Boruch M. Boudilovsky
Rabbi of Young Israel of North Netanya

The Mysterious Purim Character of Harbonah

The biblical character of Harbonah can be easily overlooked. He appears only twice in the book of Esther, and plays a trifling role. In his first appearance, Harbonah is mentioned as one of the chamberlains to King Ahasuerus:

On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven chamberlains who attended King Ahasuerus. (Esth 1:10)

Finally, in perhaps a slightly more significant context, but nevertheless not a particularly critical one, Harbonah points out to King Ahasuerus the existence of available gallows. The gallows, originally erected by Haman with the intention of hanging Mordecai on them, are now used by the king to hang Haman:

Then Harbonah, one of the chamberlains in attendance of the king, said, ‘Furthermore, the fifty – cubit – high gallows which Haman made for Mordechai – who spoke good for the King – is standing in Haman’s house. (Esther 7:9)

Nevertheless, for centuries Jewish communities have been concluding the public reading of the book of Esther, as well as the launching of the annual Purim celebrations, by remembering Harbonah positively when reciting the words, ‘and Habronah too should be remembered for good’. Who then is Harbonah and how has he come to be traditionally ‘remembered for good’?

Upon a careful analysis of the biblical text itself, some information on the identity of Harbonah might emerge. In the first verse in which Habronah appears, (Esth 1:10), Habronah is one of ‘the seven chamberlains who attended King Ahasuerus’. Similarly, in chapter 7, Habronah is described as ‘one of the chamberlains in attendance of the King’. (Esth 1:10) appears in the context of the summoning of Queen Vashti by King Ahasuerus. The King orders his chamberlains to summon the queen. Upon her refusal, the King consults with a different group of men as per what the favourable course of action should now be (Esth 1: 13 – 15). Clearly then, the chamberlains, one of whom was Harbonah, do not advise the King. They merely carry out his orders.

The biblical Hebrew word translated to chamberlain is ‘sarisim’ in plural, and ‘saris’ in the singular. The word ‘saris’ can refer to the Hebrew word for castration. Sarisim were eunuchs. Historically, eunuchs ‘played a key role in the political, administrative, and sometimes even military life of most of the major bureaucratic empires’[1]. Their inability to reproduce was an advantage. Indeed, a perfect example is Hegai whom the book of Esther (2: 3) describes as a ‘saris’ responsible for the king’s harem. From a king’s perspective, the most trustworthy and safest appointment of a man responsible for a harem would be a eunuch. This advantage is not only limited to a royal harem, but to many of the roles in which proximity to the king was required.

It is, therefore, likely that Habronah was a eunuch with close proximity to King Ahasuerus, although proximity should not be confused with influence. Additionally, we should take into account ‘the low esteem in which eunuchs were held and their association with obscenity and dirt was well-nigh universal’ (Patterson). Harbonah thus is a social outcast used by the powerful for their needs.

Perhaps this all leads to a clue into the eventual esteem in which Habronah is traditionally held. We established that Habronah was not an advisor and perhaps even a despised eunuch. Yet the second time Habronah appears in the story (Esth 7:9), Habronah finds the courage to ignore his social disadvantage, and advises on his own initiative. The seemingly trifling role of Habronah now emerges as a product of courage.

 

[1] Patterson, Orlando. 1982. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

 

About the Author
Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky was born in Israel and grew up in Scotland and New York. After graduating high school in Denver Colorado, Rabbi Boudilovsky moved back to Israel where he studied at Yeshiva, served as an IDF combat paratrooper, and completed his Rabbinic training. After working in Israel as both a formal and informal educator in various exciting environments, Rabbi Boudilovsky was appointed in 2010 as Associate Rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue, the largest Orthodox community in the United Kingdom. During his years in London, Rabbi Boudilovsky led a successful startup Synagogue and community in South Borehamwood, and completed an MA at King’s College London in the department of Religion and Theology. In the summer of 2016, Rabbi Boudilovsky moved back to Israel with his family to accept the position of Rabbi of Young Israel of North Netanya.
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