Talmud

Megillah 16

Dust and stars.

If the Gemara was at all ambivalent in the way it handled Vashti, or equivocal about Esther, its agenda with Haman is clear: Much of today’s page is concerned with humiliating this villain and exaggerating his fall from power which, in a way, contradicts Proverbs 24:17, which states: “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice.”

Is there an exception for genocidal maniacs? Perhaps. Haman receives little appreciation today, but the Talmud finds a way of mitigating this gleeful attack by finding positive things to say about Haman’s entourage. We start with this verse:

And Haman recounted to Zeresh his wife and to all the people he loved everything that had befallen him. Then his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him: “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is descended from the Judeans, then you will not prevail over him, but you shall surely fall before him.” (Esther 6:13)

The rabbis, always close readers of text, note that at first Zeresh, Haman’s wife, is mentioned before his other “loved ones.” But then the text reverses the order, mentioning the “wise ones” first and Zeresh second. One way of understanding this is to suggest that Zeresh might have been beloved, but she was not wise. However, the Gemara has a different view of Haman’s advisors:

It calls them “his loved ones,” and in the continuation of the verse it calls them “his wise men.” Rabbi Yohanan said: From this we learn that whoever says something wise, even if he is from the nations of the world, is called a wise man.

Wisdom, it turns out, can exist among even the wicked nations. (Haman is thought to descend from the unforgivable Amalekite clan.) But, as the Book of Proverbs reminds us, wisdom is a path to righteousness. So can these wise advisees really be so wicked? Perhaps not. The Talmud reminds us that it was Zeresh who suggested that Haman build a scaffold to hang Mordechai on — not the wise advisors. The Talmud hereby acknowledges that there is indeed wisdom beyond the confines of the Jewish world — and perhaps even among the righteously reviled Amalekites. 

Moreover, the non-Jewish advisors are shown to be knowledgeable about Jewish history. Recall that they refer to Mordechai as a Judean, not a Jew. The word Judeanscan be used to refer to Jews, but it can also refer specifically to people descended from the tribe of Judah. As the rabbis explain, Haman’s wise men reasoned:

If Mordechai were descended from the other tribes, you could still prevail over him, but since he is from the tribe of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim or Manasseh, you cannot prevail over him. 

How do the wise advisors know this? Because they can quote scripture:

Concerning Judah, the proof of this is as it is written: “Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies.” (Genesis 49:8

This quotation is part of Jacob’s dying blessing to Judah at the end of Genesis, and it indicates that he will emerge victorious over his enemies. Therefore, Haman never stood a chance against a Judean. And the proof that Haman cannot prevail over the other three tribes mentioned?

As it is written about them: Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up God’s anger might.” (Psalms 80:3)

As we can see, these advisors are not only wise and righteous, they are versed in Bible! Indeed, even their words are carefully chosen to reveal hidden meanings. As they say to Haman, going back to the verse where we started:

But you shall surely fall (nafol tippol) before him. (Esther 6:13)

Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai interpreted this verse homiletically: Why the repetition of the word to fall? The wise men said to Haman: This Jewish nation is compared to the dust of the earth, and it is also compared to the stars in heaven. This teaches you that when they descend, they descend to the dust, and when they rise, they rise to the stars.

Haman’s wise advisors — in addition to being oriented toward greater good than we might expect and being able to quote the Bible — use the kind of rich language that conveys many layers of meaning. They double the word for falling (in the plainest sense of the verse, this is a grammatical device used purely for emphasis) to indicate just how far the Jews are capable of falling, as well as how high they can reach. If they err, they can descend to the dust. But if they choose what is right, the stars are quite literally the limit.

Read all of Megillah 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 28th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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