Esor Ben-Sorek

Purim fallacies

Let me begin by telling you a fairy tale. Not one like Cinderella or Snow White or Goldie Locks. A tale with a Jewish theme. Of the Five Megillot (scrolls) in the Hebrew Bible one stands out as the most beloved. It was so popular that it had been translated into Greek and Aramaic, the two lingua-francas of the ancient Jewish diaspora.

Its theme is the annihilation of all the Jews in the kingdom of Ahasuerus (Xerxes) who ruled over one hundred twenty-seven provinces from India to Ethiopia in the years 486 BCE to 465 BCE. He was a successor to Cyrus (the Great) who freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity and permitted them to return to Jerusalem, and to Darius who followed him.

The author of the book of Esther was well-informed of Persian customs, language, and life as has been confirmed by the Greek historian Herodotus. He verified what was written in the book of Ezra, a Hebrew prophet who had been allowed to return to Judea by King Cyrus (Koresh). “During the reign of Ahasuerus, at the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.” The Greeks referred to him as Xerxes based upon his Persian name, Khshyarsha.

The story begins with a great feast in the summer palace of Susa (Shushan). The king is extremely drunk and demands that his queen, Vashti, appear before the assembled noblemen and perform the famous dance of the seven veils. When the queen refuses to appear, the anger of the king is aroused. His courtiers tell him that he must banish Vashti because she had set a bad example. If the queen could refuse to obey the king’s command it could be a signal to the wives of Persia that they too need not obey the demands of their husbands.

So far, the story is sound in its historical background, But now two other characters enter the plot. The author, for some reason, gives them Hebrew names which are actually names of Persian gods. Hadassah is named Esther after the Persian goddess Ishtar and her cousin/uncle (never clarified) Mordechai was named for the chief Persian god Marduk.

In search of a new bride to be his queen, Ahasuerus goes on a hunting expedition to find the most beautiful girls in his kingdom. Marduk encourages Ishtar to be a contender in the world’s first beauty contest and is, naturally, chosen to be Ahasuerus’ new queen.

The fallacy of it is that according to Persian law the king was required to marry only a woman of seven noble Persian families. Ishtar (Hadassah/Esther) was a descendant of Jews in the Babylonian exile. Accordingly, she was ineligible to become Persia’s queen. The king was unaware of her religion but she and cousin/uncle Marduk were well aware of the Persian law. They simply kept quiet and deceived the king.

Enter the villain Haman (Hamas !!!) the Agagite. He is jealous of Marduk’s influence at the royal court. When Marduk overhears a plot to assassinate Ahasuerus, he reports it to the king’s secretary and it is recorded in the royal register. Ultimately, it is brought to the king’s attention who immediately seeks to reward Marduk.

He commands Haman to dress the Jew Mordechai (Marduk) in royal garments and place him on the king’s horse, marching through the streets of Susa crying “this shall be done to a man who honors the king”. But he is humiliated and his fury is burning within him. His wife Zeresh suggests that he create a way to kill Mordechai and all his people. And so Haman appears before the king and tells him, “Your Majesty, there is a people who live among us whose ways are not the ways of the Medes and Persians. They eat different foods, speak a different language, have customs which are not ours. Therefore let it be written and decreed that these people shall be annihilated from the king’s provinces”.

The drunken king agrees and signs a proclamation that all Jews shall be killed on, a day drawn by lots (pur-im), and falls on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar. Messengers are dispatched throughout the provinces to announce the king’s decree. Mordechai hastens to inform the queen and tells her she must implore the king for mercy. But she hesitates since she had not been called to appear in the throne room. Anyone who entered without being officially invited faced death. But Mordechai convinces her of her duty to save her people. He tells her to fast and to pray.

The rest of the story follows suit. Uninvited, Esther appears before the king. He is delighted to see her and promises to grant her request. He and Haman are invited by her to two separate banquets. At the second, she reveals to the king that she is a Jew and that the wicked Haman seeks the death of all her people.

Haman falls upon her couch and begs for mercy. Ahasuerus orders him to be removed and to be hung on the gallows together with his ten sons. There is great relief among the Jews. But there is one serious problem.

The king has issued a proclamation ordering their annihilation on the thirteenth day of Adar. Once a proclamation has been sealed and published, it cannot be undone. Enter the second Purim fallacy. The king writes a new order permitting the Jews to rise up and slaughter the Persian attackers. With vengeance upon the rioters of the intended pogrom, the Jews killed five hundred men in the capital of Susa and another seventy-five thousand in the provinces on the thirteenth and fourteenth days of Adar.

It is an imaginary account for no king could permit the extermination of so many of his countrymen without the risk of losing both his crown and his head. But the author relates it to demonstrate the joy and relief of the Jews. On the fifteenth day of Adar they rested and celebrated with feasting and drinking so much that they were incapable to distinguish between the wickedness of Haman and the righteousness of Marduk.

And now, centuries later, we are once again faced by the same Persian nation (Iran) with the threat of our annihilation. At a time like this, we are much in need of another Ishtar (Esther) and uncle Marduk (Mordechai). And Haman (Hamas) remains our very dangerous enemy. Ymach shmo. May his name be forever erased.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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