I'm looking to gather some more background, context, sources and opinions, regarding Mordechai's religiousness, or lack thereof.

This was the topic of a recent comment thread on Was Darius Jewish?, specifically on @avi's answer.
Though this was not the topic of the question nor the answer, a side comment turned into a long thread on this.
Instead of hashing it out there, and just between us, I thought it would be a good idea to gather some additional voices.

So, to the issue:
Many well-known midrashim pose Mordechai as a tzaddik, a religious leader, and even a member of the Sanhedrin. I'm sure we all learned these at one point or another.
On the other hand, reading the Megilla as a "story", focusing on the pshat, but taking into account the historical and cultural context, in addition to relevant background added by other books in the Tanach (such as Melachim Bet, Divrei Hayamim, and other Nevi'im) - it would seem that this was not the case. At the least, there is no evidence or basis for the "religious figure" theory, but rather the evidence seems (at least to me) to point in the opposite direction.

Now, taking into account the intended ambiguity, which is one of the most fundamental motifs of the Megilla, and the obvious historical distance, I don't expect to find "the one true history"...

But I am interested in hearing, what is the basis for the "religious leader" theory? Is there evidence for this, or is it "just" Midrash* ? What was the original source? What is the Midrash based on? (Obviously besides the Midrash itself, and the persuant discussions in e.g. Gmara*... )
Or, alternatively (and preferably), sources and explanations for the opposite theory?

EDIT: To emphasize, I am referring to Mordechai's "back story". Even according to the "non-religious" theory, there is plenty of room to allow for a change of heart as a result of the Purim events. Therefore anything that relates to his situation after the fact (such as @follick's excellent source in Nechemia) would be besides the point.

EDIT2: I don't intend on ignoring the midrashim, nor do I expect to be completely independant of them. Rather, I'm interested in the basis of those midrashim, as these are usually based on something, be it a reference, alliteration, extraneous wording, "secret" story, etc.

(*) I'm not belittling the importance of those Midrashim or the discussions in the Gmara, of course, but it is both important and extremely difficult to discern which stories are intended to be accepted literally, as "historical fact", and which not.
Hence this question.

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    @avi I'm not "withholding" information, I just have my own possible (and incomplete) answer to the question. While self-answers are of course acceptable on SE, it is also good form not to answer immediately after posting - that's why I'm waiting for a few answers first (and, perhaps, someone else will give my answer better than I). I also don't expect it to turn to discussion, but there is definitely room for a clear, complete explanation. – AviD Feb 13 '12 at 8:46
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    @AviD normally, a person puts all relevant information into a question, including information for why they might think that the answer would go one way over another. The answers to the question, would then either confirm that belief, or explain why it is wrong. – avi Feb 13 '12 at 11:58
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    @yoel, You are mistaken. The context of this site is Jewish Life and Learning, and in the context of Jewish learning, rejection of a gemara is not at all uncommon, especially in the study of Tanach al derech hap'shat. – jake Mar 9 '12 at 17:53
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    @yoel, Rejection of chazal's understanding of Tanach is not non-traditional. It goes back as far as the geonim. I'm not sure I understand your distinction between different types of rejection, but what's being done here is no different than what was done by countless rishonim before us; that is, acknowledge that chazal understood the story a certain way, and yet deny that their understanding reflects a truly pshat rendering of the text. – jake Mar 9 '12 at 18:06
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    Not much time left before Purim :) – Double AA Feb 21 '13 at 19:57

Here are a couple:

  • The very fact that the Megillah introduces him as איש, and takes the trouble to tell us his lineage and background, indicates that he was a person of importance. (It is true that איש can mean simply "a man," but quite often in Tanach, when a person is introduced with this term, it bears the connotation of "a prominent person" - one example is Mordechai's ancestor Kish, in I Sam. 9:1.)

    Contrast with Haman, whose background information is limited simply to the three words בן המדתא האגגי.

  • The man refused to bow to Haman even under pressure, and even though he knew he was thereby putting himself at risk. This is not the action one would expect from a person who, as in your comments to the other thread, is semi-assimilated. Neither would such a person's first reaction to the decree be putting on sackcloth and ashes rather than trying to use his connections at court.

