The Book and the Woman
by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild (London)
The book of Esther is one of the last to be added to the Hebrew canon, for a number of reasons, not least that the name of God does not appear in it. The book is a puzzle, filled with allusions and hinting at hidden depths. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from the Hebrew root ‘s.t.r’ meaning ‘to conceal’ although it may of course be a Hebrew form of the name Ishtar the Babylonian goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality, or the Persian ‘satarah’ meaning a star.
It is also a book whose meaning is to be understood not at the surface level of the p’shat. Placed within the final section of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), the Ketuvim, it is firmly in the realm of ‘writings’ rather than ‘word of God’. This book is not history in the sense of recording events that happened – it is history in the sense of revealing a continuing truth that speaks to each generation.
The book begins in the Persian capital of Shushan, with the King Ahasuerus hosting an enormous banquet for the nobles and princes of his province, a banquet which then grew to include the others in the fortress. Meanwhile Vashti the queen hosted her own banquet for the women and all went well until the King decided to require Vashti to come show herself and her great beauty to his guests, wearing the Royal crown. Vashti said no. Now much has been written about Vashti – how she was a feminist icon, her own woman. Rabbinic tradition tells that she refused because she understood that she had been asked to come wearing ONLY the crown. There is also a midrash that says that Vashti was more royal than her husband (according to this she was the orphaned daughter of Belshazzar and Ahasuerus had been the steward in the stables of her father) and so she refused to obey him and show off the regal regalia. Whatever her reason, Vashti said no and this sent the men’s banqueting company into a panic. The king and his advisors are worried that if she gets away with her refusal to obey her husband, then other women will get the idea that they too will not have to be compliant and obedient to theirs, and then who knows what would happen?
So Vashti is banished (some say executed) – not primarily for her act of disobedience, but “pour encourager les autres” ie to compel others not to copy her behaviour. The text is unabashed and very clearly about the submission of women to men: “When the king’s decree will be published throughout the great kingdom, all wives will give honour to their husbands….and he sent letters…that every man should rule in his own house”.
When the king had calmed down (and we presume sobered up) he realised that he would want feminine company now that Vashti had gone, and his advisors once again had the solution. “Let there be sought for the king young virgins fair to look on, and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom so that they may gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan the fortress to the house of the women…and let ointments be given them, and let the maiden that pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti” and this advice pleased the king. Choosing a wife in this way would mean choosing a young unformed girl who could be moulded to fit the wishes of her husband.
Esther appears as one of these virgins collected for the beauty contest whose prize was to be consort to the king. We meet her as an orphan, the daughter of Avihail and cousin of Mordecai, a Benjaminite. We learn very little about her as a person, but we find that she is described as beautiful that she is obedient to Mordecai’s instruction not to reveal her identity or Jewishness, that she finds favour in the eyes of the eunuch responsible for the women and she appears to be compliant with all that is asked of her. The text also tells us that Mordecai is able to walk every day before the court of the women’s house, to know how Esther did, and what would become of her – unbelievable in any harem setting, and yet critical to the narrative. Mordecai retains control over Esther in this way even though she is being groomed for the king.
Four years after the beauty contest had begun, Esther went to the King and he loved her and made her queen by placing the crown on her head, a worthy replacement for the beautiful Vashti. And still Esther kept her Jewishness hidden, “for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him”.
The narrative turns to a story whereby Mordecai discovers a plot against the king, who tells Esther, who in turn tells the king and clearly cites that the information came from Mordecai – but not apparently with the added information that he is a blood relative – and so the conspirators are examined, found guilty, and executed; and Mordecai’s name written in the book of chronicles of the king. Yet apparently no reward is given…..
Now we turn to Haman the Agagite, who is promoted above all the other princes and advisors and the king commands that everyone shall bow down before him. And so of course, everyone does – everyone but Mordecai – who said it was against his religion to bow down to a person. Haman decided to be rid of all the Jews in the empire.
This is five years after Esther had become queen – five years where she had not divulged her yichus, nor it seems has had a child. The king seems to be continuing with sampling the beautiful young virgins of the empire, and according to the Midrash Esther was not only keeping Shabbat (by virtue of having seven maidservants so that she always knew what day of the week it was), not only keeping kashrut as an early adopter of vegetarianism, but was also taking instruction from Mordecai about the laws of family purity – for what else would he be doing by walking in the by the court of the women’s house except keeping her on the halachic straight and narrow?
