Exploring mysteries

Exploring mysteries

imageWas Purim heroine Esther a real person or a figment of the Jewish imagination?

According to Teaneck’s Mitchell First, Queen Esther and King Achashverosh can be identified with the Queen Amestris and King Xerxes Greek historians have mentioned.

How he reaches this conclusion is outlined in his newest book, “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy,” published by Kodesh Press, released this week just in time for the annual Yeshiva University book sale that continues through February 23.

Ten of the essays in this heavily researched anthology have already been published in earlier forms in such periodicals as Hakirah, Biblical Archaeology Review, AJS Review, and Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, as well as online at seforim.blogspot.com.

Several of Mr. First’s articles are the first of their kind, no pun intended.

Mitchell First continues his sleuthing of spellings and historical clues in “Esther Unmasked.”

Especially groundbreaking are his identification of Esther in secular sources; the origins of the fast (ta’anit) of Esther; his discovery of an alternative Hebrew spelling of the famous phrase “l’taken olam” from the Aleinu prayer, usually cited as a source of the modern Jewish value of “tikkun olam,” repairing the world, and the implications of his finding that the order of the Hebrew letters “ayin” and “peh” were reversed in ancient Israel.

Mr. First, an attorney by profession and a Jewish historian by avocation and academic training, says that it took a village to produce the book. That village is populated by fellow members of the township’s Congregation Beth Aaron, where he often has lectured on his studies over the last two decades with the encouragement of its former spiritual leader, Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel, and now by Rabbi Laurence Rothwachs.

“If I lived on an island, I could never have accomplished any of this,” he said, naming the most influential Beth Aaron contributors to his research and the development of his ideas as Sam Borodach, Rabbi Moshe (Jordan) Yasgur, Rabbi Ezra Frazer, Rabbi Mordy Friedman (now in Israel), Meylekh Viswanath, and Allen Friedman.

“Rabbi Yasgur walked home from shul with me for years and was willing to listen to me ramble on about the origin of Ta’anit Esther, no matter what season it was in the Jewish year,” Mr. First said. “He also shared his own varied and creative insights and tremendous library with me.”

His curiosity about the authentic wording of Aleinu was piqued when he happened to sit in a pew next to Yehiel Levy one day and saw that Mr. Levy’s Yemenite prayer book contained a different spelling of “l’taken olam.”

A talk by Rabbi Rothwachs is what motivated Mr. First to research the Mishnaic interpretation of the phrase “Arami oved avi” from the Passover Haggadah. That is in the book, too.

“Beth Aaron members sometimes pointed me to articles and sources that I was not aware of, and it was always beneficial to hear their different perspectives on whatever issue I was working on,” he said.

“Esther Unmasked” has a preface by Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the national scholar at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals at Yeshiva University.

“Mitchell First … forthrightly questions several basic traditional Jewish assumptions and demonstrates why they often lack a sound foundation,” Rabbi Angel wrote in the preface. “He then combines extensive research into primary sources, the contributions of other contemporary scholars, and his own original ideas to build stronger structures in the pursuit of truth.”

Mr. First, whose earlier book, the 1997 “Jewish History in Conflict,” dealt with rabbinic chronology, says he did not set out to produce a book about mysteries. Many Beth Aaron congregants, however, said that they had wondered about the same questions he was researching and speaking about at shul. Turning each oral presentation into a fully footnoted essay took another four to six months.

“I was just fortunate to be able to find the time and have the necessary scholarly background to delve into these topics; I have a master’s degree in Jewish history from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate school,” Mr. First, who earned his law degree at Columbia University, said. “Because I am not an academic, I had no deadlines and was not forced to publish prematurely. This gave me the patience to come up with strong, well-researched answers to the mysteries.”

The identity puzzle to which the book’s title refers rests on the general assumption that Esther’s name does not appear in secular sources. Mr. First found that by the mid-19th century, scholars agreed that Achashverosh was the king whom the Greeks called Xerxes. But the identification of Esther with Amestris, Xerxes’ queen as described by Herodotus, was rarely suggested because of certain passages in Herodotus that made the identification problematic.

“What I discovered is that it is very easy to identify her with Esther,” Mr. First said. “The name essentially matches – MSTR vs. STR; the ‘is’ at the end of Amestris is just a suffix added by the Greeks. On close analysis, the difficulties raised by the passages in Herodotus are easily surmountable.”

Before so many sources were available online, Mr. First spent many Sundays in the libraries of Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. These days, YU will email scholarly articles for free, and there are websites devoted to developments in Jewish scholarship, such as thetalmudblog.wordpress.com and genizah.org, the latter containing fragments from the Cairo Genizah that shed light on early liturgical versions.

In addition to written resources, he also emailed professors across the world with specific questions. “Most have responded and been very helpful,” he said.

His most surprising discovery concerned the authentic spelling of the famous phrase in Aleinu. His research led him to understand that the prayer originally referred not to “repairing” the world under divine sovereignty but to “establishing” a world under divine sovereignty. “Tikkun olam may be a widespread concept in Judaism, but it is not found in Aleinu,” he concluded.

In addition to the subjects mentioned above, the book examines the origin of the word “mechilah” (forgiveness); the meaning of the cryptic Mishnaic statement “Ani Ve-Ho,” recited in the Sukkot liturgy; the meaning of the names “Maccabee” and “Chashmonai” in relation to Chanukah; what may have motivated the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus to issue harsh decrees against the Jews, and the early wording of the Haggadah’s Four Questions. (Spoiler: it used to be three, not four.)

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