The Scroll of Esther–A Historical Romance
The scroll of Esther is a prime example of a comic novel becoming a canonic book, of a made up story becoming historical fact. One of the common questions raised by religious people is “How is it possible that someone would make up a story and publicize it without a single person claiming it to be false?” Therefore you are forced, the theologians claim, to say “The story is true!” The rebuttal to this claim is found in the comic tale of the scroll, as we shall see below. The difference between the relationship to a text written as a tale of human adventure and one written as a holy document is but a hair’s breadth. It is sufficient for one person to arbitrarily decide that the text of the scroll is sacred and immediately its reading and interpretation strays far from the plain meaning. Thus, for example, when it is written “the King” it no longer refers to Achashverosh, but to G-d. “That night, sleep deserted the king” was interpreted by Chazal to mean that the king of the universe (G-d) did not sleep (Megillah 15b). Another example of changing the plain meaning to a spiritual sense: it is written of Queen Esther’s clothes, “And Esther put on majestic clothing.” Chazal interpreted this as meaning spiritual garb, “She donned the Holy Spirit” (Megillah 14b). Thus do religious people act in turning a love song into Holy Writ, a comic novel into a holy text.
In this essay we will bring the opinion of the investigating historians and contrast it to the opinion of the Jewish religious people, and we will clearly see the gap between the critical view of the Scroll of Esther, written in the Persian period, and the religious view of the scroll, which holds it to have been written in the days of Moses our teacher at Sinai.
First we will cite the words of the investigators [from Miqrah L’Yisrael, a scientific interpretation of the Scriptures, “Esther,” Idel Berlin, translated from the English by Doron Cohen. Am Oved: Tel Aviv, 2001, Magnus: Jerusalem (pp. 3-32). Emphasis and section titles ours] and then we will cite Chazal’s approach to the Scroll of Esther.
“The story told in the scroll lacks historical probability and many researchers now agree that it should be seen as fiction, like many other stories which were common amongst the Jews of Eretz Israel and the Diaspora in the Persian and Hellenistic periods…”
Historic Veracity of the Scroll
The fact that many aspects of the story contradict what we know about Persia or seem to be unreliable hampers the historical credibility of the scroll.
- There was no Persian queen named Esther or any Jewish queen of Persia, and we would not have expected there to be one.
- Though Achashverosh is identified with Xerxes king of Persia, no king acted or should have acted, as did Achashverosh.
- One cannot rule over a country in which no law may be changed. The order to destroy the Jews was least likely to have been issued in ancient Persia, an empire considered relatively tolerant to the various ethnic groups which lived under its reign and which is even shown in a positive light in other places in the Scriptures.
- It is difficult to believe that Esther managed to keep her nationality a secret when everyone knew her uncle Mordechai was a Jew.
On the other hand, those who defend the historical veracity of the scroll point to the authentic information contained therein about the Persian court, the various customs and institutions, and on the use made in the scroll of Persian concepts…let us carefully examine the evidence for and against the historical veracity of the scroll. We will find that the historically authentic material is at the background of the story and the setting, while the main characters and more important plot points are far from matching reality.
