One of our loyal readers asked us to explain the word dat, which comes several times in Megillat Esther, and we are happy to oblige. Our main focus will be on the word as it appears in the sefarim of Tanach that correspond to the Persian Empire period (Esther, Daniel, Ezra), although the word also comes up prominently in the beginning of V’zot Haberacha.
Throughout Esther, dat refers to the law, as Ibn Ezra explains on the pasuk: "The drinking was according to the dat, there was no coercion …" (Esther 1:8). Therefore, it should be no surprise that Rabbeinu Bachyei (Devarim 16:18) explains "all those who know dat and din" (Esther 1:13) as: "judges – those wise people who know the laws and give rulings on them"
Rav Yosef Elbo (Sefer Ha’ikarim 1:7) explains why a set of rules in the religious realm is also called dat. He says that dat can refer to any set of rules of behavior that bands a large group of people together. The origin and purpose of this set of rules can be divine (Elokit), as we find in the "fire of dat" in Devarim (33:2). The dat can consist of humanly agreed upon rules of behavior (nimusit), as we find in the dat of Persia. Finally, dat can refer to natural rules of behavior and ethics (tiv’it).
Rav Elbo explains that a religious dat can be instructions for proper behavior that are passed on by prophets, such as Adam and Noach. Avraham was a classic example of someone who taught a dat, which was focused on getting people used to serving Hashem and doing that which He mandated. Of course, for us, it includes the very elaborate set of rules that Moshe set forth before Bnei Yisrael.
He explains that a dat tiv’it refers to rules that distance people from clear moral failings, such as theft and murder. This allows a society to avoid phenomena that can rip it apart from within. A dat nimusit refers to those rules that a given society agree upon, which help the society function in an effective way, avoiding matters that are deemed by the society to be detrimental or bothersome. It includes such matters as rules of road safety, taxes, and commercial laws.
According to Rav Elbo, there is no deep connection between the dat of Persia and dat as we use it today, as a generic term for religion. The latter is religious and divine in nature, whereas the former is a group of decision by the Persians for the convenience and tastes of the Persians. The dat of V’zot Haberacha was presented by Moshe, the "man of Hashem," to teach flesh and blood how to cling to Hashem and become special and spiritual.
May the month of Adar inspire us to reaccept the Torah, as our forefathers did at the time of Achashveirosh, and give deeper meaning to our lives.