  • For that matter, consider Esther's request to him, "Gather all of the Jews in Shushan, and fast for me..." She was Mordechai's ward, and it is reasonable to assume that this is an idea she learned from him. (Then, too, if he wasn't a known religious leader, why would she expect that anyone would follow his lead in doing so?)

  • It is also likely, of course, that the Talmudic and Midrashic evaluation of Mordechai is based on extra-textual considerations. Consider how we find them giving us quite a lot of information about the "Men of the Great Assembly" contemporary with these events (and mentioning Mordechai as one of its members), though their activities are barely recognizable in Tanach. Then, too, there is the Talmudic consideration that מגלגלין זכות על ידי זכאי, Hashem causes good things to happen through good people, so that from this point of view the salvation of the Jewish people and the establishment of the important holiday of Purim can hardly have been due to an assimilationist.

Some other comments:

  • The proof that follick brought from Ezra and Nechemiah (assuming, for argument's sake, that indeed it's the same Mordechai) does not represent, as you're thinking, a "potential change of heart" after the story of Purim. The verses there are talking about the first wave of Jews who returned in the wake of Cyrus' decree allowing the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, a few years before the opening scene of the Megillah. We see, then, that there was someone named Mordechai in the first rank of Jewish leaders of the time.

  • Your argument (in the comments to the linked thread) that the name Mordechai, seemingly of pagan origin, demonstrates that he (or his parents) were assimilated Jews is rather weak. For one thing, the Gemara (Chullin 139b) associates it with the Aramaic expression מירא דכיא, "pure myrrh." I don't know whether the Gemara means this as an actual etymology for the name or simply an assonance, but it does at least indicate that it's not necessarily derived from a pagan source. Second, consider Antigonos of Socho, who unquestionably served as spiritual leader of Jewry (Avos 1:3) - and yet who bore a Greek name, only a couple of decades after Alexander's conquest of the country.

  • Your other argument, that the people who were exiled with Yechanyah (as Mordechai was) were semi-assimilated, also lacks any proof. Let's take the verses as given (leaving aside the midrashim on them), that they were "the carpenters and the locksmiths." Which makes them the (lower) middle class - far from the elite. Why would you assume that their commitment to Judaism was weaker than anyone else's?

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    Your "Some other comments" section demonstrates pretty well that there is no real evidence to the other position expressed by @AviD, but your first two bullets are not very convincing. "איש" is not always used to refer to men of great stature. We find things like "וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו" as well as the "אנשים" that the midrash feels refers often to Dasan and Aviram, which came up in chat several weeks ago.... – jake Feb 13 '12 at 0:21
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    ....We even find it used almost exactly as it is used here for Mordechai in reference to Shimi ben Gera (Who, incidentally, might have been Mordechai's grandfather): "וְהִנֵּה מִשָּׁם אִישׁ יוֹצֵא מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת בֵּית שָׁאוּל וּשְׁמוֹ שִׁמְעִי בֶן גֵּרָא", and he, at least at the time, does not seem like a very "righteous" individual. – jake Feb 13 '12 at 0:21
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    @DoubleAA: good question. I don't know, but maybe it's simply that if it refers to Kish, then there's really no reason to mention it - every Jew in Shushan (or anywhere in the Persian empire) came there in one or another wave of exiles. On the other hand, if it refers to Mordechai, then that tells us something about him, since the group exiled with Yechanyah is identified by their crafts (or, per the Gemara, by their scholarship). – Alex Feb 13 '12 at 0:24
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    @avi, "Important", yes. "Prominent", perhaps. But "Religious leader"? Says who? – jake Feb 13 '12 at 21:46
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    @avi, First, I would point to all the kings of Yisrael and Yehuda. Then I would hesitantly point at select individuals from the shoftim period (maybe Shimshon or Gideon)(but I really don;t want this to turn into an argument about the shoftim). Then to the meraglim chosen by Moshe that Alex mentioned above. We also find military leaders like Yoav and Avner. I will keep on thinking. – jake Feb 14 '12 at 15:14

I just want to point out that the Midrashic tradition of Mordechai being even originally a righteous individual is not completely unsupported by the text. Most (some would argue: all) midrashic material is inspired by textual subtleties and allusions, no matter how non-explicit.

