This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Hanging Out with Vaiezatha*

The book of Esther reaches its culmination with the defeat of the villains, as Haman and his ten sons are hanged on the fifty-cubit tree that was originally prepared for the execution of the righteous Mordecai.

In a rare departure from the standard scribal practice, Jewish law insists that the names of Haman's sons must be written in the Megillah as a vertical column, so that each name is positioned above the next, rather than in normal blocks of prose. The Talmud suggests that the structural shakiness of such a narrow stack of blocks symbolizes the ultimate transience of Haman's evil.

Some of our sages deduced from the unusual way of writing the names of Haman's sons that the shape of the written text was intended to replicate graphically the positioning of the sons on the gallows.

Indeed, several traditional commentaries and manuscript illustrators tried to calculate the precise placement of the culprits along the fifty-cubit pole. The favourite representation had the entire family suspended in a single vertical sequence, in order of seniority.

Of course, baby brother Vaiezatha was the low man on the hanging-pole, dangling just above the surface. Some commentators suggested that this unpleasant posture might even have caused his body to stretch an extra cubit.

The Talmud provided an additional instruction about how to write the name of the youngest sibling:

"The vav of Vaiezatha must be stretched out like a pole. What is the reason for this? Because they were all hanged on a single pole."

Though the general idea behind this instruction seems clear enough, the commentators were not in agreement about whether it was referring to the graphic form of the Hebrew letter vav (which is, basically, a straight vertical line that can be conveniently elongated by the scribe), or to the manner of its spoken pronunciation.

The Lekah Tov, a homiletical commentary composed in eleventh-century Bulgaria, recommended a combination of both practices:

"...The reader of the Megillah must ... pronounce the vav of Vaiezatha in a drawn-out manner. For this reason the vav of Vaiezatha is written long."

This interpretation would later be advocated by Rabbi Jacob Tam and others.

On the other hand, some commentators, like Rabbi Jonathan of Lunel, understood that the ruling refers not to the lengthening of the consonant, but to pronouncing it with special clarity and elaborate musical rendering.

Other medieval authorities argued that the Talmud was speaking neither about the letter's pronunciation, nor its length, but about its shape. As interpreted by Rabbi Aaron Hallevy of Barcelona and several Spanish scholars, the correct interpretation was that the little curled roof that normally appears at the top of the letter vav should be omitted in this case, producing a simple straight line.

The debate over whether the Talmud was speaking about the shape of the vav or its pronunciation remained unresolved throughout the medieval era, with the rabbis adducing ingenious arguments and proof-texts in support of their respective positions.

In their attempts to determine the correct way of writing the vav of Vaiezatha, it was natural that the scholars would consult the literature of the "Masorah," the meticulous compendia of textual rules that were devised to ensure the accurate writing and chanting of the Bible.

Some authors reported that, though the Masorah enumerates letters in the Bible that should be written larger than normal size, the vav in Vaiezatha's name is not mentioned in those lists.

However, it turned out that not all editions of the Masorah were identical when it came to this question. Some scholars cited Masoretic texts that set down, in the name of "the practice of the scribes who have received it by tradition," that the vav of Vaiezatha must be written large.

Thus, the original dispute over the correct interpretation of the talmudic passage was seen to hinge on the more fundamental question of whether there existed a conflict between the Talmud and the accepted scribal practices for writing works of Scripture.

And in truth this inconsistency is borne out by the extant editions of Masorah. When we examine carefully the tiny mnemonic annotations that occcupy the margins of the printed Rabbinic Bibles, we observe that the vav of Vaiezatha is included in a list of "Large Letters" that is attached to the beginning of Genesis, but it is absent from a similar list appended to 1 Chronicles.

One scholar, who delved through the manuscript evidence to collect ten different Masoretic lists of this kind, discovered that our extended vav is mentioned in only four of them.

Amidst the turmoil of conflicting traditions about how to correctly inscribe the first letter of Vaiezatha's name, the commentators display little concern about the more philosophical implications of the story.

For example, I am not aware of any traditional interpreters who were troubled by the prospect of collective punishment being imposed upon an entire family, which may have included innocent children. Evidently, they were satisfied that all of Haman's ten sons, old and young alike, must have been as wicked as their father, each one a worthy heir to the nefarious royal line of Amalek and deserving of his own individual retribution. Talmudic tradition relates that the sons all lobbied actively with the Persian government to obstruct the construction of the Second Temple.

Whether we accept that the stretching of the vav is to be done graphically or orally, it is clear that the fate of Haman's entire family is being represented by the person of Vaiezatha. This invites the question of why this symbolism should have been attached to the name of the youngest of the culprits, rather than to Haman himself, or to one of his older offspring? In fact, some of the names of Haman's elder sons are written with small letters.

One lesson that might be suggested by this anomaly is that the "small folk" of the world bear a decisive share of the responsibility in allowing tyrants to carry out their malevolent schemes.

There is always a temptation to pass off the blame onto our leaders and wielders of power. By figuratively associating Haman's execution with the youngest of his sons, Jewish tradition is reminding us that normal citizens are ultimately accountable when they fail to protest or resist the evil decrees of their superiors.

This is, I believe, a lesson whose relevance has not diminished in recent history and in our contemporary world.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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