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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Esther - Introduction

IN JEWISH TRADITION, THE BOOK OF ESTHER, megillat 'ester, “the scroll of Esther,” is inextricably bound up with the holiday of Purim. The book provides the raison d'etre for Purim; it supplies the etiology (story of its origin) for the holiday, authorizes its annual observance, and models how it is to be celebrated. Purim, the only biblical festival not mentioned in the Torah, needed a reason and an authorization. It gets its reason in the pseudohistorical tale of how the Jews were saved from their archenemy, and it gets its authorization in the letter of Mordecai (and Esther) that this book includes. The book of Esther is the centerpiece of the observance of Purim; it is traditionally read publicly in the synagogue on Purim eve and the following morning, accompanied by the noisy blotting out of Haman's name by children and adults, many of them dressed in funny costumes. Purim is a carnivalesque holiday, replete with mock reenactments of the Esther story, partying and excessive drinking, carnivals and masquerades, and a general sense of frivolity uncharacteristic of Jewish festivals. The Talmud (b. Meg. 7b) encourages one to get so drunk that one cannot distinguish between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.” Like Purim, the book is full of boisterous merrymaking—a comic farce for a carni‐valesque holiday. The book sets the tone for the holiday, “days of feasting and merrymaking” ( 9.22 ). It also initiates the other customs of the holiday: sending (food) gifts to friends and neighbors and presents to the poor ( 9.22 ).

Esther is best read as a comedy. Rabbinic midrashim seem to have intuited this, and they add to the fun by their preposterous embellishments of the story and its characters, extending in the most unsubtle ways the farce or burlesque inherent in the book, with its bawdiness and slap‐stick humor. The voyeurism of ch 1 —drunken nobles hoping to ogle the queen—is made more explicit in the midrash (e.g., Esth. Rab.) on 1.11 that says that Vashti was bidden to appear “wearing a royal diadem” and nothing else, that is, naked. Ch 2 , with its inside view of the harem, where the girls apply their cosmetics for a year in preparation for a night in the king's bed, is no less sexually suggestive. The lavishness of the Persian court and the ten drinking banquets in the story add to the aura of comic excess. The misunderstandings between Ahasuerus and Haman in chs 6 and 7 , the climax of the plot, produce belly laughs. All of these attributes are characteristic of low comedy.

The story's plot is structured on improbabilities, exaggerations, misunderstandings, andreversals. Esther keeps her identity hidden although her relationship to Mordecai the Jew was known; an insignificant Jewish minority kills 75,000 of its enemies; Haman erects a seven‐story stake for impaling his enemy. The characters are caricatures. Ahasuerus is a buffoon, never sure quite what to do, completely at the mercy of his ministers and servants, giving away his power without a thought. Haman is an erratic egomaniac, with wild mood swings, concerned only for his own honor and his enemy's disgrace. Even the heroes, Mordecai and Esther, seem one‐dimensional and unrealistic. In fact, nothing about the events of the story is realistic, and therefore attempts to read history from it are misguided. The setting of the Persian court is authentic, but the events are fictional. There was no known Jewish queen of Persia. Moreover, the Persian empire was tolerant of its ethnic minorities and is an unlikely place for an edict to eradicate the Jewish population.

The story draws on conventional themes of ancient storytelling known from the Bible and from extrabiblical sources from the Persian period (especially Greek sources): a rivalry between courtiers (this one focusing on honor and shame), a woman who uses her charm to save her people, an ancient ethnic feud, hidden identities, and the triumph of the forces of good over the forces of evil. The portrayal of the Persian court is equally conventional, if at times made into a burlesque. Like the many Greek stories about Persia (in Herodotus and other contemporary works), Esther features royal luxury bordering on decadence, concern for protocol and legalities, wine parties, and the renowned communication system. Esther is, then, in tune with contemporary literary works about Persia. At the same time, it draws on biblical traditions, most significantly those about Saul and Agag, king of the Amalekites, who are reincarnated, as it were, in Mordecai and Haman. The stories of Joseph and Daniel also resemble Esther in that they feature Jewish courtiers in foreign courts. (The stories in Daniel chs 1–6 are roughly contemporary with Esther.) Finally, Esther echoes the book of Kings in its mention of royal annals, and some scholars have found other similar phraseology in the two books.