From Esther Rabba (6:3)

ושמו מרדכי. הרשעים קודמין לשמן. "נבל שמו", " שבע בן בכרי שמו". אבל הצדיקים שמם קודם להם. "ושמו מנוח", "ושמו קיש", "ושמו שאול", "ושמו אלקנה", "ושמו בועז", "ושמו מדרכי", לפי שדומין לבוראן דכתיב ושמי ה׳ לא נודעתי להם

Now, this is clearly not proof to support the midrash's position. (In fact, this rule it's using is not always necessarily true.) Neither does this mean that the midrash is to be taken literally, just because it is basing itself on scriptural allusion. But it does mean that it shouldn't be called "just midrash" without basis.

  • Thanks @jake, that's the type of thing I was looking for - though this is a bit "weak", so to speak. To start with, "tzadikim" is still open to interpretation, especially when it is in comparison to reshaim (see also re Noach, "ונוח איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו", the opinion that relative to his generation he is to be considered a Tzaddik). Mordechai wasn't necessarily a bad fellow, even by the "non-religious" theory he still seemed to be a stand-up guy, but by secular standards. But, this is a good start :) – AviD Feb 12 '12 at 23:46
  • Also btw, this "proof" is actually based on this issue itself - i.e. you're bringing proof that Mordechai is righteous, based on a midrash, which is based on the assumption that Mordechai is righteous - circular logic ;). So, you're back at relying on the Midrash, that Mordechai is righteous.... (which I'm not saying is wrong...) – AviD Feb 12 '12 at 23:50
  • @AviD, That is not what I'm doing. First of all, I admitted this is not proof. But if it were, it is essentially a proof from the midrash that brings "proof" from the text. It is probably true that the midrash was already assuming its conclusion, though, and then simply "reading it into" the verse. – jake Feb 13 '12 at 0:02
  • yeah, that's what I was referring to. Either way, it is "proof" inasmuch as the Midrash says it is... not that you're saying it is proof in the first place... – AviD Feb 13 '12 at 0:09

There was Nechemia 7:7 Which lists Mordechai amongst the leaders of Israel. And also Ezra 2:2 Which does likewise.

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    which says..... – ertert3terte Feb 12 '12 at 22:30
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    We don't know that that's the same Mordechai. It could have been a pretty common name. – Double AA Feb 12 '12 at 22:39
  • Thank you, but in addition to @DoubleAA's comment, this occurs after the events of the Megilla, and I was referring to the background, i.e. before/during. (Perhaps I should clarify that). Secondly, this raises another issue, since the megilla states that he stayed in Persia as a minister. (Though this could be excused by saying it was far enough in the future, and he had already "retired". ) – AviD Feb 12 '12 at 22:43
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    Well, I guess if you want to ignore the Gemara, the meforshim and all Jewish tradition and the chain of Oral Torah from that time to this, then I guess there isn't any other evidence other than that. – follick Feb 12 '12 at 22:50
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    @follick I'm not ignoring, I'm just not taking it necessarily at face value - as noted in the question itself, these shouldnt always be accepted literally, especially when there is (or seems to be) evidence to the contrary. Besides that, there are other opinions! Yes, within the meforshim and Jewish tradition, this other opinion does exist, yet it seems to be forgotten, neglected, even forsaken - but it is still a valid, pre-existing traditional opinion nonetheless. – AviD Feb 12 '12 at 22:54

I apologize for the quote dump, but it's really the only way to answer this question:

ה אִישׁ יְהוּדִי, הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי, בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן-שִׁמְעִי בֶּן-קִישׁ--אִישׁ יְמִינִי. 5

There was a certain Jew in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite,

ו אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה, מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, עִם-הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה, עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה--אֲשֶׁר הֶגְלָה, נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל. 6

who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.