Lots (purim) were cast by Haman to decide the most propitious date for the pogrom against the Jews – it would be in Adar, eleven months hence. Haman set his trap. He told the King that “there is a certain people scattered and dispersed in all the provinces of your empire, and they have different laws from others, and they don’t obey your laws. It isn’t a good idea for you to have them in the empire, so set a decree that they should be destroyed, and I will pay a lot of silver into your treasury. The King simply took his signet ring and gave it to Haman, saying that both the silver and the people were Haman’s to do whatever wanted. It seems a passive response, and inexplicable that the King would have refused the money raised from allowing the pogrom. And yet the narrative is unperturbed.
The decree was sent out throughout the empire,permitting the people to “destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.” The King and Haman settled down to drink and the text records that the fortress of Shushan was perplexed. To them, if not to the narrator, this seemed bizarre.
Mordecai clothed himself in mourning clothing of sackcloth and ashes and paraded through the city and at the gate of the king. Through Hatach, a chamberlain of the King, Esther found out what was happening and Mordecai sent her a copy of the decree with the instruction that now was the time to go to the King and beg mercy for her people. But Esther told him she couldn’t. Unless the king summoned her she was at risk of death for approaching him; and worse – she hadn’t been summoned for a month – maybe she was losing her position in his affections.
But Mordecai’s words were chilling. “Don’t think you will survive safely if the rest of the Jews are attacked. You and your descendants will perish, even though deliverance will surely come from somewhere. And anyway, who knows, maybe this is the reason you have been led to your position in the harem?”
Esther seems to come into her own. In the first, and only, nod to religious ritual in the story, she demands that the Jews should fast for her for three days, and decides that she too will fast along with her handmaids, and after that she will go into the king unbidden. “And if I perish, I perish”. Sadly the midrash glosses this taking of power back into submission: the Babylonian tradition understands that Esther was in fact the wife of Mordecai as well as his cousin. This would mean her living in the harem of the king would constitute adultery, the punishment of which would be death. However, one could make the case for her being compelled to live with the king, and therefore the punishment mitigated, but should she voluntarily approach the king then this case fails and Esther becomes an adulteress and forbidden forever to Mordecai. Poor Esther, being asked to remove the lifesaving defence of compulsion….
But for now the tables are turned. Mordecai goes on his way “and did according to all that Esther had commanded him.”The power dynamic shifts – for now.
Esther approaches the King successfully and asks him to come with Haman for a feast that very day. At the feast, the king again asks her what she wants, and she replies that she will tell him tomorrow, if he comes again with Haman to another feast. Haman is overjoyed to be included in the feasting, but his mood darkens when he sees Mordecai at the gate, still refusing to bow to him. He keeps his cool and goes home where he tells his friends and Zeresh his wife of all the honours that have come his way, but says he cannot enjoy them as long as “Mordecai the Jew” is sitting at the gate. Zeresh and the friends offer advice – he should have a gallows built immediately, then in the morning get the permission from the king to hang Mordecai, and after that he will be able to enjoy his good fortune and high status.
But that night – another plot twist! The king cannot sleep, he asks for the book of records to be read to him and finds that Mordecai was never repaid for his information about the plot against the life of the king. Haman, come early to get permission for the hanging of Mordecai, is invited to offer suggestions on “What shall be done for the man whom the king delights to honour?” and Haman, so certain of his favour in the court asked himself: ‘Whom would the king delight to honour besides myself?’ and comes up with no contender. Thinking the king wants to honour him he suggests that such a man should be dressed by other noble princes in regal clothing complete with crown, settled on a horse and taken through the city with the proclamation “This is being done for a man that the king wishes to honour”
The king is delighted with the suggestion and tells Haman to carry it out on Mordecai. Afterwards Mordecai returned to the king’s gate and the humiliated Haman goes home. Haman’s friends and wife tell him that if Mordecai the Jew has prevailed over him, then it is a sign that he will fail in his quest to destroy all the Jews of the empire. At that moment, before he can really process the information, the servants come to take him to Esther’s banquet.
