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Persia’s couriers: Purim’s silent heroes?

Give credit to the couriers, who spread the royal word that the Jews could defend themselves, and turned the battle

Whose name appears most often in the Megillah (Book of Esther)?  Your initial instinct (unless you’ve heard this before or figured that if it was that easy I wouldn’t ask), was probably to answer Haman.  After all, his name is the one we notice most, since it gives us the opportunity to make noise. The correct answer, however, is King Ahasuerus.

When you give it some thought, it makes sense. In a monarchy — especially in absolute monarchies of the kind that populated the ancient world — significant actions are done by the king, or at least in the king’s name. Yet for all the frequency with which King Ahasuerus’s name appears, it takes a stretch to find evidence of an original thought. He’s highly susceptible to flattery, and everything he does is on the advice or suggestion of somebody else.  He is easily manipulated, and tends to follow the advice of whoever speaks to him last.  He also seems to be devoid of curiosity; preferring to let others handle all the details. (Sound like anyone you know?) When Haman seeks his permission to exterminate “a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm” (Esther 3:8, JPS translation), the king never even bothers to ask what people Haman was planning to exterminate.

Despite these limitations, the Megillah’s language seeks to emphasize the grandeur and power of the king. The very first verse introduces King Ahasuerus as the ruler over 127 provinces, stretching from India to Ethiopia. We seldom think of the difficulty of ruling an empire of that size, given the technological realities of the the ancient world. Speedy communication was essential. That’s why the Persian empire — at the time the largest the world had ever known — relied on its renowned system of mounted couriers. They are the ones whom the Greek historian Herodotus described (in words often erroneously thought to be the motto of the US Post Office):

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Both the achievements and the limitations of those couriers, though they are mentioned only in passing, are in fact a critical backdrop to the Purim story. We first see them in the first chapter of the Megillah, when the king seeks the advice of his senior ministers as to how to handle the Queen Vashti scandal. How does the royal advisor Memucan persuade the king of the enormity of Vashti’s disobedience?

Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus… This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation. (Esther 1:16-18)

In other words,  if the king tolerated Queen Vashti’s disobedience, word would get around, despite the technological limitations of that era, and other wives would be encouraged to disobey their husbands. Improved communication, Memucan was telling  the king, can have a downside as well as an upside. To prevent that from happening, the king should rely on his faithful couriers to get the king’s story out first, informing the peoples of the empire of Queen Vashti’s disobedience and its consequences.

The proposal was approved by the king and the ministers, and the king did as Memucan proposed.  Dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the king, to every province in its own script and to every nation in its own language, that every man should wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people (1:21-22).

The importance of communicating with all the peoples of the empire — each in its own language — was not lost on Haman. After receiving the king’s permission to annihilate the Jews, Haman proceeds to disseminate the information widely, thus expanding his pool of accomplices:

The king’s scribes were summoned and a decree was issued…to the king’s satraps, to the governors of every province and to the officials of every people, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language….The text of the document was to the effect that a law should be proclaimed in every single province; it was to be publicly displayed to all the peoples, so that they might be ready for that day.  The couriers went out posthaste on the royal mission, and the decree was proclaimed in the fortress Shushan…  (3:12-15).

After the execution of Haman and the king’s change of heart, it was Mordecai’s turn to realize the critical importance of speedy communication. The need for speed was all the greater considering that, under Persian law, a royal decree, once issued, could not be repealed (see Daniel 6:16). Under those circumstances, Mordechai’s best option was to send out a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves and to seek revenge upon their enemies: But preparing for such a battle, which would need to be fought throughout so large an empire, takes time, and for reasons that are not clear from the Megillah’s language, more than two months had passed between Haman’s execution and the sending out of the couriers bearing the corrective decree.

The silent but crucial role of the couriers finds its echo in the repetitive language of the Megilah’s references to them. It may may also help to explain why we call the resulting holiday Purim. Yes, I know, that the days were called Purim after the lots (Pur) that Haman cast to determine which days would be most auspicious for killing Jews (9:26). But why attribute such importance to those lots? After all, Haman used them to determine when — not whether — to kill the Jews.  Did it really matter in what month we were to be exterminated?

The backdrop of the couriers suggests that it may have mattered a great deal. The lots were cast by Haman in the month of Nisan, 11 months before the fateful day.  If the lot had fallen in Iyar or Sivan, there might not have been time tor the Jews to prepare themselves for battle, and Haman’s planned revenge on Mordecai might have succeeded, even if he was no longer alive to enjoy it. Instead, the lot fell on Adar, the month furthest from the time the lots were cast, giving the Jews the maximum time to make their preparations.

So maybe the king’s sleepless night wasn’t the only Purim miracle.  God’s name, as is well known, is nowhere in the Megillah, but His hand can be seen in many places, not only in that story but also in the stories of our lives — if only we know where to look.

Simchat Purim — a joyous Purim to all.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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