Rabbi Yossi Marcus, coeditor of a new edition of the Megillah. (FILE PHOTO)
Rabbi Yossi Marcus, coeditor of a new edition of the Megillah. (FILE PHOTO)

Chabad edition offers mystical insights into Book of Esther

For the Jew who takes Purim text study as seriously as Purim drinking, there’s a new commentary on the Book of Esther (aka the Megillah) from Rabbi Yossi Marcus of North Peninsula Chabad that’s worth checking out.

The Long Beach native translated the Hebrew text of the book into English and worked with Chabad colleague Rabbi Eli Block to compile extensive commentaries.

A handsome volume with a textured purple and silver cover, it was published by the Kehot Publication Society just in time for Purim 5780.

Kehot is the publishing arm of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, and as such, the tome (look for “Megillat Esther — With English Translation & Commentaries”) heavily features commentaries from generations of Chabad rebbes.

Additional commentaries come from the Talmud, midrash and other classical rabbinic texts — but one can find that in any number of Esther commentaries. The Chabad-specific material is what makes this edition a distinctive addition to the Purim-lover’s bookshelf.

For Chabad thinkers, the Megillah poses something of a challenge: Alone among all the books of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Esther never mentions God.

In the hands of the Chasidic masters … the Scroll of Esther becomes a spiritual blueprint for the Jew in exile.

Yet, writes Block, “Emerging from the Chabad Rebbes’ written and oral teachings is a comprehensive mystical reading of the Megillah … In the hands of the Chasidic masters, the characters that populate the story become eternal archetypes, the plot is revealed as a deep spiritual drama, and the Scroll of Esther becomes a spiritual blueprint for the Jew in exile.”

Indeed, these Chabad teachings turn God’s absence from the story into a central spiritual theme. According to Block, rabbi at a Chabad center in Plano, Texas, called Legacy West, “Concealment is the dominant theme of the Megillah.”

And why wouldn’t it be? After all, we conceal our own faces and bodies behind masks and costumes during our raucous Purim celebrations. Block’s lengthy introduction summarizing the mystical Chabad approach to the Megillah is a highlight of this edition.

A hallmark of Chabad learning is the use of seemingly obtuse, dense religious texts to make modern points. Though the commentaries selected by Marcus and Block are thoroughly classical, the introduction to the text makes clear the contemporary relevance of Esther’s tale: “It is the story of a distinctive minority struggling to find its footing within an alluring host culture … where Jews participate in national and political life yet are suspected of harboring dual loyalties.”

The layout of the book is inviting and mildly ornate, with purple flourishes and headers throughout. Each page is roughly half commentary, half text. The pages are large, and the English and Hebrew text of the Megillah is large to match; one can envision a few people crowding around a copy of this edition to follow along while the Megillah is chanted in synagogue.

If you love Purim and are looking for a more mystical, Chassidish encounter with the holiday this year, this distinctive commentary and introductory material from Marcus and Block is a must.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.