The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah

Topics In Jewish Mystical Thought: The Meaning of the Word Kabbalah – Part 4 – Kabbalah and the Book of Esther

As its Hebrew name Megilat Ester implies, the ultimate purpose of this text is to inspire "revelation" (gilui) of that which is in a state of "concealment" (hester): God's ongoing and active involvement with His creation.

Ostensibly, the Book of Esther tells of how the Jews of Persia in after the destruction of the First Temple were saved from annihilation through the intervention of Queen Esther, a young woman who had hidden her Jewishness when abducted by the King and later crowned his royal mate. Rich with subtext and innuendo, the narrative is a chronicle of conspiracies that intermeshed to transform what was to be a dark tragedy into joy and light. It should not surprise us, then, that this book is suffused with symbols and terminology that are the central in Kabbalistic discourse.

The protagonist of the story is Queen Esther. Given the Hebrew name Hadassah at birth, she assumed her Persian name, Esther, for the sake of concealing her Jewish identity. The name itself evokes an ironic association to the Hebrew word hester, which, as noted above, means "concealment."  According to the Talmud, the name Esther alludes to the verse in Deuteronomy wherein God states: "I will surely hide (haster astir) My face on that day."

As we shall see, this verse has special relevance to the Book of Esther and the events described in it. 

Far from coincidental, the similarity between Esther and hester highlights the cryptic nature of the Queen's existence and, by association, that of all Jews in exile.

The banishment of the Jews from their ancient homeland less than a century earlier–and the concealment of God's "face," which the destruction of the Temple represented–obligated the chosen people to engage in the struggle of good against evil in a strange place, where the confrontation between these two forces was itself obscured.  Additionally, in exile, the Jewish People were deprived of prophetic revelation; hence their world appeared to be one ruled by arbitrary occurrences, as in the casting of the lots (in Persian, purim) by which the date of their annihilation was decided.

It was a dark time. God seemed to be absent, a feeling emphasized by the fact that the Name of God appears not even once throughout the entire text of the Book of Esther.

Nevertheless, the ultimate message of the story contained in this book is that Divine Providence and concern operate at all times and in all places–even when wholly concealed–to ensure survival and salvation for the Jewish People. This is where the paths of the Book of Esther and the teachings of Kabbalah intersect, for the aim of Kabbalistic consciousness is to illuminate the hidden element of Divine grace that is inherent in creation despite God's apparent withdrawal from our immediate plane of experience.

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