June 16, 2024
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Yehudi or Yemini?

Mordechai enters the scene in Esther 2:5, where he is described as an “ish Yehudi” (a man from the tribe of Yehuda) and an “ish Yemini” (a man from the tribe of Binyamin). The Gemara (Megillah 12b, 13a) notes the contradiction and offers three answers:

  1. His father is from Binyamin, and his mother is from Yehuda.
  2. Yehuda takes credit for Mordechai’s existence since David HaMelech (from Yehuda) spared the life of the rebellious Shimi ben Geira, Mordechai’s ancestor.
  3. “Ish Yehudi” does not mean Mordechai is from the tribe of Yehuda. Instead, it means one who repudiates avodah zara and supports Hashem, which is what Yehudim (Jews) stand for.

Interestingly, the Gemara does not address why—beginning from perek 3—Megillat Esther calls him “Mordechai HaYehudi.” If, according to all three answers, he is not from Yehuda, why is he not described as “Mordechai HaYemini” or just plain “Mordechai,” with no tribal appellation?

 

The Vilna Gaon and the Baal HaTanya

In 1980, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik attended a farbrengen (chasidic gathering) led by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The rebbe said that since Rav Soloveitchik, a scion of Rav Chaim Volozhiner—the Vilna Gaon’s primary disciple—was participating in a major chasidic event conducted by a descendant of the Baal HaTanya, it signaled that the two 18th-century greats had reconciled in heaven. As is well-known, there was great tension between these two rabbinic luminaries.

When his students drove him back to Yeshiva University, Rav Soloveitchik remarked that he thought the Vilna Gaon and Baal HaTanya had made peace decades beforehand—that witnessing the Shoah (Holocaust) from their heavenly abodes led these leading rabbis to put aside their differences.

The Nazis persecuted Jews with no distinction between chasid and mitnaged. “Enduring terrible suffering together,” said Rav Soloveitchik, “convinced the souls of the two greats to end their rivalry.” Indeed, the chasidic and mitnagdic rivalry—terribly intense for generations—subsided after World War II.

 

Haman Changes Our Perspective

Perhaps Haman viewing Mordechai as a “Yehudi”—from the tribe of Yehuda—changed our perspective on this term, as Haman hated all Jews equally. It made no difference to Haman if one was from Binyamin or Yehuda; we were the same “Yehudim” to Haman and he wished to murder us all.

Unfortunately, the competition between Rachel and Leah’s children persisted through the generations. In Sefer Bamidbar, Bnei Rachel and Bnei Leah camp in separate areas. In Sefer Shmuel, supporters of Shaul (from Shevet Binyamin) contend with supporters of David (from Shevet Yehuda). Finally, in Sefer Melachim, Yerovam ben Nevat from Ephraim leads a rebellion against Rechavam, David HaMelech’s grandson.

There are occasional glimmers of reconciliation, such as half of Menashe sharing the Eiver HaYarden with Reuven and the deep friendship between David and Yehonatan. Nonetheless, the rivalry remained and manifested itself (in part) in the division between Malchut Yehuda (the southern kingdom) and Malchut Yisrael (the northern kingdom). The split persisted until all of Bnei Yisrael were exiled.

Esther 2:5 reflects that even in the exile, we defined ourselves as “Yehudi” or “Yemini.” Haman changed all that. Even after Haman and his decree were neutralized, we forsook our tribal divisions to define ourselves only as “Yehudim.”

Mordechai’s identification as a “Yehudi” reflects a nationwide revolution. We redefined the appellation of “Yehuda” as one who repudiates avodah zara and stands with Hashem. The divisions of Kohen, Levi and Yisrael remained, as that goes to the fundamental nature of our people as a tripartite nation (Shabbat 88a). Perhaps the fact that we no longer know from which shevet (tribe) we descend (except for Levi) stems from a deliberate post-Haman decision to erase our tribal divisions.

The term “Yehudi” has shifted from a biological definition to an ideological designation. How appropriate that this change is brought about by Haman, an Amalekite. After all, Rav Soloveitchik insists (as discussed in the chapter “Refusing Booty”) that we define “Amalek” by ideology (pure Jew-hatred) and not biology.

 

Conclusion

“Gedolah hasarat hataba’at—Achashverosh’s handing his ring to Haman,” had more impact on our people than all of the prophets, as the Gemara (Megillah 14a) states. What no one else accomplished, Haman managed to bring about. Of all people, Haman eliminated the divisions in our people (not unlike the thoroughly evil Hamas who is unifying a fractured Israeli society, in 5784).

Sadly, when one division falls, another seems to arise. Hitler ended the chasid-mitnaged rivalry, but others have emerged to replace it. It is high time for us to heal our divisions without a Haman, Hitler or Sinwar, yemach shemam (may their memory be erased) catalyzing such mending.


Rabbi Jachter serves as the rav of Congregation Shaarei Orah, rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, and a get administrator with the Beth Din of Elizabeth. Rabbi Jachter’s 18 books, including a brand new one entitled “In the King’s Court: Exploring Megillat Esther—Our Most Subtle Victory,” may be purchased at Amazon and Judaica House.

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