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September 3, 2015 / 19 Elul, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘haman’

The Origins of Purim

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

(Originally published in 2011)


Last year, Makor Rishon carried a very interesting, thought-provoking article about the origins of Purim and Megillat Esther. Among other things, the article addressed the following questions:

  1. Why is Esther the only book of the Tanakh not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls? Is there, in spite of this, any trace or hint of it to be found among the scrolls from Qumran?
  2. Was Megillat Esther canonized when it was first written, or was it incorporated into the Tanakh only during a later era?
  3. How was the holiday of Purim celebrated (if it was indeed celebrated at all) in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora during the period of the Second Temple?
  4. Why are the dramatic events described in the Megilla not mentioned in the book of Ezra, which covers the same time period?
  5. Who is the central figure in the Megilla — Mordekhai or Esther? If it is Mordekhai, then why is the book called “the Scroll of Esther”? And if it is Esther — then why did the Jews originally call the holiday “the Day of Mordekhai”?
  6. Why does the Megilla make a point of telling us that Mordekhai was from the tribe of Benjamin, and that he (or his ancestor) was exiled exiled together with King Yekhonia of Judah?
  7. Why did Mordekhai order Esther not to tell anyone that she was Jewish?
  8. How could Esther instruct the Jews of Shushan to fast during the holiday of Pesah?
  9. What does the Megilla mean when it says at the end that when Mordekhai became a great figure among the Jews, he was “speaking peace for all his seed”? Who were “his seed”?

As a public service, the Muqata presents here a full English translation of the article. The text has been supplemented with several additional notes (which appear in brackets or as footnotes) and hyperlinks.

(The original Hebrew article from Makor Rishon can be read here.)


Makor Rishon

12 Adar, 5770 / 26.02.2010

Yoman, pp. 18-19

The Hidden Chapters of Megillat Esther

by Avinadav Witkun

Why was not even one copy of Megillat Esther discovered among the sacred writings found in Qumran?Why does the Book of Ezra fail to mention the tale of Purim, and how could Esther have asked the Jews to fast for her in the middle of the Pesah holiday? Researchers attempt to decipher the secrets of the Megilla in which there is no mention of God’s name or the Land of Israel’s name.

The holiday of Purim and Megillat Esther arouse no small amount of mixed feelings and emotions.It seems that many have a difficult time accepting the holiday’s unusual customs, the Megilla in which the concealed outweighs the revealed, the concealment of God’s name, and the concealment of Zion.On the other hand, the Megilla spins an amazing, dramatic tale, carrying in its wake an abundance of interpretations on the levels of allusions, homiletics, and mysticism.It practically cries out to the reader not to accept it on its plain, initially understood level.In addition, the Rabbinic commentary that spices it up – sometimes to the point of making one blush – intensifies the story, presenting a stormy tract of tangled, political intrigues, loving relationships that touch the heart, and sobering, bitter episodes in the relationship between Israel and the nations.

Cave 4 in Qumran, where the 4Q550 scroll was found

In academic research, by contrast, it has become common over the years to cast doubt upon the holiday’s origins, and to portray it as a late creation, without roots;a creation whose roots are alien to Judaism, whose characters are of dubious authenticity, and whose connection to reality or history is between tenuous and nonexistent.In point of fact, there is no reference to or evidence for the holiday of Purim from the era prior to the Mishna, except for two interesting sources:One is in the book of II Maccabees, and the second is in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that was deciphered only in the last few years.

