Esther and Purim - Some Background Facts (2006)


 The Book of Esther

          Esther has been said to be the best known of all the Bible books to the majority of Jews.  This is because of:

.         its clever plot;

.         its clearly drawn heroine, hero and villain;

.         its drama and comedy;

.         its paradigm of the eternal miracle of Jewish survival; and

.         its being a source of hope and refuge for Jews in times of oppression.

"Whenever Rabbi Akiba's disciples fell asleep during his lectures, he would abruptly change the subject and speak about Queen Esther.  The effect was immediate: all woke up, interested, provoked." Elie Wiesel, citing Midrash.

The author of Esther was probably a Persian Jew, since the Book displays considerable knowledge of Persian court customs.  The time of its writing may be the 2nd Century BCE; Purim is mentioned in II Maccabees as "the day of Mordecai," and the Hebrew work was translated into Greek around 80 BCE.  The drama takes place in the 5th or 6th Century BCE.

Esther is the only Book of the Bible that does not directly refer to God.  Possible reasons for this omission:

.         God says: "I shall hide My face." [Deu 32:20] Rashi comments: This means that in the time of Esther, God will intervene invisibly (and inaudibly) to save the Jews.

.         The Book is read at Purim, when drinking and ribaldry is encouraged,  which might lead to profaning the Divine Name during the reading.

.         Because the Book is the story of the Jews' victory over Gentiles, it might have been feared that the text would be profanely treated by non-Jews.

.         The Book ends with much vengeful violence, with which God did not want to be associated.

 The main characters:

Esther:       A reluctant heroine who demonstrates great beauty, wisdom, imagination and loyalty.

Mordecai:  A Jew who succeeds in a foreign court setting, in the tradition of Joseph and Daniel.  Loving and protective of his ward Esther and the Jewish people.

Ahashuerus:  An arbitrary, imperious, extravagant, powerful and foolish king

Haman:      A man driven by ambition and hate, but is attentive to his wife.  He is the prototypical anti-Semite, a descendant of King Agag, an Amalekite, and said to be an ancestor of Hitler.

Vashti:       The queen before Esther who was banished.  She was both beautiful and prideful.  An early feminist whose self-respect prevented her from dancing naked before drunken courtiers.

There are five scrolls or "Megillot" in the Bible.  Esther is known as "The Megillah" because it is usually read from that configuration.


Drinking is greatly encouraged; we are to indulge in liquor to the point where we cannot tell the difference between "Cursed by Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai."

There are four mitzvot prescribed for Purim:

.         Reading the Megillah

.         Having a festive meal and rejoicing

.         Sending gifts of food

.         Giving gifts to the poor      

All of the Holidays and Books of the Bible will be abolished when the Messiah comes, except for Purim and the Book of Esther.

 Questions with Answers for Purim (2007)


1.      Where does God's name appear in the Book of Esther?

It does not appear directly.  But In 4:14 - Mordecai says to Esther: For if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish.

In Gen 28:11,16 Jacob comes upon the place.

2.      How are Purim and Chanukah similar - and different?

            A.         Similarities

i.          Jews are saved by heroes and Divine intervention.

ii.        The threat is bowing down to someone or something other than God.

iii.       Specific foods associated - hamentaschen, latkes.

iv.        Their violence causes some discomfort.

            B.        Differences

i.          Purim includes mitzvot of a) Reading a holy text - The Megillah; b) having a festive meal; c) Sending gifts of food; and d) giving gifts to the poor.

ii.        Drinking and drunkenness are encouraged on Purim.

iii.       Purim is the one holiday that Jews will continue to observe when the Messiah comes.

3.      What other Biblical heroes does Mordecai resemble?

 A.         Joseph

            Succeeds despite hostility of others.

            Provides the King with life-saving advice.

            Rewarded by the King and given great power.

            Remains a loyal Jew.

            Benefits the Jewish people.

            Maternal ancestor is Rachel (Mordecai is a Benjaminite).

B.        Also Daniel on many of these same points.


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