And it is getting worse for Haman. For the king now asks Esther what it is that she wants, and she replies that she would like her life and the life of her people who are condemned to be killed. When the king asks who has condemned them, she answers quite bluntly ‘An adversary and an enemy, even this wicked Haman.’
Haman is terrified. The king is furious. Esther is silent. The king goes into the garden to think, and Haman pleads for his life before the queen. In a moment of farce the king returns from the palace garden “into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the couch where Esther was. Then said the king: ‘Will he even force the queen before me in the house?’ ”
What happened while the king was outside? Did Esther engineer the situation as a tableau before his return? Did Haman trip and fall on her? The text doesn’t tell us. But we know now that Esther, compliant and beautiful, has also been strategic and thoughtful in getting her request met. She is not an ignorant young girl at this point, but a mature woman who has been queen for some time…
Haman is taken out and hanged on the gallows built for Mordecai, a lovely tidy twist to the story. His house was given to Esther, who also told the king of her relationship with Mordecai. Mordecai was promoted and given the king’s signet ring that had originally been given to Haman. And curiously it is Esther who then sets Mordecai over the house of Haman. No doubt now who is the boss in that relationship.
Esther then works to reverse the decree against the Jews engineered by Haman. She cries before the king and asks him to write new letters contradicting the original orders to destroy the Jews. But he cannot for the king’s letters signed with the king’s seal are immutable. Instead he suggests that as Esther is now in charge of the house of Haman, she and Mordecai can now send out other letters also signed with the seal of the king to inform them that “the king had granted to the Jews in every city that they gather themselves together and stand for their life, to destroy and to slay and to cause to perish all the forces of the people and the province that would assault them, their children and women, and to take the spoils.” They were to do this on one day – the 13th day of Adar.
This was seen as a great day for the Jews and many people in the Empire converted to Judaism. So when the date for the pogrom came around all the king’s officers were on the side of the Jews and it seems that there were relatively few enemies to slay throughout the empire – 75 thousand in total in that huge expanse of territory – except in Shushan itself. There 500 men and the ten sons of Haman were killed on the 13th Adar and 300 more on the 14th Adar but no spoils were taken.
The book then concludes with an explanation of the festival of Purim, to be kept throughout the generations and tells us that “Esther the queen, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew, wrote down all the acts of power, to confirm this second letter of Purim.” And that “the commandment of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book.”
Power seems to be firmly in the hands of Esther, but the book ends with an addendum that “For Mordecai the Jew was second to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his fellows; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.”
So what do we, as modern women, make of the story of Esther and the festival of Purim which the book attempts to explain?
We see that a vulnerable orphaned girl ends up a powerful woman. Having been compliant and obedient, passive in the hands of the men around her, she later reveals herself as being a woman with a shrewd strategic mind, who ends the story as a woman of great power and control, the owner of Haman’s estates, the writer of letters in the name of the King.
In this she forms a literary counter to Vashti, the woman who began the story with great power but whose choice to refuse her husband’s wishes in a public snub made her the ultimate powerless ‘outsider’.
But Esther does not use her tactical instincts and rise up to defend her people until she is reminded that even living in the palace would not protect her from sharing the fate decreed for her people. Only the realisation that she too is vulnerable makes her act. In this we might see the pattern of abused women everywhere whose lack of confidence cause them to lose agency and accept with painful passivity until the moment when they finally realise the lack of choice – to act or to die.
It is generally accepted that the book of Esther is a late book, probably written @4th century BCE and it seems to be a polemic written for diaspora Jews to remind them that life will always be hard, there will always be people who hate them in the lands they are living in, and yet unlike modern rhetoric the book seems to be adding to this information that there are ways of dealing with this situation: contact with government, integration into the society, walking the fine line between accepting the mores of the country and taking a principled stand to retain Jewish identity.
I am always struck by the line from the havdalah service – the Jews had light, gladness joy and honour – so may we also” which is a reference to the book of Esther. It is placed liturgically at one of the most frightening times of the week, when Shabbat is going out and we are to face the world again, with all its uncertainty. The ‘extra soul’ departs until the following week, we are bereft and diminished. And we comfort ourselves with the words that come from the end of the book after all the fighting and fear that the Jews of the empire faced. Essentially we repeat each week that living in Diaspora is insecure, and yet we can do it. And more than that, we can grow in confidence and skills just like Esther.