The Gemara (Megilah 7a) raises the question whether Megilat Esther is part of the canon, is part of Tanakh. The halakhic expression of this is whether it is metamei et ha’yadayim, ritually impurifies the hands. As is recorded in Mishna Yadayim (3:5 and 4:6), kitvei hakodesh, holy Scriptures, cause tumat yadayim, impurity of the hands. The Gemara in Shabbat (14b) explains that the reason for this is because the practice was to store them with trumah, sanctified grain, since both were holy, but then rats would come and eat the trumah and destroy the kitvei hakodesh. By making them impure, the Rabbis ensured that they would not be stored with trumah, and this situation would be avoided. In contrast, the Mishna Yadayim (4:6) states that their ritual impurity is a reflection of how dear and precious they are. There is a certain logic to this. Although tumah is a negative thing, it has power to it, and when these kitvei hakodesh are treated as ritually impure, they exert a certain power, and their metaphysical kedushah becomes more actualized and experienced.
Now, the Mishna Yadayim (3:5) records that there were debates whether Kohelet and Shir HaShirim should be metamei ha’yadayim, should be included in the canon. Their inclusion in the canon was in doubt because it was not certain whether these books were written bi’ruach hakodesh, with divine inspiration. This is stated explicitly Tosefta Yadayim (2:14) and in Megilah 7a, where R. Shimon ben Menasya is quoted saying that Kohelet is not part of the canon because it is just Solomon’s wisdom and is not divinely inspired. It should be noted that the other issue regarding Kohelet – the problematics with its theological statements – was not mentioned as an argument against canonization, but rather as an argument to suppress it – bikshu chakhamim lignoz sefer Kohelet mipnei she’matzu et devarav sotrim li’divrei Torah, “the Rabbis wanted to suppress the book of Kohelet because they found its words contradicting the words of the Torah” (Shabbat 30b). Similarly, we find that there was a move to suppress the book of Yechezkel because of problematic verses (Shabbat 13a and Chagiga 13a), although there was never any question as to the inclusion of the book of Yechezkel in the canon.
Now, as far as the book of Esther is concerned, it is never mentioned in the Mishna or Tosefta Yadayim as having its canonical status questioned. We do not find this until the 3rd century, where Rav Yehuda states in the name of Shmuel that Esther is not metamei et ha’yadayim. This is a bold statement – for an Amora to deny the canonicity of Esther which had not even been questioned in the time of the Tannaim. As we have seen, the Mishna in Yadayim does not mention any debate around Esther, and the Gemara Megilah even quotes a version of the Mishna that states explicitly that Esther is metamei et ha’yadayim. How, the Gemara asks, could Shmuel deny this? The Gemara answers by connecting Shmuel’s position with that of another Tanna, whose statement, while not explicitly about the canonical status of Esther, can be interpreted to be in line with Shmuel’s position.
In contrast to the Gemara’s version, all of our texts of the Mishna Yadayim (3:5) make no mention of the Book of Esther, and it is worth speculating that perhaps the reason that Esther is not mentioned in Yadayim is not because it was unquestionably in the canon, but rather the opposite – because it was assumed to be outside the canon. It is worth noting that Josephus (Against Apion, 1.38-41) said that our canon consists of 22 books, and not our current 24, although he does not list the books that are included (perhaps it is Kohelet and Shir HaShirim which are excluded). Perhaps more significantly, of all the full and partial books of Tanakh which were found in Qumran, the only part of a book that was not found was the book of Esther. So it is possible that Rav Yehudah’s statement in the name of Shmuel is actually in line with the Mishna in Yadayim and is reflecting a tradition from a time before Esther was incorporated into the canon.
The Gemara, however, raises another objection to Shmuel’s position. For, says the Gemara, it is the selfsame Shmuel who states that Esther was said with ruach hakodesh, and thus its inclusion in the canon should be non-problematic. (Parenthetically, it is interesting to note, that while the Bavli recognizes the existence of the position that Esther is not in the canon, it does not recognize any opinion that states that it was not written bi’ruach hakodesh). The Gemara’s answer to this is that while it was said with bi’ruach hakodesh, that was only for the purpose to be recited and not for the purpose of being written. What does this mean?
Rashi states that the meaning of the above statement is that Esther was given to be learned and recited orally. Tosafot (s.v., Ne’emara), however, is not satisfied with this explanation, since it is universally accepted that the mitzvah of reading the megilah requires that the reading be done from a written megilah, one written according to very specific criteria, no less. Tosafot’s answer is that the requirement that it be read from a megilah is only rabbinic. What does this mean? The whole mitzvah to read, anyway, is rabbinic, and how does this solve the problem of Esther not being a book of the canon?
The Griz al HaRambam (Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, son of Rav Chaim, uncle of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik) gives an answer to this question. The Griz explains as follows. The megilah has two statuses: (1) It is a book of Tanakh and has kedushat kitvei hakodesh, the sanctity of holy Scripture, and it is thus also metamei et ha’yadayim, and (2) it is a cheftza she mitzvah, a mitzvah object, like a lulav or shofar, that is used to do the mitzvah of reading the megilah.
