Esther Unmasked by Mitchell First
Reviewed by Moshe Isaacson, March 6, 2016 (Original Post Here)
I have been a fan of Mitchell First’s work since I first read one of his posts on the Seforim Blog. Normally I like to fancy myself as a conceptual person, to me discussions of language variances usually call to mind the spurious tale wherein in response to a beat-writer’s query, Winston Churchill provided an answer that ended with a preposition. The writer called this to Churchill’s attention only to receive the quip “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” (debunked here). However, with Mr. First’s writings this simply cannot be the case because his compositions are simply too damn interesting!
It was clear to me in reading his essays, a few of which appeared in the aforementioned blog in abbreviated fashion, that the author knows far more than I about the topics he addresses. Not that this would stop a good yeshiva ma’n from quibbling with certain points here and there. For instance in his discussion of the cryptic term used in the Mishnah Sukkah 4:5, Mr. First does not mention that the reason וְהוּא רַחוּם, יְכַפֵּר עָוֹן וְלֹא-יַשְׁחִית: וְהִרְבָּה, לְהָשִׁיב אַפּוֹ; וְלֹא-יָעִיר, כָּל-חֲמָתוֹ. (Tehillim 78:38) is said before Aravit is related to how the court would administer lashings during that time period (which is why it is omitted during and immediately following Shabbat – Tur O.C. 237, Taamei HaMinhagim 239-240). It would stand to reason in my mind, having not seen enough convincing evidence to the contrary, that in this any in any other usage of the word הוּא to refer to God the intention is not to equate the word הוּא with the actual name of God. The burden of proof to support First’s opposing supposition is, in my mind, tremendous, especially in light of the fact that the Talmud (Shavuot 35a, JT Megillah 1:11, as pointed out by the author himself in note 42) does not record it as a name of God (which would require a scribe’s special intention as such when composing a sefer torah).
I would imagine the author has a scholarly rebuttal, but to me this is besides the point. I cannot recall reading a similar work which was as intellectually stimulating, and moved me to the extent Esther Unmasked has, and on such a broad array of topics no less! This is a credit to the scholarship, choice of topics, and the prose of the author in bringing each essay to life. Academic works may intimidate the layman or, through overuse of jargon be inaccessible to the average reader. This work is exactly the opposite. The writing is clear, approachable and engaging.
It is fortuitous that two of the best compositions relate to Purim. I was very engaged in reading the essay on Ta’anit Esther, from which I found several helpful sources that I was able to include in my own Purim divrei Torah. Other essays are timely for various chagim as well. Including a discussion of the origin of the word mechilah, essays on the text of the Haggadah and explorations on the names Maccabee and Hashmonai.
Some of the conclusions reached by Mr. First may not be congruent with the yeshivish milieu in which I was raised, and for this I am thankful. The author has given me pause, made me think, and made arguments that are compelling enough to warrant further investigation. In my book there are few higher compliments than that.