Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy by Mitchell First
Reviewed by Rabbi Ari Enkin (torahbookreviews.com), November 6, 2015
In his “Esther Unmasked”, Mitchell First presents eleven outstanding essays on common topics of contemporary relevance whose true origins are lesser-known, or otherwise full of misconceptions and dubious folklore.
The eleven topics are (in my words):
- The Aleinu Prayer
- The Origins of the Word Mechila
- All about the Mysterious Source and Meaning of “Ani Vaho”
- The Meaning and Origin of the word “Maccabee”
- The Meaning and Origin of the word “Chashmonai”
- Why Antiochus Hated the Jews
- The Origins of Taanit Esther
- Identifying Esther and Achashverosh in Secular Sources
- The Orginal Mah Nishtana
- All about “arami oved avi”
- The Orginal Order of the Hebrew Alphabet.
In every essay, First unapologetically sets the record straight in an honest and balanced manner, supporting virtually every sentence with the relevant sources from both Torah and secular sources. To give you a taste of what you will discover: the Aleinu prayer has nothing to do with the contemporary concept of “tikkun olam” (nor was the prayer written by Joshua as is commonly assumed), “Ani Vaho” is not the original form of this mysterious phrase, the difference between “selicha” and “mechila,” the Fast of Esther is not mentioned in any of the early sources, but rather makes its first appearance in Babylonia (and it is unclear what it truly commemorates!) And much much more. This is a high quality work of Torah scholarship that is readable and can be enjoyed and appreciated by all audiences. A valuable education awaits you.
The title is quite misleading. When I ordered the book, I did so under the (obvious?) impression that this was a book on the Book of Esther and other Purim related issues, which is an area of study that I concentrate on extensively, so I was looking forward to it on that account alone. Boy was I pleasantly surprised to find so many other topics of interest discussed, as well! (Confession: Yes, I often order books based on the title alone, without checking the table of contents). While the book does tackle Esther related topics, it is only 2/11th of the book! In fact, there is much more relating to Chanuka and the Maccabees than there is to Purim and Esther, so I am really unsure why this title was chosen. I hope that the book won’t be hastily dismissed by potential readers as just another Purim primer!
Bottom line: Esther Unmasked is a real winner. Every essay is fascinating. Highly recommended.
Esther Unmasked by Mitchell First is Available here