Toward the end of the Purim story in the Book of Esther, the Persian king Achashverosh overturns his awful decree against the Jews and dispatches messages throughout his kingdom to announce that the Jews have permission to fight back against their enemies: “And he sent scrolls in the hands of the runners with susim, the riders of the rechesh, the achashtranim, sons of the remachim” (8:10). While the word sus means “horse” (of course, of course), the meanings of these other three nouns are not immediately clear.
When it comes to the phrase “the achashtranim, sons of the remachim,” the Talmud (Megillah 18a) already comments that “we do not know” what this means. That comment itself actually implies that we do know what rechesh means, hence the above-mentioned commentators offered their respective takes on the meaning of rechesh. But does the Talmud’s comment mean that there is no known way of understanding achashtranim and remachim?
Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona (1320-1380) thinks not. He explains that the Talmud only meant that the masses do not know what these terms mean, but that the Torah Scholars do know – or at least could know – what these words mean (Teshuvot HaRan §79, also cited in Teshuvot Rivash §390-391).
Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050), and Radak (1160-1234) all trace the word achashtranim to the six-letter root aleph-chet-shin-tav-reish-nun. Actually, Ibn Janach asserts that the nun is extraneous to the root, and elsewhere implies that the aleph is also extraneous; so for him the real root of achashtranim is only four or five letters, not six. Ibn Ezra writes in general that quadriliteral or pentaliteral letter roots in Hebrew are typically either compound roots, composed of multiple roots fused together, or loanwords borrowed from a language other than Hebrew. Both of these approaches are taken by various scholars regarding achashtranim.
Many commentators explain that achashtranim refer to mules that were born from the union of male donkeys and female horses (as opposed to hinnies, which are born to male horses and female donkeys and are typically weaker beasts). This explanation is offered by Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Moshe ben Yitzchak Ibn Chalava, Ralbag, and Ibn Ezra in Esther 8:10 and Radak in Sefer Shorashim (s.v. remach) In line with this, Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105-1170) in Sefer HaGalui cites Rabbi Saadia Gaon as explaining the etymology of achashtranim as derived from a portmanteau of the Persian word achash (“big”) and the Aramaic word trein (“two”), alluding to the fact that the achashtranim were large beasts born out of the merger of two species. According to this, achashtranim are not actually “horses,” but rather “half-horses.” As an aside, Rabbi Yosef Kimchi’s son Radak (to I Kings 5:8) writes that the word rechesh (also?) refers to these mules. Indeed, Ibn Janach writes that it is not too farfetched to presume that achashtranim refer to the same thing as rechashim.
11th century exegete Rabbi Tuviah ben Eliezer writes in Midrash Lekach Tov, also known as Pesikta Zutrata, that rechesh means “horses” and achashtranim is an adjective that describes the type of horses in question. He parses the word achashtranim as related to chet-shin (“speed” or “quickness”) and tav-reish (“spying” or “scouting”), as these animals were able to travel quickly and were used by international spies to scout out other lands. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) similarly sees the word achashtranim as a portmanteau of the biliteral chet-shin and tav-reish (“jumping”). According to him, the very name of this animal tells us that its swift abilities stem from its ability to jump (as opposed to its ability to run very fast). Interestingly, Rashi (to Esther 8:10) writes achashtranim are fast-running camels. In this case, he is something an outlier: most of the other commentators relate the term to horses, or at least partial horses). Another outlier is Rabbi Ernest Klein (1899-1983), who writes that the word achashtran derives from the Old Persian word khshathrana/khshathra (“dominion, government, province”). According to him, the term has nothing to do with horses, mules, camels, or any other animals. It is just a common adjective that tells us that rechashim in question were government-owned.
As mentioned above, the animals by which Achashverosh’s messages were delivered are described as “sons of the remachim.” This is the only instance in the entire Bible in which the word remachim – and indeed the triliteral root reish-mem-kaf in general – appears. However, the singular form of remachim actually appears in the Mishna (Kilayim 8:5) when ruling that one is allowed to interbreed a horse with a ramach. The Jerusalem Talmud (Kilayim 8:4) already makes the connection between the Mishnaic word ramach and the Biblical term remachim mentioned in Esther.