Noticeably absent is any mention of God or of religious observance (prayer, Jewish dietary restrictions, traditional modesty, and endogamous marriage). The Rabbis were troubled by Esther's marriage to a non‐Jew, and solved the problem by explaining that she remained completely passive in the king's bed or that she never actually consummated the marriage. They also provide her with kosher food, although the Bible is silent about her diet (unlike Daniel, who became a vegetarian so as to maintain the Jewish dietary laws; see Dan. ch 1 ). Mordecai and the Jews mourn and fast, but do not pray—a most striking omission (Daniel also prays). In its omission of God and religion, the Hebrew text is highly unusual, so much so that in the Greek version of Esther there are prayers, the name of God occurs, and Esther desists from eating forbidden food and drinking forbidden wine. (There are other major differences in the Greek Esther as well, especially its tone.) It is not clear whether these religious items were part of the original story and then removed, or added to an original story that lacked them. The best explanation for their absence, especially the absence of God's name, is that, given that the story is so comic, at times bordering on lewd, such reticence about things religious is preferable, lest religion be debauched.

The book does have a serious side, and an important function as a Diaspora story, a story written about and for (and perhaps by) Jews of the Diaspora. As such, it promotes Jewish identity, solidarity within the Jewish community, and a strong connection with Jewish (biblical) tradition. It is more centered on the Diaspora than most Jewish works of its time; it does not refer to the land of Israel (other than the mention of the exile of Jehoiachin) or to the Temple. It addresses the inherent problems of a minority people, their vulnerability to political forces and government edicts, their lack of autonomy, and their dependence on royal favor and on the sagacity of their own leaders. More specifically, Haman's false claim about the Jews is a prototype of anti‐Semitism, which must have been familiar enough to resonate with the book's original audience. In the end, though, the message is positive: Good triumphs and evil is eradicated; the threat of Jewish annihilation is averted and the Jewish community is assured of continuity and prosperity. It is no wonder that Haman became the symbol of later enemies of the Jews, and that “minor Purims” were celebrated in medieval and early modern times in communities where great danger was averted. The psychological release that is embodied in a carnivalesque holiday like Purim and in the book of Esther lends itself to similar celebrations of the communal triumph over danger. The book succeeds in putting a serious message in a comic form.

The book was probably written sometime between 400 and 300 BCE, toward the end of the Persian period. It apparently adapted an earlier tale about Mordecai, Esther, and Haman and shaped it into an etiology of Purim, a holiday whose origin is lost in obscurity. The story appears in rather different form in the Greek version of Esther (LXX), where it has six major additions not found in the Masoretic version plus a number of other significant differences throughout the story. The Greek version is less comic and more melodramatic, and in its present form it reflects Hellenistic concerns (Jewish ritual observance, including circumcision) not found in the surviving Hebrew version. An ancient body of midrashic interpretation attaches to Esther, found in the Talmud (b. Meg. 10b–17a), in Josephus's paraphrase (Antiquity of the Jews, Book 11, ch 6 ), in the two Targumim (Aramaic renderings) to Esther, and in several midrashic collections. There is no consensus on the date of the book's canonization, partly because there is no consensus on the date of the canonization of the Kethuvim. Some scholars put it as early as the mid‐2nd century BCE; others date it to the 1st century CE. Interestingly, Esther is the only biblical book of which no remnant has been found at Qumran; apparently the Dead Sea community did not preserve this book (although they seem to have had stories of the same genre), perhaps because they did not observe Purim, which according to their 364‐day calendar would always fall on the Sabbath, creating a conflict of observance (according to the Jewish calendar now in use, Purim can never fall on the Sabbath).

[ADELE BERLIN]

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