Prof. Hanan Eshel, z”l

At issue is a scroll written in Aramaic[1], which was found in Qumran in 1952.Its crumbling fragments were deciphered only recently, but they have yet to receive the public attention they deserve.This is how Prof. Hanan Eshel [z”l] of Bar Ilan University explains it:“[The scroll] tells of details that are documented in Megillat Esther, but as opposed to the Megilla which is written in Hebrew, these are written in Aramaic.We’re only dealing with a portion of the biblical plot of the Megilla.There are no details to be found regarding Mordekhai, Esther, or Haman, but it does relate that the king couldn’t sleep at night, and that his servants would bring him books dealing with the tales of his father, Daryavesh [Darius], in which there was testimony to the effect that a Jew saved the king, but received no reward.Similarly, there is mention there of a man from the tribe of Benjamin”.The scroll, or more accurately, the crumbs that remain from it, is dated to the year 100 BCE, while the tale of the Megilla happens in approximately the year 490 BCE.“But the main part is missing from the book,” continues Eshel.“Where is the miracle?In I Maccabees [7:43], we see that one of the important battles of Judah Maccabee [the Battle of Adasa] happened on the 13th of Adar, a day before Purim.In II Maccabees [15:35], which was written in Greek outside the Land of Israel, it specifies that the battle took place one day before the “Day of Mordekhai”, but in I Maccabees, which was written in Hebrew in the Land of Israel, there is no such reference to this day.It would seem that in the Land of Israel, they were in no hurry to accept and sanctify the story of the miracle of Purim, as opposed to the Diaspora communities, where they accepted the holiday upon themselves”.

Through the eyes of Diaspora Jewry

Dr. Yigal Levin

In Rabbinic sources as well, one can find hints of criticism against the sages of the generation who opposed the pleadings of Mordekhai and Esther.“Write [my story] for [all] generations” [TB Megilla 7a], Esther demanded of the sages, but in spite of this – it appears that until the promulgation of the Megilla in Hebrew, which gave it sacred validity, quite a few generations passed.“We know nothing about the creation of the Megilla itself, or about the creation of the holiday, until the end of the Second Temple period”, says Dr. Yigal Levin of Bar Ilan University.“The earliest mentions are towards the end of the Second Temple period, in the time of Flavius Josephus and the Book of Maccabees.There is an earlier source, in the form of the Greek translation of the Megilla, in a somewhat different form, in the Septuagint of the 3rd century BCE.This is a source in which it’s unclear whether it contains additions, or whether we possess a version with omissions.In the Greek version, the name of God appears, and there is an explicit statement that what happened to the Jews in Shushan was a miracle.We don’t know when the translation was written.

“In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have not found to this day even a small portion of Megillat Esther itself.There are researchers who ascribe this fact to the idea that residents of the area didn’t recognize the holiday, but in my opinion there’s no need to ascribe importance to things that are not found.Maybe one day someone will enter a cave and find Megillat Esther there.”Either way, says Levin, in spite of the lack of external historical evidence for the story in the Megilla, it is evident that the Megilla – which is saturated with Persian words – provides a rich portrayal of the Persian court in a fairly credible manner.“We assume that King Ahashveirosh was the Persian king Xerxes I, who reigned in Persia between the years 486-465.He was the fourth king of the Persian Empire after Koresh [Cyrus the Great], and not his direct descendant.He is known primarily from Greek historical works of the period, since it was in his time that the war between Persia and the Greeks reached its climax.Ahashveirosh invaded Greece – this is perhaps alluded to in the verse at the end of the Megilla:“And King Ahashveirosh laid a tribute upon the land and the islands of the sea” [Esther 10:1] – but in the end he was routed by the Greeks, in spite of his success in reaching Athens and burning the temples on the Acropolis.The banquet in the seventh year of his reign most likely marked this battle.Interestingly, Greek history also describes him as a hedonistic, weak-willed king, an image consistent with his character in the Megilla.Regarding Mordekhai, we know of someone by the name of Mordekhai who was a minister to one of these kings, but with no indication of his Jewish identity, or any particular importance beyond his being a senior minister.”

