Yeshiva University students have a practice on the Jewish holiday of Purim of delivering Mishloach Manot, holiday care packages with sweets, to individuals in New York City hospitals, regardless of religious affiliation, to brighten their spirits with some holiday cheer.
On one of these deliveries, as a freshman at Yeshiva, I had a rather profound experience. As I walked along one of the sick wards at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, handing out Mishloach Manot, I encountered a lovely, elderly wheelchair-bound woman who was not Jewish. Her face lit up as I smiled, handed her a package and said “Happy Purim!”
After thanking me, she asked, completely innocently, “What’s this holiday about?”
I realized that I actually did not know the answer to her question, which was a far more powerful question than she intended to ask. Indeed, ten years later, it’s a question that I am admittedly still struggling to answer.
This week, Jews across the world will usher in the holiday of Purim by reading the Biblical book of Esther, which chronicles the story that gave rise to the festival of Purim. At first blush, the story seems simple. Two well-placed Jews in ancient Persia, Esther and Mordechai, engaged in political intrigues to foil the plot of Haman, the Persian king’s most senior advisor, who sought to have the Jews destroyed. In a stunning reversal of fortunes—on the date that Haman had preordained for the Jews’ destruction, which Jews now celebrate as Purim, the Jews rose up and, with the king’s blessing, vanquished their enemies.
And yet, the meaning of that victory is hard to articulate. Not least because, when one carefully examines the biblical text and considers the story being told, one discovers that the story is far more complex and subtle than one is initially led to believe.
This essay surveys a number of Esther’s themes in light of those subtleties in the hope of spurring thought and discussion and, ultimately, allowing us all to consider and perhaps someday answer that fundamental question—what is Purim really all about?
Law and Defiance
The story of Esther is often understood, correctly in my opinion, as the story of a tyrant. But that tyrant is not Achashverosh, the self-celebrating king who assumes the Persian throne in the book’s beginning. It is the Persian legal code.
Esther portrays a Persian society that could best be described as a technocracy. Esther’s Persia is defined by the countless Dat’s, or decrees, that govern almost every aspect of its citizens’ lives, even the way one drinks at a party (1:8). More fundamentally, in Esther’s Persia being law-abiding became a value in itself. Laws passed took on a life of their own and were expected to be followed even if their rationale was obsolete and even if the result of following them was utterly perverse—merely because they were the law.
And there is no greater adherent (or prisoner) of that societal technocratic philosophy than King Achashverosh himself.
The book begins with queen Vashti refusing King Achashverosh’s request to display herself at Achashverosh’s inaugural feast. Achashverosh’s response to what seems to be little more than a personal affront is to consult not Vashti or the ancient-Persian equivalent of a marriage counselor, but Yod’ei Dat VaDin, Persian legal scholars, KeDat Mah La’Asot, to tell him how he is legally required to respond (1:13-15). Achashverosh considers Vashti’s refusal purely as a matter of legal precedent, and responds in kind, VeYikatev BeDatei Paras U’Maday, through legal codification (1:19), in the absence of any personal or human consideration. And, yet, the primary fallout from the incident is personal, and the cost to Achashverosh is enormous. Achashverosh not only loses his queen – he turns a private marital spat into a public, international incident and a feast designed to showcase his reign’s splendor and stability into a grotesque display of debauchery and cruelty.
And Achashverosh’s technocratic streak continues after the Vashti fiasco. Indeed, it governs the process whereby Achashverosh picks Vashti’s successor. Each woman who is taken to Achashverosh’s harem for a “queen tryout” is subject to the indentical process over an identical time period—regardless of individual beauty or background—all KeDat HaNashim, as prescribed by the laws applicable to all women (2:12). The Dat effectively transforms Achashverosh’s harem into a factory which pumps out monolithic tryout queens who are different only in name.
