Law and Order in the Megilla
We are accustomed to refer to an orthodox Jew as “dati” and a non-orthodox Jew as “lo dati”. Over the years variants of this definition have also been introduced such as “dati leumi” – national religious and even “dati light” – less stringent orthodoxy. We may therefore be surprised to learn that the word “dat” employed in the above used phrases to mean orthodox or religious was originally not connected to these ideas. Its source actually lies in the constitutions of ancient Persia and its most common use in the Tanach is in Megillat Esther.
The first use of the word is in the opening chapter:
“vehashetiya chadat ein ones, ki chen yissad hamelech al kol rav beito la’asot kirtzon ish v’ish – and the rule for the drinking was: no restrictions, for the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes” (Esther 1:8)
The irony of this law – dat – is striking. It is a law which states that are “no restrictions”. “Ones” could also be translated as force which would then mean that the law referred to here was that no one was to be forced to do anything that they did not want to do. Is this law or anarchy? It sounds like legalized drunkenness which, to a large extent, is what transpired in the first chapter of the megilla.
We note that in the wake of Vashti’s refusal to answer the call of Achashverosh, his advisors are summoned. This, we are informed, is the practice before all who know “dat vedin”. The cabinet had to decide “kedat” what law should be enforced as a result of Vashti’s behavior.
And so the story develops, with various laws being enacted by the king, or rather, by his advisors. One example is the “dat” which demands that a young girl preparing herself for her audience with the king undergoes twelve months of intensive beauty treatments. One gets the sense that “dat” is not a very serious issue until we reach the third chapter.
Haman turns to Achashverosh with the following complaint:
“yeshno am echad mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim bechol medinot maluchutecha, vedateihem shonot mikol am ve’et datei hamelech einam osim velamelech ein shoveh lehanicham – there is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the other people in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:9)
Here the “dat” of the land is pitted against the “dat” of the Jewish people. Haman claims that the Jews follow their own system of laws thereby ignoring those laws set up by the kingdom of Achashveirosh. This is, of course, incorrect. Nowhere, with the exception of Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Haman, do we see that the Jews disobey the laws of their host land. The one law which Mordechai broke was actually not instituted as a “dat” but rather a privilege given to Haman by the king. However, Haman states that the Jews have their own set of laws “dateihem”, which are different from any other nation or social group. In this sense, Haman was right. We Jews do live our lives by a different set of rules but they are not known as “datot”. This misrepresentation by Haman of the nature of the Jewish’s people’s uniqueness becomes a crucial theme in the development of the story.
On hearing of Haman’s evil decree, the “ketav hadat”, Mordechai immediately implores Esther to go to Achashverosh and plea on behalf of her people. Esther’s response is somewhat surprising in that she reminds Mordechai that anyone who presents themselves to the king without being invited is punishable by death except if the king extends his scepter to the visitor thus signifying that they have been spared. Surely Mordechai knows of this law, described by Esther as “achat dato lehamit”. Furthermore, on hearing of Esther’s hesitance, Mordechai tells her that if she ignores what he sees as a Divine call to her to act, the Jewish people will be saved by an alternate method, yet Esther and her household will perish. Why is Mordechai so adamant that Esther risk her life in order to try to achieve salvation for her people? What lies behind this discussion between Mordechai and Esther?
One answer to the above question is that in order for the Jews to be saved it was necessary for Esther to perform an act of “messirut nefesh”. Esther needed to place her life in danger thereby signifying the sacrifice she was prepared to make on behalf of her nation. Whilst adopting this explanation we wish to add a further dimension. Once Esther agrees to Mordechai’s request, she asks that the entire nation fast on her behalf after which:
“avoh el hamelech asher lo chadat vecha’asher avadti avadti – I shall go to the king, though in contrary to the law, and if I am to perish, I shall perish.” (Esther 4:16)
We see that Esther accepts the notion of “messirut nefesh” but she also adds that she will be entering into the king’s quarters “asher lo chadat”. As opposed to the “dat”, the law imposed on those who dare to enter uninvited to the king’s residence, Esther will be representing “lo chadat”. This symbolizes the difference between the Persian society and the Jewish way of life. What was this specific law? It was a law which gave the king absolute power. He, and only he, got to decide who remained and who was to meet their untimely demise. The contrast with our understanding of He who gives life or takes it away is stark and obvious. Surely, it is only Melech Malchei Hamelachim who can wield absolute power.
But even if we ignore that comparison we are struck by the contradictions in the system of “dat” employed in the Persian empire. On the one hand, as we have just shown, the king wields the power to decide between life and death. On the other hand, once Haman’s wicked plan had been revealed, Achashverosh states that he is powerless to repeal the decree as it had been signed with his signatory ring. What sort of law system allows for the monarch to send individuals to their death on a whim but renders him incapable of preventing the genocide of an entire nation? This is not the type of “dat” to which the Jewish people subscribe.
The difference between our system of law and that of ancient Persia is made evident in a section in the book of Ezra. Artachshasta, the king of Persia, sends a letter to Ezra HaCohen. In this letter, the king states that it was presented to “Ezra Kahana sefar data di kela shemaya.” This phrase, which means simply that the scroll was given to Ezra the priest, scribe of the “dat” of God in heaven, is introduced by the author of the book of Ezra in Hebrew:
“le’Ezra HaCohen hasofer, sofer mitzvoth Hashem v’chukav al Yisrael” (Ezra 7:11). We see that the Hebrew version, which was not the reported speech of the Persian king, refers to Ezra as the scribe of mitzvot Hashem, the commandments of God. There is no mention of “dat” whatsoever. We, the Jewish people, keep mitzvoth, not datot. We live our lives based on the commandments given to us by God – not those that emerged from the mouth of some drunken tyrant.
It is true that as a result of years of galut, the word “dat” has crept into our halachic terminology. Dat Moshe, Dat Yehudit and Kedat Moshe VeYisrael are but a few examples of phrases employed in the world of halacha which include this notion. However, it would seem that the terms dati and non dati used to refer to different members of the Jewish people are not entirely appropriate. Maybe during the days of Purim when we endeavor to include all our brethren in the celebrations we should avoid labeling our fellow Jews. Rather we should view all of our brothers as just that, fellow Jews.