November 29, 2008
2 Kislev 5769
The book of Malachi is the last of the prophetic books and the only one of the prophets whose identity and the time of his prophecy are left totally undefined by the prophetic book since the book\’s superscription ascribes the book to \’Malachi\” and it is uncertain whether this is the name of the prophet or descriptive – \’\’my angel\” or \”my messenger\” It is well known that the rabbinic sages have a proclivity to attempt to identity such unknown biblical characters with those that are better known. (See Y. Heineman, Darchei Agadah, p. 29) The \”Malachi\” in this prophecy is no exception.
The Talmud poses two different answers to this question: \”Rav Nahman said: Malachi is the same as Mordechai. [So then} why was he called Malachi? Because he was ranked next to the king. (See Esther 10:3) The following was cited as an objection to this: \’Baruch the son of Neriah and Searayah the son of Mahseyah and Daniel and Mordechai, Bilshan, Hagai, Zechariah and Malachai all prophesied in the second year of Darius\’! This [tradition] serves as a refutation. [The Talmud brings another tradition which attempts to identify Malachi.] It has been taught: Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: Malachi is the same as Ezra, and the Sages say that Malachi was his proper name. Rabbi Nahman said: There is good ground for accepting the view that Malachi was the same as Ezra. For it is written in the prophecy of Malachi: \’Judah has broken faith; abhorrent things have been done in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah has profaned what is holy to the Lord – what He desires – and married daughters of alien gods.\’ (Malachi 2:11) And who was it that put away the strange women? Ezra, as it is written, \’And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam answered and said to Ezra: We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women.\’ (Ezra 10:2) (Megillah 15a)
The Talmud settled for the second interpretation which identifies Malachi with Ezra since the two held the same position on a particularly controversial issue. However, this position was not accepted by all later interpreters. Rabbi Yitzchak Abrabanel (15th century Spain) rejected this associative manner of reasoning and concluded that this means for associating these two figures was not reliable. This leaves us again unable to pinpoint exactly who Malachi was.
Returning to the Talmud\’s first interpretation, what prompted Rav Nahman to make the seemingly absurd association between Malachi and Mordechai, the hero of the book of Esther? This interpretation is apparently built upon the similarity between the word \”malach\” and the word \”melech – king\”, since Mordechai is described as the \”mishneh lamelech – ranked next to the king\”. (see Esther 10:3) Rabbi Shmuel Edels (16th-17th Poland) asserts that Mordechai was called \”Malachi\” because he was \”important like an angel\”. In other words, sometimes God sends people who play specials roles in the life of others, in the life of the nation or in the conduct of the affairs of the world who are \”important like angels\”. (I thank Rabbi Alan Kensky for this insight in another context.) While Rav Nachman\’s interpretation is ultimately rejected by the Talmud, this particular insight is worth bearing in mind.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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