Was Haman Partially Right?: Haman the Accuser and Exilic (un)Consciousness*

guest post by Shaul Magid, Dartmouth College

Purim is an amalgam of things, each distinct, together forming a tapestry that the rabbinic imagination weaves together – joining narrative with commemoration – in fascinating and curious ways. Two aspects of the Purim story that this essay focuses on is the relationship between Haman’s accusations against the Jews in Shushan, depicted below in an imaginative Talmudic exchange between Haman and Ahasuerus, and the rabbinic decree to become intoxicated on Purim ‘ad d’lo yada, until one cannot distinguish between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai. What is the relationship between Haman’s accusations and Jewish intoxication? We could certainly celebrate being saved from national catastrophe with a festive meal and a glass of wine. But the tradition goes further and decrees obligatory excess as appropriate celebration.

Below I engage this conundrum of Haman’s accusations and the obligation of intoxication through a Hasidic text by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar (1887-1979) in his multi-volume collection of homilies entitled Divrei Yoel. The homily under discussion appears in Divrei Yoel on the Festivals, vol. 6, 489-490. I begin with my translation of the text for those who want to get a sense of Teitelbaum’s imaginative interpretive method. For those who want to skip to the commentary, I rehearse the basic contours of the text in my analysis. Teitelbaum begins his homily with a passage from Babylonian Talmud Megillah 13b.

The Text

Haman said to Ahasuerus, “There is [yeshno] one people scattered abroad [mefuzar] and dispersed [meforad] among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; nor do they keep the king’s laws; therefore, it does not profit the king to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8). Rava said: There was none who knew how to slander like Haman, as in his request to the king, he included responses to all the reasons Ahasuerus might be reluctant to destroy the Jewish people. He said to Ahasuerus: Let us destroy them. Ahasuerus said to him: I am afraid of their God, lest their God do to me as God did to those who stood against them before me. Haman said to him: They have tired [lit asleep yashnu] with respect to the mitzvot, having ceased to observe the mitzvot, and, therefore there is no reason to fear. Ahasuerus said to Haman, There are sages among them [who observe the mitzvot]. Haman said to him, They are one people [they are all the same]. Haman said, their laws are different than other people (Esther 3:8), they don’t eat from our food, nor do they marry our women, not do they marry their women to us, nor do they keep our laws (Esther 3:8). The spend the year in idleness as they are constantly saying She”hi pe”hi, [an acronym for: It is Shabbat today (Shabbat hayom); it is Passover today (Pesaḥ hayom)]. They scorn the throne. Proof of this is that if a fly falls into a cup, they will toss it out and drink the wine, but if the king were to touch the cup, they would throw it to the ground and not drink it. (b.T. Megillah 13b)


Almost all of Haman’s accusations against Israel in this passage are actually positive things about Israel. That the Jews are full of mitzvot, they keep Shabbat and Festivals, and they do not liken themselves to other peoples. In truth this is how it should be, we should separate ourselves from others, in dress and in all manner of lifestyle. This is specifically true in America where we have to be vigilant not to imitate them. We see, then, that all of Haman’s accusations, for example, that our religion is different, these are all good things and are similar to the things Mordecai said about us. Even when Mordechai wanted to speak well of us, he could not have done it better [than Haman here]. And it should only come to pass that we would all keep Shabbat and Festivals and not liken ourselves to other peoples.

There is only one thing that Haman says to Ahasuerus that is not good, and that is that “we [Jews] have tired with respect to the mitzvot.” Understanding what this means requires us to first look at Yismakh Moshe (R. Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhely 1759-1841) in his commentary to Psalms Tefillah L’Moshe, Psalm 127:2. The verse reads; “In vain do you rise early and stay up late, you who toil for bread you eat, God provides much for God’s loved ones when they sleep.” [M. Teitelbaum writes], “For the evil ones who ‘force the end’ push us forward (makdimim) too quickly with their nonsense. They cause the exile to be extended and they cause much evil to Israel, even as some fools claim that they are doing a mitzvah in their falsehood by arousing the hearts of Israel from being distracted from redemption. This will only result in falsehood (sheker). Israel are believers and children of believers. They only become distracted in their minds from redemption because they are asleep in exile and thus forget about it, just as one forgets when one is asleep….”.

We can learn from the words [of Yismakh Moshe] that doing something without consciousness [b’lo da’at] is likened to sleeping. According to this we learn that what Haman meant when he accused them of “sleeping from mitzvot” is that they were doing mitzvot in an unconscious fashion [b’lo da’at].

