumbfounded (navochah) and groan (yei’anach) are not from the same root. Rather, Rava calls upon the reader to equate the meaning of the words.
After studying these and other petikhtot, it’s not hard to imagine the rabbis preparing for Purim by engaging in a little friendly competition:
“I can launch a drash on Purim with this verse.”
“Yes, but I can launch a drash with this other verse.”
“You can? Let’s hear your drash!”
Read all of Megillah 11 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 23rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.