According to Levin, one would expect the miracle of Purim to be mentioned in the Book of Ezra, which deals with that period.“The Persian kings are mentioned there, the accusatory delegations sent by the [Samaritan] inhabitants of Israel are mentioned, but the story [of the Megilla] itself is not mentioned.From the perspective of the date, it would have been appropriate to mention the story of the Megilla.It would appear that in that period, they didn’t see a ‘big story’ in the story of the Megilla.Even if they were aware of it in Israel, it may be that they had no interest in mentioning the story.There are other strange details in the Megilla, for example Esther’s request to fast for her on Pesah.It is possible that at that time, after the destruction of the Temple, the festivals were not commemorated in the Diaspora in any special manner.Pesah was completely connected to the Temple.This theory strengthens the perception that this is a story that was written through the eyes of Diaspora Jewry.”

Festival for the founding of a dynasty

Prof. Jona Schellekens

Prof. Jona Schellekens, a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University, opposes the accepted research that sees the Megilla as a non-biblical, mythical work.“Every year, I sit and listen to the Megilla, and I realize how deep it is, how many levels it has.People get caught up with the surface level, which is not the correct one”, says Schellekens, a demographer by training who is also involved in research of genealogical trees and anthropology.In the periodical Journal of Biblical Literature, Schellekens published his hypothesis opposing the negationist approach to the Megilla prevalent in current research.“To start with, the claim that this is a Persian story, and with Persian pagan characters who underwent conversion, is groundless”, he says.“One can see a clear resemblance to other biblical tales in the Tanakh, and to other characters.This is also what led me to idea that it can be proven that the story was a real, human story, and that is what led to the writing of the Megilla the way it was written.

“The story of Mordekhai and Haman reminded me very much of the story of David and Shaul.It’s about a hero whom they want to kill, about a good, honest man, who looks out for his people but doesn’t receive recognition.I am proceeding from the assumption that at the time these things took place, politics was at play.If Shaul had won, he would have told us that David threatened him by seeking to usurp his dynasty.With the passage of time, King David acquired his legitimacy, and this process was supported, together with other factors, by the biblical story that relates how David could have killed Shaul and inherited his throne, but that he refrained – twice – from doing so.Without a doubt, it was critical to preserve and to tell this story for future generations, in order to oppose the slanderers who questioned the purity of David’s intentions.

“In the time of Haman and Mordekhai, too, there was a political struggle for influence.The Megilla describes the raging emotions of Haman ben Hamedata in a detailed and exceptional manner, and undoubtedly – and this is hinted at in the Megilla – there were those who questioned Mordekhai’s motives:Why are you provoking Haman – [especially] at a time when catastrophes have recently befallen the Jewish people – merely to achieve goals of political influence?Because of this, the Megilla comes and tells us that Mordekhai makes Esther swear that she that she would not reveal that she is a Jew, and that Mordekhai the Jew is her kinsman.In other words, the Megilla is clearing Mordekhai’s name, as someone who did not seek glory for himself.Why would it do this if it weren’t talking about a real, living figure?Only real figures find themselves in this sort of political trouble.Back then, they didn’t live in a democratic society, anyone who rose to a position of authority did so by force, and there were murders right and left, that’s why he required strong legitimization.

“The very fact that it writes that he was exiled together with King Yekhonia of Judah – in other words, that he was not an anti-House of David figure – is significant.On the other hand, his lineage is mentioned, just like the lineage of the House of David is mentioned in Megillat Ruth.He most likely did not have an easy time with a portion of the descendants of David, who did not see him as a legitimate leader, not to mention the fact that he apparently founded a dynasty of Jewish leaders under Persian auspices, as the last verse fairly shouts out, ‘and seeking speaking peace for all his seed’ [Esther 10:3].‘His seed’ is an explicit reference to a dynasty.The founding of a new Jewish dynasty brought with it the establishment of the holiday of Purim, in my opinion.That’s why its ancient name was the ‘Day of Mordekhai’.Ancient practice was to celebrate the days on which dynasties were established as holidays, just as we celebrate Independence Day today.The Jews rejoiced in their new leadership, at least most of them.