Even when Achashverosh does ultimately select a queen (Esther, who, notably, unlike any other woman, eschewed the Dat-prescribed process), the legal regime renders him inaccessible to her. People who visit the king’s inner courtyard without being summoned by the king Achat Dato LeHamit, are legally required to be killed unless the king chooses to save them (4:11). The law, whose rationale was to protect Achashverosh, effectively imprisons him in his home, isolates him from his own queen and renders him politically vulnerable.
Indeed, Achashverosh’s total technocratic allegiance is exploited by Haman. Haman’s sales pitch for a campaign of genocide against the Jews, is VeDateihim Shonot…VeEt Datei HaMelech Einam Osim, the Jews do not follow the King’s laws, they follow their own laws (3:8). In other words, the Jews undercut the very fabric of the technocracy, which requires unquestioning and unflinching adherence to a universal set of laws. Haman argued that preserving the Persian technocracy, required Achashverosh to stamp out any kind of dissent.
And how is such stamping out to be accomplished? Not surprisingly, with a Dat—announced in Susa and the other areas of Achashverosh’s rule—fixing the date at which the Jews were to be destroyed and their property seized as spoils (3:13-15). A law so impractically legalistic as to be absurd—were the Jews and their enemies expected to simply wait in patient limbo until that fateful date?
And when the time came to reverse Haman’s plans, Achashverosh stands powerless before a promulgated Dat, which could not be rescinded (8:8). The only solution to a Dat is to pass another, counter-Dat. And Esther and Mordechai do so, issuing a Dat which authorized the Jews to defend themselves on the day marked for the Jews’ annihilation and, later, an additional Dat authorizing the Jews to fight on the following day (8:9-13, 9:13-14). A concept that is, again, ludicrous to anyone but a technocrat—did the Jews’ need authorization to defend themselves from death?
The great irony of the story of Esther is that while Achashverosh is subservient to his own laws, Achashverosh’s subjects constantly flaunt those laws. Indeed, their acts of defiance are what shape Esther’s story.
Esther begins with a not-so-subtle violation of protocol by Achashverosh’s queen, Vashti. At the same time as Achashverosh held his inaugural feast for Persian citizens in the palace courtyard, Vashti threw her own, separate, “breakaway feast” for women within the palace itself. While Achashverosh’s elaborate feast is pure propaganda, it is not clear what Vashti’s feast achieves. Some have understood Vashti’s feast as merely a Persian cultural quirk, which emphasized separating the sexes. But that interpretation is unlikely given that nowhere else in the Megilla—including at both of Esther’s feasts and in Haman’s household discussions—is such a separation of the sexes made. More likely, certainly in light of subsequent events, was that Vashti’s feast was an attempt by Vashti to undercut the larger feast or at the very least equate her own authority with that of the self-aggrandizing king.
Which brings us to the next act of defiance—Vashti’s refusal of Achashverosh’s request to join Achashverosh’s party and display herself to Achashverosh’s subjects. Why did Vashti refuse the king’s request? Some commentators suggest that the refusal was more personal than political—one colorful legend has God afflicting Vashti with spots and a tail—but those interpretations are more creative than textual. The real reason for Vashti’s refusal appears to be the way in which the request was made, Asher BeYad HaSarisim, that the request was relayed to Vashti not by the king himself, but by the king’s servants, which Vashti took as an affront to her stature (1:12). In that sense, Vashti’s response was less of a refusal than a challenge—namely, let the king come and fetch me himself.
And that defiance of convention continues with Esther, who is distinguished from all other women who enter the king’s harem not by what she does, but by what she does not do: Lo Biksha Davar—unlike all other candidates, Esther asks for no accoutrements when she goes in for her fateful visit with the king (2:15). And after she is crowned, even BeHikavets Betulot Sheinit, when Achashverosh commences a search for what would seem to be Esther’s replacement, Ein Esther Magedet Et Moladiteha, Esther refuses to identify her personal heritage to the king (2:19-20).
What seems to save Esther from replacement is another act of defiance—an assassination attempt against Achashverosh by Achashverosh’s two servants, Bigtan and Teresh, which is discovered by Mordechai and relayed by Esther to the king on Mordechai’s behalf (2:21-23). Following the Bigtan and Teresh incident, we hear nothing further of any kind of search for an alternative queen. Indeed, commentators such as Malbim understand that Achashverosh initially attributed his salvation to Esther rather than to Mordechai (3:1).