From Shmuel, we know that Kish was a very important person. And the text here tells us that Mordechai was taken with the King of Judah, rather than with the locksmiths and woodworkers. In conjuction with the introductory word of "Ish", Mordechai was a very important person.

Secondly, here Mordechai is introduced as a Jew, not a Yemini, despite his lineage. Clearly he is not so assimilated, that he is still obviously identifiable as a Jewish person. So much so that Haman always calls him that. Haman decides to kill all the Jews because of Mordechai, who is obviously a Jew in good standing and the leader of his people.

חַ מָנוֹת, אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ. 19 Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another. כ וַיִּכְתֹּב מָרְדֳּכַי, אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה; וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים אֶל-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים, אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--הַקְּרוֹבִים, וְהָרְחוֹקִים. 20 And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, כא לְקַיֵּם, עֲלֵיהֶם--לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת יוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר, וְאֵת יוֹם-חֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ: בְּכָל-שָׁנָה, וְשָׁנָה. 21 to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly, כב כַּיָּמִים, אֲשֶׁר-נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם, וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה, וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב; לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם, יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה, וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ, וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיֹנִים. 22 the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. כג וְקִבֵּל, הַיְּהוּדִים, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-הֵחֵלּוּ, לַעֲשׂוֹת; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-כָּתַב מָרְדֳּכַי, אֲלֵיהֶם. 23 And the Jews took upon them to do as they had begun, and as Mordecai had written unto them;

Here, Mordechai is given the Authority over all the Jewish people, to declare a yearly holiday, and everyone does what Mordechai tells them to do. This sort of act could only be done by a leader of that generation. Else, Mordechai would have had to ask the elders of the Jewish people to help him in the proclamation. This mirrors exactly what the Megilah tells us in the beginning of the story, when Mordechai tells Esther to keep her Judaism hidden.

יט וּבְהִקָּבֵץ בְּתוּלוֹת, שֵׁנִית; וּמָרְדֳּכַי, יֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר-הַמֶּלֶךְ. 19 And when the virgins were gathered together the second time, and Mordecai sat in the king's gate-- כ אֵין אֶסְתֵּר, מַגֶּדֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ וְאֶת-עַמָּהּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ, מָרְדֳּכָי; וְאֶת-מַאֲמַר מָרְדֳּכַי אֶסְתֵּר עֹשָׂה, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה בְאָמְנָה אִתּוֹ. {ס} 20 Esther had not yet made known her kindred nor her people; as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him-- {S}

Esther unquestionably listens to Mordechai's instructions,(As the entire Jewish people do afterwards) and not only did Esther not say that she was part of the Jewish people, but she did not say who her close family was. And Yet, Mordechai was allowed to sit by the gates of the Palace. Clearly a leader of the Jewish people here.

And then we come to the end of the Megillah which, in our version, closes with this line:

ג כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיו--דֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ, וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָל-זַרְעוֹ. {ש} 3 For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed. {P}

Mordechai was accepted by all the Jewish people, he was a leader and the greatest of the generation.

Whatever details may be eeked out of the Megillah, the author of it wants us to believe that Mordechai was the leader of the Jewish people at that time, ever wise in his planning and helping to make sure that the Jewish people were saved, and given the authority to declare new holidays.

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    Not that I disagree, but to play devil's advocate, the megilla can be looked at as "Mordechai's rise to greatness", only after which he was considered a leader of the Jews and described as "great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren etc." Also, Mordechai is not introduced "as a Jew" but rather as a member of Yehuda (which technically, he was not). This is only because he was exiled with with the Judean exile, as the verse continues to explain. And, as I mentioned under @Alex's answer, "Ish" does not necessarily refer to a prominent person. – jake Feb 13 '12 at 14:23
  • Again, if Mordechai was not a leader before the events, he would have needed the approval of the leaders at the time to do what he did. As for "Ish", as I commented above, please provide an example where "Ish" is used with a name and lineage for a person who is not a leader. And if Mordechai was not a member of Yehuda, then why do you say he is being introduced as a member of Yehuda? The phrase "Ish Yehudi" is used multiple times in the Megillah in reference to Mordechai – avi Feb 13 '12 at 16:10
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    @Jake Can you think of any examples where a person is allowed to make a declaration of a holiday for the entire Jewish people, just because they did some heroic act, and that person was not a prophet? – avi Feb 13 '12 at 16:20
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    By no means is "yehudim" an all-inclusive term for the Jewish people. It is a term for the Jewish people of the Kingdom of Yehuda or specifically from the tribe of Yehuda. They (or we) can be considered a nation in our own right. – jake Feb 14 '12 at 15:07
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    This comment thread has gotten a little bit out of hand. I suggest that this discussion be moved to Mi Yodeya Chat. I am locking the comments on this post, and will edit/delete as necessary. – Hod - Monica's Army Mar 11 '12 at 8:06

