Esther in rabbinic literature
Baraita of Rabbi Ishmael
—— Tannaitic ——
Allusions in rabbinic literature to the Biblical story of Esther contain various expansions, elaborations and inferences beyond the text presented in the book of the Bible.
The story of Esther—typical in many regards of the perennial fate of the Jews, and recalled even more vividly by their daily experience than by the annual reading of the Megillah at Purim—invited, both by the brevity of some parts of the narrative and by the associations of its events with the bitter lot of Israel, amplifications readily supplied by popular fancy and the artificial interpretation of Biblical verse.
The additions to Esther in the (Greek) Apocrypha have their counterparts in the post-Biblical literature of the Jews, and while it is certain that the old assumption of a Hebrew original for the additions in the Greek Book of Esther is not tenable (see Kautzsch, "Die Apocryphen und Pseudepigraphen des Alten Testaments," i. 194), it is not clear that the later Jewish amplifications are adaptations of Greek originals.
The following post-Biblical writings have to be considered:
- The first Targum. The Antwerp and Paris polyglots give a different and longer text than the London. The best edition is by De Lagarde (reprinted from the first Venice Bible) in "Hagiographa Chaldaice," Leipsic, 1873. The date of the first Targum is about 700 (see S. Posner, "Das Targum Rishon," Breslau, 1896).
- Targum Sheni (the second; date about 800), containing material not germane to the Esther story. This may be characterized as a genuine and exuberant midrash. Edited by De Lagarde (in "Hagiographa Chaldaice," Berlin, 1873) and by P. Cassel ("Aus Literatur und Geschichte," Berlin and Leipsic, 1885, and "Das Buch Esther," Berlin, 1891, Ger. transl.).
- Babylonian Talmud: Megillah 10b-14a.
- Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer 49a, 50 (8th century).
- Yosippon (beginning of 10th century; see Zunz, "G. V." pp. 264 et seq.).
- Midrash Rabbah to Esther (probably 11th century).
- Midrash Leḳaḥ Ṭob (Buber, "Sifre di-Agadta," Wilna, 1880).
- Midrash Abba Gorion (Buber, l.c.; Jellinek, "B. H." i. 1-18).
- Midrash Tehillim to Psalm 22.
- Midrash Megillat Esther (ed. by Horwitz in his "Sammlung Kleiner Midrashim," Berlin, 1881).
- Ḥelma de Mordekai (Aramaic: Jellinek, "B. H." v. 1-8; De Lagarde, l.c. pp. 362-365; Ad. Merx, "Chrestomathia Targumica," 1888, pp. 154 et seq.).
- Yalkut Shimoni to Esther.
The following is briefly the story of Esther's life as elaborated by these various midrashim:
A foundling or an orphan, her father dying before her birth, her mother at her birth, Esther was reared in the house of Mordecai, her first cousin, to whom, according to some accounts, she was even married (the word, Esth. ii. 7, being equal to = "house," which is frequently used for "wife" in rabbinic literature).
Her original name was "Hadassah" (myrtle), that of "Esther" being given her by the star-worshipers, as reflecting her sweet character and the comeliness of her person.
Esther and Ahasuerus
In the Bible, King Ahasuersus of Persia banished Queen Vashti for having defied him. He then decreed that all beautiful young women be gathered to the palace from every province of his kingdom, that he might find a new wife and queen.
When the edict of the king was promulgated, and his eunuchs scoured the country in search of a new wife for the monarch, Esther, acting on her own judgment or upon the order of Mordecai, hid herself so as not to be seen of men, and remained in seclusion for four years, until even God's voice urged her to repair to the king's palace, where her absence had been noticed. Her appearance among the candidates for the queen's vacant place causes a commotion, all feeling that with her charms none can compete; her rivals even make haste to adorn her. She spurned the usual resources for enhancing her beauty, so that the keeper of the harem becomes alarmed lest he be accused of neglect. He therefore showers attentions upon her, and places at her disposal riches never given to others. But she will not be tempted to use the king's goods, nor will she eat of the king's food, being a faithful Jewess; together with her maids (seven, according to the number of the week-days and of the planets) she continues her modest mode of living. When her turn comes to be ushered into the royal presence, Median and Persian women flank her on both sides, but her beauty is such that the decision in her favor is at once assured.