Mordechai himself repeatedly and publicly defies decrees and social norms. He defies the king’s commandment that people at the king’s gate bow to Haman—indeed, he refuses to bow even as those around him ask, Madua Ata Over Et Mitsvat HaMelech—why are you violating the king’s decree? (3:3) And when Haman’s decree that the Jews be killed is announced, Mordechai dons sackcloth, not privately but publicly—VaYetzeh Birchov HaIr VaYiz’ak Ze’aka Gedola Umara, he goes out into Susa’s main city street and let’s out a great and bitter scream (4:1).
Esther the Queen?
But, of course, the story’s climactic act of defiance was Esther’s risking death to approach Achashverosh to plead for her people without having been called. It is an incident that also touches another major theme in the Megilla—how much of a queen was Esther?
While the Megilla certainly tells us that Achashverosh chose Esther because, at least initially, Achashverosh “liked Esther more than all of the other women…and placed a crown over her head and crowned her in place of Vashti” (2:17), the Megilla portrays lingering doubt by both Achashverosh and Esther on the wisdom of that choice.
Esther’s reluctance to assume the role of queen is clear. Throughout the entire queen selection process she remains completely passive—VaTilakach Esther, Esther is taken; she does not go on her own accord to the king’s palace (2:8). When the time comes for Esther to be presented to the king, Lo Biksha Davar Ki Im Asher Yomar Heygay, she does not ask for any accoutrements, she just takes what Achashverosh’s servant Heygay gives her to take (2:15). And when Achashverosh finally chooses and crowns Esther and takes a whole host of celebratory actions, Esther remains markedly silent (2:17-18). On the contrary, the Megilla emphasizes what Esther does not say: Ein Esther Magedet Et Moladiteha, Esther’s refuses to identify her personal heritage to the king (2:20). And, seemingly getting the message, Achashverosh recommences his queen search (2:19).
And although the Bigtan and Teresh episode appears to put the search for an alternative on hold, it does not change the underlying fact that Esther does not really act like a queen.
Despite her title, Esther remains completely disconnected from the king and ignorant of the affairs of state. Indeed, when Mordechai approaches Esther following Achashverosh’s decree against the Jews, Esther informs Mordechai that she has not been called to the king for thirty days and seems completely ignorant of Haman’s decree (4:4-11). And when Mordechai asks Esther to approach Achashverosh to plead for her people, Esther responds that she cannot because “all of the king’s servants and citizens in the king’s states” know that anyone who approaches the king without being called risks death (4:11). But Esther is not any ordinary servant or citizen, she is Achashverosh’s queen! And when Esther does finally summon up the courage to approach Achashverosh, the Megilla informs us that, prior to entering Achashverosh’s chamber, VaTilbash Esther Malchut, Esther donned royal garments (5:1)—which beckons the question, what was she wearing until now? What kind of queen does not wear royal garments?
Indeed, tellingly, whereas Achashverosh is virtually inseparable from royal appellations throughout the Megillah, Esther is most often simply referred to as Esther, rather than Esther HaMalka, Esther the queen.
Esther’s ambivalence appears to be primarily due to her connection to Mordechai, who some commentators, including Rashi (2:7), suggest was Esther’s husband. Tellingly, until that fateful act of defiance, Esther does not speak a recorded word of her own accord to the king, but she communicates frequently with Mordechai, who himself seems attached to Esther, spending his days outside the palace gates monitoring Esther’s condition. Indeed, Esther’s one communication with the king, regarding Bigtan and Teresh’s plot, is made on Mordechai’s behalf (2:22).
To Esther, becoming a queen meant losing Mordechai. Indeed, when she accepts the responsibility of going before the king, Esther tells Mordechai VeKa’Asher Avadiditi Avadititi, if I shall be lost, I shall be lost, which Rashi understands not as Esther’s acceptance of the risk of death, but her resignation to the fact that, by approaching the king and acting as the queen, Esther’s connection with Mordechai would be irretrievably lost (4:16).