In his commentary to the Mishna there, Maimonides identifies the ramach with a type of horse that one might have thought should be considered a different species than regular horses when it comes to the prohibition of interbreeding animals. Elsewhere, Maimonides (Laws of Kilayim 9:5) writes that the ramach is a “wild horse” (as opposed to a sus, which is a domesticated horse). Without explaining why, Rabbi Shlomo Sirilio (1485-1554) comments that he thinks that the ramach is none other than what we call a zebra.
Rabbi Tuviah ben Eliezer explains that the term “sons of the remachim” simply means that whatever animals are being described were young. This explanation is also implied by Rashi (to Taanit 23a; see also Shenot Eliyahu to Kilyaim 8:5 and Gilyonei HaShas). Ibn Yachya (to Esther 8:10) also explicitly claims that “sons of the remachim” were “small horses.” Alternatively, Rabbi Tuviah explains “sons of the remachim” as a term used to describe the jockeys who rode the horses. He justifies this understanding by deconstructing remachim as a portmanteau of the roots reish-mem (“raising” or “lifting”) and mem-kaf (“hitting” or “whipping”). Together, those two roots provide an apt description of how a horse-rider might lift his arm to whip his horse when encouraging it to move faster.
According to those who explain achashtranim as “mules” born from female horses, the term remachim refers to those female horses, or mares (see Radak in Sefer HaShorashim). There is apparently an Arabic cognate that is similar to remachim that also means “female horse.”
When the Bible relates that Hashem created “animals” on the sixth day of creation, it says v’et ha’behemah, using the extraneous word et. Peirush HaRokeach (to Genesis 1:25 and Esther 8:10) explains that et serves to include the otherwise unmentioned achashtranim. He explains that these achashtranim are eight-legged animals that run with one set of four legs until they get tired, whereupon they would lift those four legs into their body and lower down the other set of four legs. Peirush HaRokeach also adds that the word ha’achashtranim in gematria (=1014) equals the numeric value of the phrase shel shemonah raglaim (“of eight legs”).
Although Peirush HaRokeach does not explicitly state exactly what sort of animal were these achashtranim (whether equestrian or otherwise), a similar tradition is recorded by Rabbi Yosef Kara (1065-1135) in his commentary to Esther, who explains that “sons of the remachim” refer to “flying camels” that had eight legs (also noting that they had two sets of four legs, such that when they get tired, they would lift up one set of legs and lower the other). This is similar to Rashi, who likewise explained achashtranim as “camels.”
There is a fascinating tradition that provides us with the personal name of Achashverosh’s horse. Both Targum Sheini (to Esther 6:10) and Peirush HaRokeach (to Esther 9:4) write that his horse was named Shifrigaz, or as Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Metrugaman vocalizes it, Shfargaz.
Rabbi Yaakov Daniel Amash writes that Shifrigaz derives from a portmanteau of shapir (“beautiful”) and gaz (“transporting”; see Rashi to Psalms 90:10). Achashverosh’s steed was apparently a very beautiful horse in appearance, and the main role of a horse is to “transport” its rider from place to place; hence the name Shifrigaz. Based on his understanding of the Persian language, Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) in HaAruch HaShaleim translates the name Shifrigaz into German as rothweisses pferd (literally, “the red-white horse”).
Dr. Dan Shapira (a linguist and philologist at Bar Ilan University) wrote to me that he thinks this name for Achashverosh’s horse is derived from the Persian words shap/shab (“black/night-color”) and rechesh (“horse”). In doing so, he assumes the interchangeability of kaf and gimmel, as well as shin and zayin. Interestingly, Dr. Shapira compared this to a different horse in Persian literature: A famous Persian king named Khosrow Parviz, who reigned in the early Geonic period, apparently had a horse named Shabdiz who was said to be the fastest horse in the world. Perhaps the name Shifrigaz associated with Achashverosh’s horse is somehow related to or conflated with this later horse.