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Question: We read in Megillat Esther that the name of the king of Persia who ruled a vast empire that extended from India to Ethiopia was Achashverosh. Who was he? Where did he come from?

Fran Hager
Brooklyn, NY

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Answer: Your question is quite interesting. My good friend and colleague, Rabbi Joseph Rosenbluh – a member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud Harabbanim, rabbi of the Young Israel of Vanderveer Park, Brooklyn, and a very qualified dentist – has researched this particular topic quite thoroughly. Rabbi Rosenbluh wrote an essay, “The Hidden Miracle of Purim,” which begins with the question: “Who was Akhashverosh?” He then proceeds to answer:

“An Aramaic cuneiform inscription found by archeologists in Egypt states:

“‘Thus says Artakhshasta the great king, King of Kings, King of the lands of all the earth, the son of Daryavesh the king; Daryavesh the king was the son of Artakhshasta the king; Artakhshasta the king was the son of Khshayarsh the king; Khshayarsh the king was the son of Daryavesh the king; Daryavesh the king was the son of Ishtazpo of the seed of Achmenish.

“From the above it is clear that the original Persian name of the king known to the Greeks as Xerxes I is actually Khshayarsh. According to scholars, the authors of the Book of Esther to ‘Akhashverosh’ transliterated this king’s name. Since in Hebrew a word usually cannot begin with a pair of consonants sharing a single vowel, a prosthetic Alef is added whenever Hebrew takes such a word from a foreign language (e.g., the Latin word ‘specularia’ became ‘aspaclaria’ in the Talmud, and the Persian word ‘khshatra’ (kingdom) became ‘akhashdarpenim’ and ‘akhashteranim’ in Esther. The prosthetic alef facilitates pronunciation. Furthermore, the original Persian name ‘Khshayarsh’ contains elements difficult for a non-Persian to pronounce. So the ‘Khsha’ part became ‘akhash’, the ‘ya’ sound was changed to a vav (originally pronounced as a ‘w’), and the consonant combination ‘rsh’ was vocalized to ‘rosh.’ Thus ‘Khshayarsh’ became ‘Akhashverosh’. The king’s Greek name Xerxes is explained by a different phonetic development: Khshayarsh = Khsharsh = Khshersh = Kserks + es = Xerxes, since Greek does not have a ‘sh’ sound.

“There is even evidence for the king’s original name in the Masoretic written text of Esther. In 5 out of 29 places where the king’s name is mentioned in Esther, it is spelled ‘chaser,’ lacking one or both vavs – namely, all those instances where the writer cited original Persian documents and modeled his spelling after the quoted Persian source (Esther 2:21-23; 3:12-14; twice in 8:7-13; 10:1-2).

“We know from non-Jewish historical sources (e.g. Herodotus) that Xerxes began his military campaign against Greece in 483 B.C.E., the third year of his reign. Before embarking he gathered his nobles for a conference on the matter. The Book of Esther narrates that in the third year of his rule, Akhashverosh made a party for all his ministers to show off his wealth. The assembly and the party are the same event, and the king was exhibiting his wealth to demonstrate his ability to finance the planned military expedition.”

Rabbi Rosenbluh continues: “Esther became queen of the Persian Empire and mother of the next emperor, and was an advocate for the Jews for 50 years.

“According to non-Jewish historical sources, Xerxes I had already suffered defeat in Greece and returned to Persia by the seventh year of his reign, when [according to the Megillah] Esther became queen. The historical sources give the name of Xerxes’ wife as Amestris.

“In Esther Rabbah (8:3) it states:

“‘Daryavesh the Last, son of Esther, was pure [on the side of] his mother and impure [on the side of] his father.’ Thus there is a Jewish tradition that Esther was the mother of the next king.

“The historical sources say the same about Amestris: that it was her son who succeeded Xerxes. In the historical sources, the successor [of Akhashverosh] is called Artaxerxes I [not Daryavesh as in the Midrash], and he is said to have ascended the throne despite having two older brothers who were not sons of Amestris. The sources describe Amestris as a dominant personality in her son’s palace almost till the end of his reign. In fact, Herodotus pokes fun at King Artaxerxes for letting his mother frequently influence his royal decisions.

“Scholars identify the Persian king Artakhshast, mentioned in Ezra (7 and 8) and in Nehemiah as Artaxerxes I. In his seventh year as king, he allows Ezra the Kohen to lead a group of Jews from Persia back to Jerusalem. Artakhshast shows great favor to the Jews by 1) exempting them from taxation; 2) personally donating certain necessities to the Temple; 3) encouraging Ezra to teach Torah to those of his fellow Jews who were ignorant of it and 4) empowering Ezra to enforce Torah observance by monetary, corporeal, and even capital punishment. But Artakhshast’s kindness to the Jews does not end there. In the 20th year of his reign, his cupbearer, Nehemiah, requests permission to travel to Jerusalem to rebuild its broken walls. The Biblical text (Nehemiah 2:6) continues: ‘And the king said to me – with the [shegal] queen sitting beside him: How long will your journey be, and when will you return? And it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a [specific] time.’

“It appears that this queen is not the queen consort but rather the queen mother. The Book of Esther makes it clear that the Persian queen consort saw little of her husband, and did not sit with him in public to advise him. Also, elsewhere in the Bible words of the root of ‘shegal’ are read differently, according to the Qeri (that which is read) due to their derogatory implications, but here the Ketiv (the written text) and the Qeri are unusually identical. On the other hand, if ‘shegal’ means queen mother, that explains how the word can be read as written, since it does not connote ‘consort.’ And evidence for the honor a Jewish king accorded his mother can be found in I Kings (2:19): ‘And Bathsheba came to King Solomon to speak to him … and the king rose to greet her, and he bowed to her, and sat on his throne, and had a throne set for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.’

“In his commentary to the above quoted verse from Nehemiah, Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim reaches the same conclusion:

“’And according to the opinion of our sages of blessed memory that this king was Daryavesh, son of Esther, it may be said that this queen was his mother Esther who rushed [to intervene] on this request (to which the king had already agreed) because of her love for her nation and her birthplace.’”

 

List of Persian Kings and the Years They Reigned (all dates are B.C.E.)

Cyrus, 539-530
Cambyses (son of Cyrus), 530-522
Bardia (Greek: Smerdis), 522
Darius I (killed Bardia, ruled instead), 522-486
Xerxes I (son of Darius I), 486-465
Artaxerxes I (son of Xerxes I), 465-423
Xerxes II (son of Artaxerxes I), 423
Sogdianos (son of Artaxerxes I), 423
Darius II (son of Artaxerxes I), 423-404
Artaxerxes II (son of Darius II), 404-358
Artaxerxes III, 358-338
Arsass, 338-336
Darius II (defeated by Alexander), 336-332

Sources:

Olmstead, A.T. A History of the Persian Empire
Jampel, Sigmund. Die Wiederherstellung Israels
Danziger, Rabbi Shelomoh Eliezer. The Jewish Observer (Feb. 1973, pp. 12-15)
De Selincourt, Aubret (translator). Herodotus: The Histories
Hershkovics, Mayer. “The Identity of Haman and his Antagonism Against the Residents of Judah and Jerusalem,” Or Hamizrach, Spring 1973

 

Dr. Rosenbluh can be reached at his dental office at 718-375-1999.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.