ויהי בימי אחשורוש
And it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus
Gemara (Megilah 10b):
Rabbi Levi said, and some say that it was Rabbi Yonatan who said: This matter is a tradition that we received from the members of the Great Assembly. Anywhere that the word “ויהי” is stated, it is an ominous term indicating only impending grief, as if the word were a contraction of the words “וי” (woe) and “הי”(mourning).
However, the Gemara concludes:
Rav Ashi said: With regard to every instance of “ויהי” alone, there are some that signify grief, and thereare some that signify joy. However, wherever the phrase “ויהי בימי” )and it came to pass in the days of ( used in the Bible, it is strictly a term of impending grief.
The Gemara lists five instances of “ויהי בימי” in the Scriptures. “ויהי בימי אחשורוש” (and it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus); “ויהי בימי שפוט השופטים” (and it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled”; “ויהי בימי אמרפל” (and it came to pass in the days of Amraphel; ‘’ ויהי בימי אחז “ ( And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz” (Isaiah 7:1); “ויהי בימי יהויקים” (and it came to pass in the days of Jehoiakim” Jeremiah 1:3). In all these incidents, grief ensued.
It appears to our master that our master that at first the Talmud wanted to read “ ויהי“ as “וי יהי” (there will be woe) so that “ ויהי“ presages a story with grief. But the Talmud reconsidered this assumption in light of numerous examples in which “ ויהי“ precedes a happy story as well as a sad story. However, the Talmud concludes that “ויהי בימי” is always a prelude to a story of grief so that it should be understood to mean “וי יהי” (there will be woe). For it is appropriate for someone who is narrating the events of former times to begin by identifying the historical period in which those events occurred, so that a narrator might say during such and such a year of the reign of such a king or in a particular year in the life of a famous person. But if the events being recounted concerned that particular king or that particular individual, then it would have been redundant to begin by saying that the events to be recounted occurred during the lifetime of that king or that individual while to say that an event occurred during the life of an unknown person would be pointless.
If we analyze the five instances that are introduced by the words “ויהי בימי” we find that in each of them the narrative relates to the individuals mentioned at the outset of the narrative to identify when the events to be recounted occurred. In the days of Ahasuerus: he made a feast. In the days that the judges ruled, a man named Elimelech, who according to the Sages was a judge, went away. And Boaz, too, whom the story is about, was also a judge. So, if the whole story concerns the actions of these two judges, what information is added by introducing the narrative by informing us that it happened when the judges ruled? Similarly, it came to pass in the days of Amraphel that he waged a war. And so also it came to pass in the days of Ahaz and it came to pass in the days Jehoiakim. In all these cases, it is impossible to say that the introduction “ויהי בימי” contributes information about the narrative, which is why the Sages felt compelled to interpret “ויהי” as a contraction of two words “וי” and “הי”. Using this introduction, the Scripture prepares us for a narrative involving pain and woe. (שביבי אש)
שאלו תלמידיו את רבי שמעיו בן יוחאי מפני מה נתחייבו שונאיהם של ישראל שבאותו הדור כליה? אמר להם: אמרו אתם. אמרו לו: מפני שנהנו מסעודתו של אותו רשע. אם כן שבשושן יהרגו, שבכל העולם כולו אל יהרגו! אמרו לו: אמור אתה. אמר להם: מפני שהשתחוו לצלם. אמרו לו: וכי משוא פנים יש בדבר? אמר להם: הם לא עשו אלא לפנים, אף הקב”ה לא עשה עמהם אלא לפנים. והיינו דכתיב: “כי לא ענה מלבו.”
The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai asked him: Forwhat reason were the enemies of Jewish people (a euphemismistic reference to the Jewish people themselves) in that generation deserving of annihilation? He, Rabbi Shimon, said to them: Say the answer to your question yourselves. They said tohim: It is because they partook of the feast of that wicked one, Ahasuerus, and they partook there of forbidden foods. Rabbi Shimon responded: If so, those in Shushan should have been killed as punishment, but those in the rest of the world, who did not participate in the feast, should not have been killed. They said to him: Then you say your response to our question. He said to them: It is because they prostrated before the idol (that Nebuchadnezzar had made, as is recorded that the entire world bowed down before it, except for Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah).
They said to him: But if it is true that they worshipped idols and therefore deserved to be destroyed, why was a miracle performed on their behalf? Is there favoritism expressed by God here? He said to them: They did not really worship the idol, but pretended to do so only for appearance, acting as if they were carrying out the king’s command to bow before the idol. So too, the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not destroy them but did act angry with them only for appearance. He too merely pretended to desire to destroy them, as all He did was issue a threat, but in the end the decree was annulled. And this is as it is written: “For He does not afflict from His heart willingly” (Lamentations 3:33), but only for appearances’ sake.
This entire passage is difficult. First, if a student asks his teacher, why would the teacher respond by telling the student to answer the question himself. And if the student had an answer to the question he is asking, why would the student have asked it? And since the students did have an answer with which to respond when asked to do so, why, indeed, did they pose the question at all? Were they merely trying to test him?