And it is. In the Megilla, after she approaches the king to plead for her people, after Esther accepts the king’s scepter and is transformed from Esther to Esther HaMalka, Esther the queen (5:2-3), though Esther speaks to the king many times, Esther never directly speaks to Mordechai again.
But there was a far greater significance to Esther’s journey to Achashverosh, which lies in understanding another theme of the story: the king’s palace. Virtually every twist and turn of the story happens in reference to a location in the palace—the courtyard, the gate, the inner chamber—and it is worth noting what happens where.
Most significant is Chatzar Ginat Bitan HaMelech, the king’s inner courtyard. It is there that Achashverosh held his inaugural feast (1:5), while Vashti’s feast took place in Beit HaMalchut, within the palace itself (1:9). And journeying to that inner courtyard was what, in her act of defiance, Vashti refused to do.
Esther’s journey to Chatzar Beit HaMelech HaPnimit, the king’s inner courtyard (5:1), to invite him to her feast was, in that sense, a profoundly symbolic act. She was doing precisely what Vashti had refused to do.
And it is in the palace’s inner courtyard that Achashverosh has his epiphany. Enraged when Esther reveals Haman’s plot, Achashverosh storms out of the Beit Mishteh HaYayin, the place of Esther’s feast, to Ginat HaBitan, the inner courtyard, in an attempt to quell his anger (7:7). But Achashverosh does more than blow off steam, he comes full circle—Vashti refused to go from the party hall to the courtyard, Esther came to the courtyard to invite Achashverosh to the party hall, and, now, Achashverosh left the party hall to return to the courtyard.
It is in the courtyard that the commonality in Achashverosh’s two queens’ stories is brought into full relief. Esther and Vashti, though strikingly different, did have one thing in common—Haman sought to destroy them both.
So, when Achashverosh returns to the party hall and exclaims, HaGam Lichbosh Et HaMalkah Imi BaBayit, shall you also seek to sack the queen when she is with me in the house (7:8), Achashverosh’s comment should be understood not as an exclamation of surprise but a sarcastic retort, capturing Achashverosh’s realization that Haman’s real goal is to destroy those around the king: you, Haman (then, Memuchan) told me to sack Vashti, the queen who refused to join me; do you now also want me to sack Esther, the queen that does join me?
But Haman’s fate is truly sealed by the perfectly-timed words of a minor servant, Charvona, who informs the king Gam Hinei HaEtz Asher Asah Haman LiMordechai Asher Diber Tov Al HaMelech—that Haman’s hit list spanned not only Achashverosh’s queens, but the full gamut of Achashverosh’s allies—indeed, even Mordechai (8:9).
Which leads one to ask—why was Haman promoted in the first place? Did Achashverosh actually ever trust Haman?
Consider the timing of Haman’s promotion, which the Megilla emphasizes (Achar HaDevarim HaEleh, after these events (3:1))—it immediately follows the Bigtan and Teresh episode. Which is strange, given that Haman does not seem to have been involved in that episode.
Or was he?
An expanded account of the story of Esther appears in the Septuagint, a third-century Greek version of the canonized old testament and some other related texts, which, legend has it, was authored by seventy Jewish scholars. The Septuagint is notable because it is not merely a straight translation of the traditional Hebrew text, but often includes supplementary text and additional details. Details which are traditionally understood as interpretations—attempts by the Septuagint’s authors to “fill” what they viewed as “gaps” in certain biblical stories, as those stories were recorded in the traditional biblical text. Those identified gaps and suggested fillings make the Septuagint an extremely valuable tool for biblical interpreters.
With respect to Esther, the Septuagint’s authors “filled” generously. The Septuagint’s version of Esther, for example, is replete with references to God and religious acts, such as prayers, which is the Septuagint “filling” a religiosity “gap” in Esther’s traditional biblical text, which, uncharacteristically for a Biblical book, omits any reference to God.
