David Walk

Who Was Achashveirosh??

My title’s question may seem a bit odd because the Megilla begins by telling us that the story takes place in the days of Achashveirosh, and then declares, ‘BTW, He’s that Achashveirosh who ruled from India to Ethiopia, 127 lands.’ This seems to announce that everybody knows who he is. So, it’s almost embarrassing to say that I don’t know who he is. And when I say that I don’t know who he is, I mean that on two levels: 1. Historically, which of the Persian Kings from their conquest of Babylonia through their defeat by Alexander the Great was our Achashveirosh, and 2. Who was he really? I mean as a man and a personality. Believe it or not, we don’t seem to know the answer to either of those questions. 

The concern over ever finding the true, historical Achashveirosh is such a conundrum that some very serious thinkers have doubted the very existence of this personality. That great English thinker and philosophy mentor to Rav Sacks Z”L, Sir Isaiah Berlin noted: The story narrated in the Megilla is historically improbable, and several contemporary scholars concur that it should be regarded as a fictional tale, like other narratives that were popular among the Jews in Israel and the Diaspora during the Persian and Hellenistic period. 

We will not take so bold a position. However, instead of declaring which of the famous Persian kings I believe to have been the ‘real’ Achashveirosh, I will wimp out and inform you, dear reader, that there are two prominent candidates for this role. The first is Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.E.). He rules after Cyrus the Great and is Rashi’s man for the job. Plus, that opinion seems to work with the chronology in Ezra (4:6). The other nominee is Artaxerxes II (404-359 B.C.E.), and is the choice of Josepheus and the Septuagint. Take your pick. There are pro’s and con’s for each. 

But that’s not the real question. We want to know what kind of man was this Achashveirosh? Do we admire or denigrate him? Is he to be emulated or scorned? Well, it’s hard to say. 

Let’s start with a famous Midrash (Esther Raba 1:15):

There were four good attributes in him: He went three years without a crown and without a throne; he waited four years until he found an appropriate wife; and he would not do anything without consulting. Rabbi Pinḥas said: And anyone who did him a favor, he would record it; that is what is written: “It was found written that Mordechai had told…” (Esther 6:2). 

Sounds pretty good. But there are other Rabbinic sources which don’t sound as confident. There is the famous argument between Rav and Shmuel, giants of the first generation of Amoraim, one declares that he’s a RASHA (villain) and the other claims that he’s a TIPESH (fool, Magilla 11a). Neither is a resounding endorsment. Later, the Talmud records that he was a HAFACHPECHAN (from the Hebrew word HEFECH, the opposite). This apparently means that he was always changing his mind, and had no consistent ideas or positions. Perhaps this inability to take positions and decide for himself is the reason Rav Soloveitchik declared that this Persian society was ‘morally bankrupt’. There was no clear ethical direction or focus. 

Probably, the most negative approach to Achashveirosh is the way many rabbinic authorities explain the opening words: V’YEHI BIMEI Achashveirosh, ‘and it was in the days of Achashveirosh’. Most see that phrase as a prediction of bad stuff on the horizon. The negativity of Achashveirosh stems from the fact that the world’s most powerful ruler had no interest in influencing events for any reason other than his own continued power.   

This brings us to an incredibly important comment by Rav Adin Steinzaltz Z’L. This great thinker was commenting on the popular custom to masquerade on Purim, which is a totally weird phenomenon because Judaism generally demands that we are open and honest about ourselves and our intentions. So, he notes:

Again, this seems to come straight from the Megilla, where so many people are acting and, in some way, wearing a mask: Achashverosh is the King, but he doesn’t act like a king; every time he has to make a decision, he has to ask others to help him. 

But then Rav Steinzaltz puts this phenomenon into historic perspective:

But in the post-Biblical world, clarity and direction are often lost. Purim happens during this very different time in our history. When we say that God is “hiding His face” in the Purim story, it is not just a play on words; it is a basic notion. Part of the miracle of Purim is that everyone is masquerading, acting drunk, and thinking that they are doing things for their own benefit, but it is because God is acting “off stage” that it comes together for a good ending. 

That’s the whole point of this holiday which historically takes place as the Prophets are disappearing and Rabbinic Judaism is beginning. This transition is traumatic and demands that we find our own moral compass without the the benefit of Divine messaging. Purim’s customs are designed to demonstrate how difficult this job is.  

Achashveirosh isn’t good or bad. He’s the blank canvas upon which we create our moment in history’s tale. We have to grab every opportunity to paint the right picture. Because if we don’t, Haman/Amalek will. Achashveirosh can’t decide, and that means we must take the rudder and direct the world towards good, morality, God. 

This is situation until the arrival of Mashiach. Make the most of it! Purim Sameach!! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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