Second, if the sin for which the Jewish people were punished was that they ate forbidden foods, why would they have been subjected to a death penalty inasmuch as eating forbidden foods is not an offense punishable by death?
Third, if they responded to the answer of R. Shimon that they were subject to the death penalty because they bowed down to an idol by asking why they were not indeed punished for committing a capital offense, when they suggested that the Jewish people were worthy of punishment because they ate forbidden foods, why did R. Shimon not ask them why no punishment was meted out to them for that transgression?
Fourth, what was the basis of their presumption that the Jewish people had been worthy of destruction? Perhaps their transgression, whatever it may have been, was only serious enough to warrant their being subjected to the threat of destruction, but not actual destruction?
It appears to our master that the students of R. Shimon proved their presumption that the Jewish people were worthy of actual destruction because it was only the Jews of Shushan that were aware of the impending threat of destruction, but most of the Jewish people, who lived elsewhere were not aware of king’s decree because the decree nullifying the first decree was sent out only three days after the first decree was sent. The commentators have also written that the first decree was sealed and ordered by the king not to be announced until the day the decree was to take effect and the only instruction was that the decree be opened and announced on the designated day, but the actual contents of the decree remained undisclosed. This was because Haman had happily believed that the day chosen for the decree to be executed was an unlucky day for the Jews and he was afraid that if the decree were disclosed prematurely the Jews might defend themselves successfully. Only Mordechai himself knew about the contents of the decree through the Holy Spirit, and only later did the king reverse the decree, so that most of the Jewish people never knew of the decree before it was rescinded. See the commentaries of the Lekah Yosef and the Malbim. Moreover, concerning the first announcement, the Megilah says that the couriers went out speedily to carry the decree throughout the kingdom on foot, but concerning the second decree it is written that they went out speedily and hurriedly on horseback, because the King was eager for the first couriers to be overtaken so that the copies of the first decree be taken from the first couriers be taken from them before reaching their destinations.
All this shows that there was a heavenly decree for the Jewish people to be destroyed and not just to be frightened by a threat of destruction, and that the Heavenly decree was only annulled afterwards. That is why the students specifically asked why they had been condemned (נתחייבו) to be destroyed, rather than asking merely why it was decreed (נגזר) that they be destroyed. But from the way his students formulated their question, R. Shimon understood that they could offer a reason for why the Jewish people were deserving of being subjected to the threat of destruction, but they had no reason for why they were worthy of actual destruction.
That is why R. Shimon responded to their question by asking, since you have a reason for why the Jewish people were deserving of being subjected to the threat of destruction, tell me what you think they did that would have justified their being threatened with destruction? In other words, according to your opinion that they were not worthy of actual destruction what transgression justified their being subjected to the threat of destruction? They properly answered this question by saying that they had partaken in the feast of Ahasuerus, eating all kinds of forbidden foods for which being subjected to the threat of destruction would have been an appropriate punishment.
R. Shimon responded to them by saying if that were the case, then it was only the Jews of Shushan who were guilty of the transgression, so why was the entire nation threatened with destruction? And in fact Mordechai, upon learning of the evil decree informed all the Jews of its contents as the Megilah says that in every place reached by the King’s decree there was great mourning and terror took hold of the Jews. And why were all the Jews subjected to this fright? It could not have been because the Jews of Shushan partook of forbidden foods at the feast of the king, as his students thought. Rather, he said it was because they all had bowed down to the idol made by Nebuchadnezzar.
The students of R. Shimon responded to this explanation by asking why if they had committed the sin of idolatry for which the punishment is death why were they rescued from the punishment that they deserved? R. Shimon responded that although they bowed down to the idol, they did not have an idolatrous intent, but only pretended to worship the idol. The punishment to which they were subjected was therefore only the threat of death, as the Almighty only pretended to destroy them, but did so with no intention of doing so. (שביבי אש)
טוב שם משמן טוב (קהלת ז, א): טוב שמו של מרדכי מעושרו של המן
(Actually Shemot Rabbah 33:5)
נבחר שם מעושר רב (משלי כ”ב, א): נבחר שמו של מרדכי מעושרו של המן
Our master comments that the Talmud infers from the verse (Esther 10:3) “ורצוי לרוב אחיו” (he was approved by the multitude of his brethren) that he was not approved of by all his brethren, because some of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin dissented from him in that previously when he had been poor and unassuming who devoted himself entirely to the welfare of the Jewish people, protecting them from scurrilous and unfounded attacks, he was universally admired, but when he was raised by Esther to sit among the royalty and to take possession of Haman’s house and wealth, some of the Sanhedrin withdrew from him, because they disapproved of his conduct. This was the lesson taught by the Midrash: that the reputation of Mordechai when his accomplishments were due to his reputation alone, as indicated by his name “מר דכי” (pure myrrh) which signifies his own extraordinary humility, was preferable to the wealth of Haman that he acquired when he was approved only by the majority, but not all, of his brethren. And it was better for him before than after. (שביבי אש)