Yet upon reflection its not clear what is meant that they performed mitzvot without consciousness. How could this be, this was the generation of the Great Assembly. Nevertheless, whatever the case may be, when Haman wanted to accuse the Jews he couldn’t find any other sins, and all he had was the claim they were performing mitzvot in an unconscious fashion. Like one who is asleep. That is, Haman said everything Israel did, from separating themselves, keeping Shabbat and Festivals, it was all done b’lo da’at. In truth, Israel did everything and acted properly, separating themselves in dress and manners, but even this they did b’lo da’at.

And if we want to repent from the sin of b’lo da’at that has blemished us, we need to understand what it means. Unconscious mitzvot means that our consciousness [da’at] was not gifted [mosrin] to the Creator. The remedy to fix this is for us to sacrifice [l’hakriv] our consciousness to God and by doing so heal the blemish.

This is the reason the sages decreed that we should drink wine [on Purim]. By drinking wine, our consciousness is weakened and clarity is lost. And since we are fulfilling a mitzvah of God in drinking wine, precisely to weaken our consciousness, we see that the very thing we were guilty of [b’lo da’at], is that very thing God desires of us to do [on Purim]. This is because with this act of drinking wine we are sacrificing our consciousness to God. And if it was possible, given my physical condition, I would drink even more wine and be able to gift more of my consciousness to God, the creator of all worlds.

We see from all this that by means of drinking wine [as a remedy for the sin of b‘lo da’at] the accusations of Haman against us vanish, nothing of them remains. In truth all [the other] accusations against us were similar to Mordecai’s praises that were only meant for Israel’s benefit. And the one thing Haman accuses us of [that is damaging], performing mitzvah b’lo da’at, is erased [by sacrificing our consciousness to God through intoxication].

Thus, it is now understood why the sages say we must become b’sumei [intoxicated] on Purim “until one does not know” [‘ad d’lo yada]. Our approach suggests a reading of “until one does not know” in two registers. The first approach responds to the beginning of the phrase “until one does not know.” That means a person must drink until one’s mind is not clear, which is an act of sacrificing one’s consciousness to God. By means of this, one reaches the second approach, which applies to the latter part of the sages teaching of “until one does not know to tell between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai.” That is, since one has, through drinking, fixed the blemish that Hamas accused us of – doing mitzvot unconsciously [b’lo da’at]- there is nothing damaging left of Haman’s accusation. At this point there is no difference whatsoever between Haman’s accusations and Mordecai’s praises. Thus, everything Haman said about Israel is now for our benefit [and identical to Mordecai].


This homily on Purim plays with common tropes in interesting ways. Based on the passage from b.T Megillah 13b about a fictitious exchange between Haman and Ahasuerus about why the king should destroy the Jews, Teitelbaum notes that all of Haman’s accusations are actually Jewish aspirations and not criticisms. Aspirations, I might add, for Jews (like the Jews of Shushan) who live in the covenant of exile Teitelbaum believed was crucial to maintain. For Teitelbaum, separatism is a desideratum, a necessity for the survival of the Jewish people. The one accusation that cuts deep is that the Jews have become “tired of the mitzvot” which he understands from citing his ancestor Moshe Teitelbaum, the patriarch of Hungarian Hasidism, as “performing mitzvot unconsciously [b’lo da’at].” I translate da’at, (which literally means “knowledge”) as “consciousness” because this seems to be what Teitelbaum is suggesting. It is not that the Jews are not performing mitzvot or doing so without knowledge; rather they are doing without proper intention, or perhaps, as the Talmud suggests, sleepily.

But why should this accusation convince the king? The king responds to Haman by stating that he is in fear of the Jews because of their God, to which Haman replies, “Don’t worry, they do mitzvot b’lo da’at, God will not protect them.” This, for Teitelbaum is truly the damning accusation to which he devotes the rest of his comments, in part because it is true, and in part because it may be inevitable.

His deployment of Moshe Teitelbaum’s comment to Psalm 127:2 is instructive for numerous reasons. First and foremost, it enables us to see the Talmud’s yashnu b’mitzvot (they do mitzvot sleepily) to mean a state of unconscious performance [b’lo da’at]. But it does more than that. M. Teitelbaum uses the verse “In vain do you rise early and stay up late…” as an occasion to castigate those who want to “push the end” a rabbinic euphemism for forcing redemption before its time. Of course, Y. Teitelbaum uses this to gesture to Zionism, but M. Teitelbaum, who died in 1841, lived before the advent of Zionism and thus could not mean that. Even the proto-Zionist Zvi Hirsch Kalischer only publishes his views on re-settling the land in Derishat Zion in 1862. In any event, M. Teitelbaum is quite specific who he is referring to in a section of his commentary that Y. Teitelbaum chooses not to cite. M. Teitelbaum writes, “What is ‘forcing the end’? Even Rashi’s explanation is not clear. What can be the limits of asking for mercy? Rather, it appears to me that ‘forcing the end’ is like pushing time forward too quickly like Sabbatei Zvi, may his name and memory be cursed. One should not become attached to this nonsense before the messiah’s arrival, for he is the one who will gather the exiled and build the Temple. This is to my mind the explanation of ‘forcing the end’.”