“With the destruction of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great, the prestige of Mordekhai’s dynasty undoubtedly waned, and consequently, in a later period, the Sages transfer the emphasis from Mordekhai’s leadership to miracle of the salvation, and the ‘Day of Mordekhai’ turns into ‘Purim’.In other words, today we celebrate only a portion of the original holiday, which was appropriate for its time.Indeed, the Sages did not think like we do:They emphasized what was appropriate for future generations and what was necessary from here onwards, and not necessarily the minute historical details or the manner of their development.This is why I reject the idea from current research that sees Purim as being based upon a pagan holiday.This is a genuine Jewish holiday, and there is self-evident proof for this in the Megilla itself.”

Murder in the bedroom

In Schellekens’ opinion, his interpretation is not overly inventive.“According to the philosophy of science, my theory is more preferable than all the others, since it provides the maximum number of answers to the problems arising from the text.Why does it say ‘his seed’ at the end of the Megilla?Why does Esther conceal her Jewishness?I have one assumption that answers all these problems.”The good ending is manifested, according to Schellekens, in the last verse of the Megilla.“The promise of offspring, of descendants, is the greatest blessing of all”, he says.“In many books of the bible, there is a ‘happy ending’.In my opinion, in the past there was a continuation of the Megilla.It’s true that this is only a conjecture, but it’s possible that the continuation was a listing of Mordekhai’s descendants, just like the one that appears at the end of Megillat Ruth.”It may be that those who were loyal to the House of David had difficulty accepting Mordekhai’s prestige and his kingdom in exile, and this would explain the delay in the acceptance of the holiday in Israel.

And what about Esther, the tragic figure who rises to greatness and then disappears somewhere after Mordekhai’s status in the palace is strengthened?Was it really her fate to spend the rest of her days in Ahashveirosh’s harem?“In the end, Ahashveirosh was murdered in his bedroom, 13 years after the biblical story”, mentions Dr. Levin.Perhaps in the spirit of Purim, we can entertain ourselves with the idea that the unofficial ending of Megillat Esther is hidden in this event?Perhaps Queen Esther said her final word there?Is it possible that in this notion there is an echo of the Sages’ statements concerning Esther’s melancholy and covert marital relationship with Mordekhai, and the legend concerning the “devil” bearing Esther’s likeness that would rendezvous with Ahashveirosh at night, at the same time that Esther was being embraced by her beloved, Mordekhai the Jew?If we attempt to find clues to Ahashveirosh’s bitter end in his spacious bed, then we are dealing with a clever devil indeed…


[1] The scroll, from Cave 4 in Qumran, is designated 4Q550.A discussion of it can be found here.

Was Mordechai Crazy? A Torah Thought for Purim

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

There is an interesting parallel between Pharaoh and Ahashverosh. Both absolute rulers are sure that their way is just and supreme. Pharaoh rules by force while Ahashverosh rules with the honey trap, but they have the same intentions and the results are the same. Both of them enslave Israel to their will and threaten to destroy the Jewish People. Both Moses and Mordechai ‘irresponsibly’ endanger the nation and at the beginning, make the situation worse.

“Why, Moshe and Aaron?” asks/threatens the king of Egypt. “Why disturb the nation?” You are bothering them. They, after all, are used to slavery. They were born for slavery. “Go take care of your other issues.” You are not leaders. You are private individuals.

As opposed to Pharaoh, Ahashverosh does not threaten anybody. He simply invites them all to his feast. Is it kosher? Strictly kosher. So how can the Jews show contempt for the king and refuse to attend? True, the vessels on display at the feast are the vessels from the destroyed holy Temple in Jerusalem. But why get bogged down with petty details? This is how Ahashverosh pulls the Jews along, getting them to make peace with the fact that they are in exile, encouraging them to even enjoy their status. Ahashverosh entices the Jews to revel at the feast that celebrates their acceptance of the destruction of the Temple – the palace and symbol of the kingly rule of the Creator in His World. Instead of accepting G-d’s rule, the Jews accept the rule of a mere human: Ahashverosh.

