Let’s be honest: The Book of Esther is weird. Unlike most books in the Tanakh, it’s set in Persia. God isn’t explicitly mentioned in it even once. Its major plot point is an intermarriage between a foreign king and a Jewish nobody. And its two main characters are Jews named after Babylonian gods (Ishtar and Marduk). Inevitably, whenever I teach my students the Book of Esther, at least one of them will raise their hand and ask, “but Dr. Ronis, why is this even in the Bible?”
Little do my students know, this is a question that Jews have been asking for millennia. In fact, someancient Jews actually didn’t think it belonged in the Bible at all! The Jews who collected and stored the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, had at least one copy of every biblical book (and many books that aren’tin our Bible) — all of them except Esther! It seems that Esther wasn’t actually in their Bible.
But for Jews, both in rabbinic times and today, Esther is in the Bible. Which leaves us with the question of why? Today’s daf offers us two versions of a truly delightful answer:
The first version suggests that Esther herself lobbied for inclusion in the canon:
Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda said: Esther sent to the sages: Establish me for future generations. They sent to her: You will arouse the wrath of the nations upon us. She sent to them: I am already written in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia.
According to Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda, Esther, queen of all Persia and its 127 provinces, wrote to the sages insisting that her book be included in the canon. The sages resisted, worrying in particular about the end of the book and its celebratory descriptions of Jewish violence against non-Jews. Esther dismissed their concerns, arguing that these acts of violence are already recorded in the official non-Jewish records (perhaps those same history books that were used to help Ahasuerus cure his insomnia — see Esther 6:1).
The second explanation is on the same theme:
Esther sent to the sages: Write me for future generations.
They sent to her: “Have I not written for you three times” (Proverbs 22:20), three times in the Bible and not four times?
Until they found a verse written in the Torah: “Write this for a memorial in the book, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14) “Write this,” that which is written here in Exodus and in Deuteronomy; “a memorial,” that which is written in the Prophets, “in the book,” that which is written in the megillah.
Let’s unpack this. As before, Esther writes the sages insisting her book be included in the canon. But the sages originally resist Queen Esther’s demands. They read a verse in Proverbs (which in context is about God’s trustworthiness and commitment to justice) as suggesting that the Bible must tell of the defeat of Amalek three times. And indeed, the Bible does mention the defeat of Amalek three times: Exodus 17:8–16, Deuteronomy 25:17–19 and I Samuel 15. Since the Book of Esther refers to Haman as an Agagite, and Agag is a descendent of Amalek, including the Book of Esther would mean that the defeat of Amalek was actually mentioned four times in the Bible and not three. Sorry, your majesty, that’s one too many.
Except you can’t really say no to the queen. And so the sages read the Bible more carefully and notice that the book of Deuteronomy doesn’t really tell the story of the defeat of Amalek, it just commands us to remember it. Problem solved! We can include the Book of Esther without contradicting the rabbinic reading of Proverbs.
Today’s daf tells my students that they are not the first ones to wonder why this book is in the Bible — the rabbis wondered this, too! And from the Talmud’s discussion, it appears that they didn’t really think it should be there at all — but what Queen Esther wants, Queen Esther gets.
Read all of Megillah 7 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 19th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.