While I can’t say why Teitelbaum chooses to excise the reference to Sabbatei Zvi, it is plausible that he wanted to use M. Teitelbaum’s comments to make a more contemporary intervention. Y. Teitelbaum does spent ample time talking about Sabbatei Zvi in his Vayoel Moshe. In any event, his larger project is articulating what he believes is the proper mode of living within the “covenant of exile.” Jews have a few choices. They can “become like the other nations” which Haman specifically says Jews in Shushan are not doing, quite the opposite. Or they can separate themselves in all manner of behavior, dress, etc. which Haman claims the Jews of Shushan are also doing. There are, however, two occupational hazards of note. The first is unconscious performance [b’lo da’at] which would then take Israel outside the protective shield of God, which Haman alludes to. The second is “forgetting” the redemption, which M. Teitelbaum claims can be advantageous. In another passage Y. Teitelbaum chooses to truncate, “Israel are believers and children of believers. They only become distracted in their minds from redemption because they are asleep in exile and thus forget about it, just as one forgets from being asleep….”, M. Teitelbaum continues, “Just the opposite, this state of forgetting brings redemption closer, as we read, “Messiah only comes unawares [b’hesekh ha-da’at].(b.T. Sanhedrin 97a). That is, redemption only comes when one does not focus on it.

The reason, I think, that Y. Teitelbaum chooses to exclude this is that his interest is precisely how to fix that sin of unconscious mitzvot. How is this done? On Purim, there is a decree of intoxication that is required, which essentially he reads as sacrificing one’s consciousness and clarity of mind to God in the form of a mitzvah. So here the act of unconsciousness functions within the orbit of a mitzvah, in some way “a mitzvah that comes about through sin” (ha-mitzvah ha-bah b’averah). By sacrificing one’s consciousness (he uses the sacrificial term l’hakriv) through ‘ad d’lo yada, the blemish of unconsciousness [b’lo da’at] is erased. That is “until one does not know” [‘ad d’lo yada]. Once that is accomplished everything Haman says about the Jews, Mordecai also says about the Jews, thus “there is no difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai, which he reads as “there is no difference between Haman’s curses and Mordecai’s blessings.” He switches the adjectives “cursed” and “blessed” into nouns.

It is thus appropriate that Purim happens in “exile” (outside the land) because Purim is precisely the way to fully embody exile such that it becomes the preparation for redemption. Purim is the quintessential fixing of exile, davka in exile. Teitelbaum claims the Jews should live in a separatist mode, as a kind of counter-culture, and also avoid the occupational hazard of tiring of the mitzvot. But the hazard of succumbing to the tiredness of mitzvot may be inevitable in exilic life, which the Talmud alludes to in Haman’s accusation. Yet this has an elixir in the liturgical calendar. On Purim we can take our tiredness, our weak consciousness, the occupational hazard of exile, and use it as a mitzvah. Through “ad d’lo yada” we take b’lo da’at and make it a sacrifice. And then Haman’s curses and Mordecai’s blessings become identical.

Forcing the end does not accelerate redemption but, quite the opposite, hampers it. The true work of redemption for both Teitelbaums is right here in Shushan, or New York, or Miami, or Los Angeles, or Boston, or Buenos Aires, Paris, or Berlin. It is through living a life of “woke Torah,” Judaism as counterculture, distinct, and fully conscious. We may not agree with Teitelbaum’s definition of separatism, but the call to ‘ad d’lo yada as an exilic fixing of b’lo da’at is a notion worth contemplating.


Good Purim.


  • This is dedicated to the intrepid participants in my weekly zoom shiur on Teitelbaum’s Vayoel Moshe and ‘Al He-Geulah ve al Ha-Temura. Thank you all for constantly pushing me to better articulate R. Yoelish’s political theology and interpretive method.


Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. In 2023-2024 he will be the Visiting Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His new book The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance will appear in the summer of 2023. He can be reached at [email protected].






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