The king has been in the habit of comparing the charms of the applicants with a picture of Vashti suspended over his couch, and up to the time when Esther approaches him none has eclipsed the beauty of his beheaded spouse. But at the sight of Esther he at once removes the picture. Esther, true to Mordecai's injunction, conceals her birth from her royal consort. Mordecai was prompted to give her this command by the desire not to win favors as Esther's cousin. The king, of course, is very desirous of learning all about her antecedents, but Esther, after vouchsafing him the information that she, too, is of princely blood, turns the conversation, by a few happy counter-questions regarding Vashti, in a way to leave the king's curiosity unsatisfied.
Mordecai and Esther
Still Ahasuerus will not be baffled. Consulting Mordecai, he endeavors to arouse Esther's jealousy—thinking that this will loosen her tongue—by again gathering maidens in his courtyard, as though he is ready to mete out to her the fate of her unfortunate predecessor. But even under this provocation Esther preserves her silence. Mordecai's daily visits to the courtyard are for the purpose of ascertaining whether Esther has remained true to the precepts of her religion. She had not eaten forbidden food, preferring a diet of vegetables, and had otherwise scrupulously observed the Law. When the crisis came Mordecai—who had, by his refusal to bow to Haman or, rather, to the image of an idol ostentatiously displayed on his breast (Pirḳe R. El. lxix.), brought calamity upon the Jews—appeared in his mourning garments, and Esther, frightened, gave birth to a still-born child. To avoid gossip she sent Hatach instead of going herself to ascertain the cause of the trouble. This Hatach was afterward met by Haman and slain. Still Mordecai had been able to tell Hatach his dream, that Esther would be the little rill of water separating the two fighting monsters, and that the rill would grow to be a large stream flooding the earth—a dream he had often related to her in her youth.
Esther before Ahasuerus
Mordecai called upon her to pray for her people and then intercede with the king. Though Pesaḥ was near, and the provision of Megillat Ta'anit forbidding fasting during this time could not be observed without disregarding Mordecai's plea, she overcame her cousin's scruples by a very apt counter-question, and at her request all the Jews "that had on that day already partaken of food" observed a rigid fast, in spite of (Esth. iv. 17) the feast-day (Pesaḥ), while Mordecai prayed and summoned the children and obliged even them to abstain from food, so that they cried out with loud voices. Esther in the meantime put aside her jewels and rich dresses, loosened her hair, fasted, and prayed that she might be successful in her dangerous errand. On the third day, with serene mien she passed on to the inner court, arraying herself (or arrayed by the "Holy Ghost," Esth. Rabbah) in her best, and taking her two maids, upon one of whom, according to court etiquette, she leaned, while the other carried her train. As soon as she came abreast with the idols (perhaps an anti-Christian insinuation) the "Holy Ghost" departed from her, so that she exclaimed, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Ps. xxii. 1); thereupon, repenting having called the enemy "dog," she now named him "lion," and was accompanied by three angels to the king. Ahasuerus attempted to ignore her, and turned his face away, but an angel forced him to look at her. She, however, fainted at the sight of his flushed face and burning eyes, and leaned her head on her handmaid, expecting to hear her doom pronounced; but God increased her beauty to such an extent that Ahasuerus could not resist. An angel lengthened the scepter so that Esther might touch it: she invited the king to her banquet. Why Haman was invited the Rabbis explain in various ways. She desired to make the king jealous by playing the lover to Haman, which she did at the feast, planning to have him killed even though she should share his fate. At the supreme moment, when she denounced Haman, it was an angel that threw Haman on the couch, though he intended to kneel before the queen; so that the king, suspecting an attempt upon the virtue and life of his queen, forthwith ordered him to be hanged.
To the Rabbis, Esther is one of the four most beautiful women ever created. She remained eternally young; when she married Ahasuerus she was at least forty years of age, or even, according to some, eighty years based on the numerical value of Hadassah, her Hebrew name. She is also counted among the prophetesses of Israel.