Here is a book you may be interested in: Yoram Hazony, The Dawn. Political Teachings of the Book of Esther. I recommend it. It is well-reasearched and is based on the classical Jewish sources. It probably won't sit well with the ultra-orthodox public (I'm not being disrespectful here, it's just the shortest way to express what I mean).

Hazony treats Mordechai mainly as a political figure. His main thrust is the political lessons that Jews in Diaspora can learn from The Book of Esther. He also underscores in what respects Mordechai's moves are uniquely informed by his Jewish worldview - unlike his adversaries that are moved by mostly unrestrained dark emotions.

The fact that Mordechai was a historic figure is not corroborated by independent sources. So the Meggilah is our only source of information about him - we do not know any other Mordechai, if you will. The Meggilah calls him Mordechai Ha-Yehudi - being Jewish is his essential quality. It's in the text, you can't argue with it (well, unless you are Jewish ;) ). Now, for the Rabbis being Jewish meant (and means) being pious, observant, G-d-rearing - in short, a Tzaddik. At 'worst' he'd be a baal-teshuva. That's, in my opinion, is the basis for all those well-known midrashim. (This reminds me of a famous joke: "There is a proof from the Torah that Moshe wore a shtreimel, it says: וילך משה ('and Moshe went'). Can you imagine that he went without a shtreimel?").

For Hazony, on the other hand, who is more concerned with the political future of the Jewish 'enterprise' in general and the Zionist enterprise in particular - he is first and foremost a political leader.

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    malenkiy_scot, Welcome to judaism.SE and thanks for the great reference. I checked out the preview of this book on google and it looks quite promising. The author admits that we have no background information about Mordechai and starts from scratch analyzing him by his actions throughout the course of the narrative. Anyhow, enjoy the site and stick around to ask/answer more questions. – jake Feb 13 '12 at 14:38
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    @malenkiy_scot, Can you edit in particular information in this book that answers the question at hand? If not, I think it would make sense to convert this answer to a comment. (I'd do that for you, since it's a mod-only technique.) – Isaac Moses Feb 13 '12 at 15:06
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    +1, and I think the middle of your third paragraph is the key here. The Jewish leaders during the era of the second Beis Hamikdash who were not committed Jews (such as the later Hasmoneans) get very little ink in Talmudic literature - almost as if our Sages would prefer for them to have been forgotten altogether - even those, like Alexander Yannai, who accomplished a great deal politically. If, then, Mordechai is given so much space, complete with positive descriptions, in the story of Purim, then that alone indicates that his leadership was in keeping with religious principles. – Alex Feb 13 '12 at 15:56
  • +1, that looks like a very interesting book, along the lines of what I was hoping to find. I will definitely look into that. I like what you wrote, about Mordechai being more of a political, or rather even a nationalistic, figure. This does not necessarily mean he was a religious one. – AviD Mar 9 '12 at 10:07
  • Your 3rd paragraph, and @Alex's comment, I think shed some light on the adamant refusal by most of the current religious community to discuss the other existing opinions - namely, leaders who are not "from ours", i.e. not of our religious stream, should be shunned, belittled, or retconned back into our stream. This is how many historical rabbis are often depicted wearing a black coat and shtreimel, even if they lived hundreds of years before these became popular amongst the Polish nobility... ala your "Moshe in a shtreimel" comment. – AviD Mar 9 '12 at 10:07

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