Title: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy
Author: Mitchell First
Publisher: Kodesh Press
In her commentary to the Book of Esther, Adele Berlin writes that the story of Purim “is implausible as history and, as many scholars now agree, it is better viewed as imaginative storytelling…” (The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther). Unfortunately, it has become a commonplace, perhaps dominant belief, that the story of Purim is a fiction. This belief has crept into the minds of religious Jews as well, often in unnecessary deference to the academic world.
Mitchell First, in his new book, Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy, has given a gift to the religious and academic communities. His articles are meticulously and thoroughly researched, and First provides extensive sources – both religious and academic – to craft his points. Mitchell First is that rare breed of scholar that can integrate religious and secular sources, fully synthesizing modern scholarship while remaining authentic to Jewish belief and practice.
One of First’s groundbreaking articles in the book is “Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources,” where he presents powerful evidence that Achashverosh and Esther are not just biblical characters; they also existed as historical individuals. First concludes that Achashverosh is the Persian King Xerxes, who reigned in the fifth century before the common era.
But, he asks, how are we to resolve the problem that the Greek name Xerxes and Hebrew name Achashverosh bear little resemblance? The answer is that both the Hebrew “Achashverosh” and the Greek “Xerxes” are mere approximate transliterations of the original Persian name “Khshayarsha,” which means “ruler of heroes.” The discovery of this Persian original reveals how the Bible and the Greeks have such divergent names for the same person.
What about Esther? The Greek historian Herodotus records that the name of Xerxes’ wife is Amestris. Admittedly, the match between Esther and Amestris is not perfect, but First emphasizes that three consonants (s, t, r) in the same order is very strong evidence they are the same person. First concludes that “probably, her original name was based on the consonants m, s, t, and r, and the m did not get preserved in the Hebrew,” perhaps to pun on the Hebrew word s-t-r, “hidden,” making a theological claim about God acting behind the scenes in the Purim story.
A second supposed difficulty actually becomes a reason to corroborate that Amestris is Esther. The biblical lineage says Esther is the daughter of Avichayil (verses 2:15 and 9:29), while Herodotus says Amestris was the daughter of a military commander named Otanes. This can be easily resolved because the Hebrew name Avichayil means “military commander.” In other words, all of the pieces fit together nicely (if not perfectly) to say that Achashverosh is King Xerxes and Esther is Amestris.
In another article, First traces the origin and development of the word mechilah, a word at the core of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers. First points out that surprisingly, neither the noun mechilah nor the verb mochel appear in Tanach (although many names in Tanach are based on the letters mem, chet, lamed). The word mochel with the meaning “waiver” or “forgiveness” first appears only in the Mishnah (and once in the Dead Sea Scrolls). First attempts to explain the meaning of mechilah and distinguish it from selichah. First’s solution relies both on archaeology and on traditional sources such as Rabbi David Abudraham, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
Other articles explore the meaning of Chasmonai, the origin of Taanit Esther, and the development of Mah Nishtanah from the Mishnah to modern times. There is an article for nearly every Jewish holiday.