Just like Moses and Aaron, Mordechai decides to ruin the party…

Mordechai is connected to Jewish destiny. He knows that the exile mentality that Ahashverosh succeeded in creating threatens the Jews’ ability to realize their destiny. He knows that without destiny, there will be no existence for the Jews, either. And so, despite the fact that no danger seems to be looming over the horizon, and strictly because of the betrayal of the Mount and the Temple, Mordechai ‘endangers’ the entire Nation (crazy, pyromaniac…) and restores the Jewish People to their destiny.

Was he crazy? Perhaps. Ben Gurion may also have been ‘crazy’ when he declared the establishment of the State of Israel. History is the judge. But the clear lesson is that the majority will always prefer to ‘manage’ with the current situation and pay for short-term stabilization of their existence in the coinage of destiny. True leadership is concerned about existence, but will never surrender or take its eyes off its nation’s destiny.

Happy Purim and Shabbat Shalom.

“What Does Haman Say?”

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

It’s Adar. Time for Purim…

Dust Off The Windows (Part Three)

Monday, April 14th, 2014

In my previous column I continued to focus on the dusty windows that obscure our Jewish vision. I noted the inexplicable hatred and persecution that has plagued us throughout the centuries.

In every generation there are those among us who try to convince us it is our distinct Jewish appearance, customs and observances that have alienated us from our non-Jewish neighbors.

But how can these people explain the fact that Muslims, Hindus, monks, nuns, and priests who wear special garb do so generally undisturbed, even commanding respect?

Take a look at the yarmulkes worn by the pope and the cardinals of the Catholic Church. And the pope has a special hat, a mitre, which is quite similar to what was worn by the high priest of our holy Temple.

So how is it that we who introduced religious head coverings to the world should be treated with such disdain and brutality?

In our obsession to blend in with the nations we keep shedding more and more of our Jewishness but, paradoxically, the more we try the more we try to be like others, the more we are resented.

In vain did Ezekiel the prophet call out in days of yore that no matter how much we scheme in your hearts to be like all the other nations, we will never be considered the same as them. And he warned us of the terrible consequences of renouncing our heritage, our covenant.

Sadly, despite the admonishments not only of Ezekiel but of all our prophets, we have yet to learn our lesson. We continue to assimilate with fury – an assimilation compounded by our Jewish illiteracy. The great majority of our people have no knowledge of the Torah, the Prophets, or the Talmud. If you were to ask them just for the titles of our sacred books, not even a description of the contents, they would stare at you blankly.

Hashem, who knows the past, present and future, created in His infinite mercy windows for us. Windows through which we would be able to see what our minds reject and our eyes cannot envision. We have forgotten the message, yet it is easily accessible if we’d only look through the windows.

These windows prominently showcase the message of all our Yom Tovim but we refuse to look. In our pursuit of money, assimilation and good times we allow dust to settle on our windows until we can no longer see through them.

I started to write this series of columns between the weeks of Purim and Pesach. Even small children are aware of the magical story of Purim. Queen Esther was prepared to sacrifice her life to save her people from Haman. They know Mordechai was determined to awaken every Jew. But what really happened in that story?

Years before Haman’s ascent, King Achashveirosh called for a great celebration in honor of his marriage to the evil Vashti. All citizens of the empire were invited, including the Jews. Mordechai warned his brethren not to attend. The food would not be Jewish food. The atmosphere would be a desecration of G-d’s Name.

The people chose to ignore Mordechai’s warning. They had their own rationalizations to justify their participation. “It is not good for us to stay away…to refuse an invitation from the king. Persia is our host country. We have a good life over here. We have good relationships with the Persians.”

So they went and took part in a banquet that quickly became a nightmare of unspeakable drunkenness and debauchery.

