Talmud pages

Megillah 14

A turning point in Jewish history.

Today’s page contains a simple but profound lesson: The actions of ordinary individuals can be more powerful than the words of our weightiest prophets. 

Those familiar with the Book of Esther will recall that after Haman hatches his genocidal plan to annihilate the Jews, he receives the ultimate sign of approval from Ahasuerus: The king removes his signet ring and hands it to his most trusted advisor. This act leaves no doubt about Haman’s authority, as Ahasuerus gives him his literal and figurative stamp of approval. 

This might not be the detail of the Purim story you remember best. Perhaps what sticks in your mind is the beauty contest Esther wins that earns her the title of queen, or the fasting she does in preparation to enter the king’s throne room, or the feast she throws for Ahasuerus and Haman where she reveals her true identity. Or maybe it’s when Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman, or when the king orders Haman to hang on the gallows constructed for Mordechai. But the rabbis understand this seemingly small act, of Ahasuerus transferring his signet ring to Haman, as not only a central element in the Purim story, but as an absolutely singular moment in the history of the Jewish people:

Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: The removal of Ahasuerus’s ring was more effective than the 48 prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people, as they were all unable to return the Jewish people to the right way, but the removal of Ahasuerus’s ring returned them to the right way.

This is a remarkable statement. Rather than view Haman’s elevation as a moment of tragedy in the Jewish saga, it is seen as a turning point, paving the way for the people to become better.

Various rabbinic authorities guess at who the 48 prophets are. (Today’s daf does list the seven prophetesses — ​​Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther — and describes their accomplishments). While there is disagreement about who makes the list of 48 male prophets, certain names appear everywhere: Moses, Aaron, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel to name a few. But even these major league prophets, today’s daf suggests, were largely unable to convince the people to change their behavior and do right both by their fellow humans and God.

So why is this moment, when Haman receives Ahasuerus’ signet ring, more morally edifying than the prophesying of 55 of the most notable figures in the Tanakh?

The 16th century talmudist, kabbalist and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew, better known as the Maharal of Prague, suggests that the transfer of the ring from Ahasuerus to Haman caused a crisis for the Jews because until that moment, they believed that God works through kings, for better or worse. Sometimes a king acts as an agent of punishment; other times, as an agent of redemption. 

But the passing of kingly authority to a singular individual represented a dramatic threat — one that was exacerbated by the fact that the individual is no friend of the Jewish people. No longer could the Jews be assured that God’s will, for their benefit or detriment, was being done through a king. It was now undeniable that history was in the hands of individuals. 

And this, says Rabbi Loew, was a key moment for the Jewish people. In the past, they had been able to ignore prophetic predictions and carry about their lives, trusting that things would work out according to God’s intention no matter what they did. But at the moment that Haman slipped Ahasuerus’ signet ring onto his own finger, they came to understand that individuals can make a significant impact on history — for better or much worse. But as dark as it was to contemplate that Haman could destroy the Jewish people against God’s will, the reverse was also possible: The Jewish people could assert control over their own destiny. And, as we know from the story, they did.

In the end, the rabbis suggest, the realization of crisis trumps the rhetoric of prophets. When we know and feel in our guts that it is in our hands to shift the course of history, we do not need a prophetic voice to encourage us. Ahasuerus passed the ring to Haman, and the people responded by repenting (in the rabbinic imagination), and then fighting their enemies. And we too as readers are reminded that we have the agency to make real historical change.

Read all of Megillah 14 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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