Now, we know that that to use the megilah that is used for the mitzvah it has to satisfy more requirements than those that would be necessary to define it as a book with kedushat kitvei hakodesh. So, for example, if the megilah was written in a scroll together with other megilot, it would be kitvei hakodesh but not usable for the mitzvah of megilah. But – he states – the difference of these categories goes further. It is not that one builds on the other, but that the two are completely independent of each other. Thus, there could be (as we have seen) a megilah that has kedushat kitvei hakodesh without being able to be used for the mitzvah, but there could also be a megilah that could be used for the mitzvah but not have kedushat kitvei hakodesh, not have the sanctity of Scripture. This latter category is, according to Shmuel, the case with every megilah. It is not part of the canon, thus is not metamei et ha’yadayim, but it still is the necessary cheftza shel mitzvah to be used for the mitzvah of reading the megilah. This is the meaning that, according to him, the megilah was not given to be written, i.e., as part of Tanakh, but it was given to be read, i.e., as the cheftza shel mitzvah (and this may also be the meaning of Tosafot’s comment that a scroll must still be used for the rabbinic mitzvah of megilah, i.e., as a cheftza shel mitzvah).
Other interesting examples he gives are: (a) a megilah written in translation can be used for someone who understands the language, but is not metamei et ha’yadayim, i.e., does not have kedushat kitvei hakodesh, because it is not written in Hebrew script (see Megilah 8b, 18a, and Tosafot 8b, s.v. Ad). Such a megilah does not have the sanctity of Scripture but is still an acceptable mitzvah object; and (b) Rambam’s position (Laws of Megilah 2:9) that the klaf of a megilah does not have to be processed lishmah, for the sake of the megilah. While this is required for a sefer Torah, and we learn many laws of the construction of the megilah from those of a sefer Torah, we do not apply this requirement. Other laws of a sefer Torah, such as the use of klaf, the scoring of lines, and so on, apply to the megilah because they relate to the megilah’s status as a sefer, as a scroll, one of the requirements for it to be used for the mitzvah. However, working the klaf lishma is only required to imbue a sefer Torah with kedushat sefer Torah, and issues of kedushat kitvei hakodesh are irrelevant to the megilah’s status as a cheftza shel mitzvah.
His last two applications are perhaps the most startling. He argues based on Rambam’s failure to record the law that the letter vav of word vayzatta (the last of Haman’s sons) has to be long (to symbolize the pole from which Haman’s sons were hanged) and that the sons of Haman must be written in a stacked fashion, that those features are only required from the perspective of the megilah as kitvei hakodesh. As with all books in Tanakh, there is a certain mesorah, tradition, as to how some letters are formed or some sections are graphically written. This only relates to them as kitvei hakodesh, however, and thus in the case of megilah these traditions would be irrelevant to its status as cheftza shel mitzvah. According to this, then, a megilah without these features could be used for the mitzvah of reading the megilah.
In that vein, he turns his attention to the break between the parshiyot, the chapters of the megilah. He points to an Or Zarua who records which parshiyot of the megilah are p’tuchot (white space until the end of the line) and which are setumot (white space with the script beginning again on the same line). However, ends the Or Zarua, we make all of our parshiyot setumot like it’s done with tefillin and mezuzot. This is in fact the case – all of the parshiyot of the megilah are setumot, although in the Aleppo Codex some are p’tuchot and some are setumot. The reason for this, says the Griz, is that as a book of kitvei hakodesh it has both p’tuchot and setumot, as should be expected. However, as a cheftza shel mitzvah if follows the rule that governs other writings of Scripture that are used as cheftza shel mitzvah, to wit, tefillin and mezuzot. For something to qualify as a klaf that can be used to do the mitzvah of tefillin or the mitzvah of mezuzah, its parshiyot must be all setumot, and such is the case with megilah.
While ingenious, it is hard to accept this last application. First, the reason that there is a special rule for the parshiyot of tefillin and mezuzot that they all be setumot is because, except for the first two parshiyot in tefillin, they are not juxtaposed in the Torah. Thus, there needs to be a rule about how to write them when they are unnaturally juxtaposed. There is no reason that the megilah, which is written in order, should have its p’tuchot and setumot changed when being used as a cheftza shel mitzvah. Moreover, according to this approach, all of the megilot that we use would not have kedushat kitvei hakodesh.
While it is logically possible that none of our megillot have kedushat kitvei hakodesh, this conclusion seems to run against the entire spirit of Purim. The theme of Purim is finding God even during the period of galut, a period of hester panim when God’s presence seems absent. How is this done? It is done by a conscious decision of the Jewish People; it is done through the ritualizing of the day, through the creation of mitzvot, through endowing the day and its mitzvot with a human-initiated sanctity, which insists that God is present in our lives.
As the Griz himself agues, the book of Esther, once written by Esther and Mordechai, was used for the mitzvah even before it had been included in the canon. The first step was to create the ritual and to use it in the ritual. It was only later, according to the Gemara (Baba Batra 15), that it became to be recognized to have been written bi’ruach hakodesh and thus made part of our kitvei hakodesh. Because it was a cheftza shel mitzvah it became a part of the kitvei hakodesh. Our ritualizing it allowed us to identify and discover its sanctity.
This process plays itself out in the Gemara’s discussion (Megilah 7a) regarding how we know that Esther was written with ruach hakodesh. After the Jewish People, based on their religious intuition, had already come to this conclusion, the Rabbis of the Talmud insisted on once again discovering God in the megilah based on their use of the rabbinic mode of rational argumentation. They chose to relive the theme of Purim and once again discover God in the megilah. And what is the final argument in favor of the megilah being written bi’ruach hakodesh? It is Shmuel’s statement – “kiymu vi’kiblu,” “the Jewish People affirmed and accepted [to keep the holiday of Purim] – it was affirmed above what was established below.” When the Jewish People insist on creating a holiday, creating a mitzvah, on finding God in their lives, then that creates the reality of God’s presence. If we have made the megilah a cheftza shel mitzvah, then it will be affirmed above what was established below, and the megilah will become one of our kitvei hakodesh.
Let us all work to bring our lives and experiences of God and kedushah into our lives of mitzvah, to find God when God appears to be absent, and to unite the world of kedushah with the world of mitzvah.