Nine years down the line Haman was elevated to his position as second to the king. He convinced the king to annihilate all the Jews, pointing out that the Jews had forsaken their covenant. “It’s time to attack! When they abandon their G-d they become putty in our hands.”

This Year’s Esther-Award Goes To…

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

It is easy to spot Haman in today’s world. The Iranian Mullah’s with their destroy-Israel infatuation, a few European NGOs who back killers with the slogan of human rights, a PA which teaches its children to hate Jews and to detest life, to name a few…

But who is this year’s Esther?

My vote is with Scarlett Johansson. Scarlett, a world renowned actress, and hidden Esther-like Jew, stood up against EU and UN-types when she said goodbye to Oxfam in favor of the Israeli SodaStream. There was an element of a Purim-like turn around, when Oxfam tried to pressure Scarlett to drop SodaSteram, but this time, it was they who got the cut.

Why did she do it? She could not bring herself to project the Oxfam narrative about Arab oppression because she had seen the factories which employ satisfied Arabs, and hearing from them directly she understood what it would mean to lose their jobs in the name of “liberation.”

In her own words she explained that, “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights. That is what is happening in their Ma’aleh Adumim factory every working day.” She defined Israel as the facilitator of normalcy while undermining the Israel-is–to-blame for everything account.

But what good could come to Scarlett by standing up for truth? On the face of it, very little. She could have gone on happily making movies without having to face the ire of bad guys, who no doubt, have the ability to threaten physical violence as well. Just stay out of it, its not your fight, why do you, a Hollywood starlet, need this Middle East headache?

And that is exactly why Scarlett wins the Esther Award – she did not need this headache, but still she used her position to publicly shame and expose the BDSers. As Mordechai said, “And who knows if for this time you were made queen?”

However, Scarlett’s actions did much more then defend the Jewish State. By said no to the narrative that Oxfam was drawing about Israel, she actually defended the world from accepting a general warped outlook which seeks to portray evil as good and good as evil. In Nazi Germany, it began by vilifying the Jew and extolling the Nazi party. Today, it begins by painting the oppressive Jihadists as freedom fighters, and Israel, the one shining light of hope for humanity in the Middle East, as the most evil force in the region. Experience shows that once these lies are accepted, the world is thrown into chaos and millions can die.

Scarlett bravely said no, and thereby stopped the lies from passing through her. Like Esther, she put herself on the line for truth, and like Mordechai, she would not bow down and give homage to the lies. And while it may have not seem like much, sometimes, just a sliver of courage is enough to put the bullies down, give the world another chance, and encourage a new generation to fight on for truth.

Happy Purim

Parsha Zachor Reminder

Friday, March 14th, 2014

This Shabbat we read Parshat Zachor. It is generally considered to be an obligatory commandment to hear this section of the Torah read each year.

From Devarim (Deuteronomy) 25:17-19:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt.

That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; and did not fear God.

And it shall come to pass, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.

Parshat Zachor is always read on the Shabbat before Purim. Haman, one of the primary antagonists of the Megillah story, was a descendant of Amalek.

Message from a Man in Black…to a Man of Hate

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

I love this video – posted to YouTube around 5 months ago… it’s a message from one Hassidic Jew (representing so many others) to a man of hate (and to so many like him). It was posted before the Jewish holiday of Purim…

Purim is the story of a Persian king, his right hand man who wanted to kill the Jews, a Jewish man and his niece, who becomes the queen. An evil plot… unraveled at the last moment, twisted around to destroy the one who created the plot. It is about justice in the end, but more, it is about the Jewish people and where we put our faith. It is why we defeated Haman, that ancient Persian… and why we will defeat his ancestors – the followers of Ahmadinejad… and today’s “moderate” Iranian president who joined his outgoing colleague just days ago in wishing Israel off the face of this world.

Ari Lesser – you’re great! I hope this video reaches around the world…



Visit A Soldier’s Mother.

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