The Septuagint also sheds light on Haman’s promotion and the assassination attempt that preceded it, and its version of those events is quite extraordinary.
The Septuagint records not one, but two assassination attempts against king Achashverosh—the same one described in the traditional biblical text and an additional assassination attempt in an introductory portion of the story, before Achashverosh’s inaugural feast, where the traditional text begins. This first assassination attempt, like the second, also involved two servants—Gabath and Tharrha—and was discovered by Mordechai, who informs the king. Like with Bigtan and Teresh, Achashverosh executes the conspirators. But what follows their execution is shocking:
And Haman the son of Amadathes…endeavored to hurt Mordechai and his people because of the two chamberlains of the king.
The Septuagint suggests that Haman supported the plot. And not only that—the enmity between Achashverosh and Mordechai stemmed from a rivalry that predated Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman. The two had an ongoing political rivalry—Mordechai supported the king; Haman opposed the king.
Indeed, Haman’s tense relationship with the king manifests itself throughout the Megilla. Much of what he does, he does without the king’s knowledge—he draws lots for the Jews’ date of destruction and builds a gallows for Mordechai, all before ever approaching the king for permission. And when he does approach the king, he does so with the same sense of caution that Esther initially has—he stands BiChatzar Beit HaMelech HaChitzona, the king’s palace’s outer courtyard, where he would not risk death, pursuant to the Dat (6:4).
And Haman was not alone. He had a following, an anti-King and, by extension, anti-Mordechai camp. When, in the traditional text, Haman seeks advice on how to deal with Mordechai, VaYishlach VaYaveh Et Ohavav ViEt Zeresh Ishto, he gathers his supporters and his wife (5:10). When Mordechai refuses to bow, he is initially confronted not by Haman, but by Avdei HaMelech Asher BiSha’ar HaMelech, servants of the king stationed at the palace gate, who were Haman’s allies and—after Mordechai’s repeated refusal—reported Mordechai’s insubordination to Haman (3:3-4).
According to the Septuagint, Bigtan and Teresh were also members of Haman’s anti-Mordechai camp, and their motive for striking the king was as follows:
And two chamberlains of the king, the chiefs of the bodyguard, were grieved because Mordechai was promoted [because Achashverosh crowned Esther, Mordechai’s relative]; and so they sought to kill Achashverosh.
Through the Septuagint’s interpretive lens, we can understand a number of crucial things in the Esther story. First, Haman’s promotion was Achashverosh’s attempt to “keep his enemies close” and politically appease Haman’s camp. Second, in the context of an existing rivalry between Haman and Mordechai and their respective supporters, we can understand also why Haman’s supporters were so insistent that Mordechai bow to Haman. Third, we can understand why Haman, because of the nature of his promotion and his relatively tenuous relationship with the king, never challenges Mordechai directly nor brings Mordechai’s insubordination to the king. Finally, when the time comes for the Jews to vanquish their enemies, we can make sense of the Megilla’s relatively odd statement that, with respect to the Jews’ enemies, Nafal Pachad Mordechai Aleihim, the fear of Mordechai fell upon them (9:3).
There is far more to say about the Megilla and its themes which are both numerous and complex. God-willing, we will discuss more in future pieces.
In sum, the question—what is Purim about?—is not a new question. Indeed, the question animated a debate among sages in the Talmud over what portions of the Megilla one has to read to fulfill one’s obligation to read the Megilla on Purim. Behind that technical debate of Jewish law was a debate on the story’s meaning—precisely what aspect of the story is the cause for celebration? And the existence of the debate itself is a testament to how difficult the question is to answer.
Ultimately, the sages resolved—and today’s practice is—to read the entire biblical book of Esther, which does not necessary reflect a conclusion about the meaning of Esther’s story, so much as, perhaps, the sages’ recognition that the question of what Purim means is one for the ages.
This essay is dedicated, with love, in honor of my parents and teachers, Yaacov and Ronit Gross, and in memory of our aunt, Sara Lamm Dratch.