The Scroll as a Comic Work – Were this a modern work, we would call it a historical novel or historical fiction…for the ancient reader this imaginative work had value and was even sacred, no less than the true historic occurrences… The scroll is a comedy, a book whose goal is to amuse and arouse laughter. The scroll is the most humoristic of all the Scriptural books, amusing throughout and in some places even causing one to laugh out loud…we expect Scriptural books to be serious and for their messages to match the other books of Scriptures, as reflected in the traditional commentaries. Therefore we were not prepared to find a comedy within the canon. Habertal concludes: “Paradoxically, the canonization of a specific work often represses its most reasonable reading” (M.Halbertal, People of the book: Canon, Meaning and Authority, Cambridge, M.A 1997, p.6). To recreate the most reasonable reading and understand how it should be read, we must treat the Scroll of Esther as what it is — a comedy…
Period of the Writing of the scroll – Most investigators now consider the Scroll of Esther to have been written at the end of the Persian or start of the Greek period, between 400-200 BCE…some expressions hint that the story was written some time after the story it pretends to present, after the time of Xerxes I (465-458 BCE), but still during the Persian era…
Period of Inclusion of the Scroll of Esther into the Holy Writ – When was the scroll included in the canon (as one of the 24 books of the Tanakh)? There is no complete agreement amongst scholars about the timing…some scholars….conclude that the scroll was included in the canon before the middle of the second century BCE and that the entire canon was sealed in that era…In the Qumran community the Scroll of Esther was not part of the canon. Not a single copy of the scroll was found there (this is the only Scriptural book which has no trace at Qumran), and it is now agreed that the Qumran community did not keep the scroll…[In the Book of Ben Sira, written in Hebrew c. 180 BCE, the author, Shimon the son on Yeshua the son of Elazar the son of Sira, does not mention either Esther or Daniel.]…
When did Purim Become a Jewish Holiday? – Unfortunately, it is not easy to answer this question, for the sources we have about Jewish life in the Persian era are meager…We do have solid proof that there was a Jewish festival of Purim in the Hellenistic period. The earliest mention we have is in the II Hashmoneans 15:36) written 104-63 BCE) which mentions a “Day of Mordechai” on the 14th of Adar…At approximately the end of the second century BCE we can speak of a Jewish festival of Purim in Eretz Israel and Egypt…Later sources, particularly the Mishnah and the Talmud, give details about the customs of Purim, and we can conclude that in the first centuries CE Purim was well established in Rabbinic Judaism.
Before we continue with Chazal’s treatment of the Scroll of Esther, we should emphasize the differences between scientific research and Rabbinical tradition in relation to the historic events of the Persian era. According to Chazal the story of the scroll occurred before the inauguration of the Second Temple. According to scholars, the author of the scroll attributed the story to the period after the return to Zion and the inauguration of the Second Temple and therefore, they say, the author of the scroll erred in treating Mordechai as one of those exiled from Judea with Yohoyachin: “In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite. He had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Yeconiah of Judea, which had been driven into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Esther 2:5-6), for the exile of Yehoyachin happened in 596 BCE and Achashverosh reigned in 486 BCE. Even had Mordechai been exiled on the day of his birth he would have had to be the remarkable age of 110, something which is not reasonable.
Look at the table at the end of the essay and you will see how Chazal made up a virtual history which does not match scientific research. Moreover, 170 years have disappeared from the Persian era and the names of many kings vanished, as you shall see in the table.
How did Chazal turn a comic story into Holy Writ?
In the period of the Talmud (the first centuries CE) the Scroll of Esther was already part of the Holy Writ as one of the 24 holy books. There was even a set order to the books: the order of the Writings was Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Elegies, Daniel, the Scroll of Esther, Ezra, and Chronicles (Bava Batra 14b). The authors of the scroll were men of the Great Assembly (Bava Batra 15a), an institution not clear to the scholars. Two questions faced the Sages in adding the scroll to the Holy Writ. One: for the book to be granted the “great merit” of being part of the canon, it had to have been written with Divine guidance. Two: there is a prohibition against adding holidays not mentioned in the Torah. The Sages overcame these two problems in a ridiculous way. The main religious message Chazal attribute to the scroll’s story is the victory of the Jewish people over the progeny of Amalek. Amalek, in the Jewish consciousness, symbolizes the nation who opposed G-d. Even though Amalek is not mentioned in the novel, the Sages related Haman the Aggagite to the progeny of Amalek (Pisikta Rabbati parasha 13) as though the author of the scroll purposely hid the principle message and instead of writing that Haman was an Amalekite, wrote that he was an Aggagite. Then, according to the Sages, the story of the scroll is a direct continuation of the Torah commandment to erase the memory of Amalek, and this “inspired” the Sages to add the scroll to the holy Writ as part of the command to destroy Amalek. Thus it is written in the Talmud that Esther asked the Sages to write the Scroll of Esther and add it to the Holy Writ. The Sages refused to add it to the Holy Writ until they found proof in the Scriptures: “‘Write this for a memorial in the book…that I shall destroy the memory of Amalek’ and they interpreted the passage thus: ‘Write this’ — the destruction of Amalek is written about in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, “for a memorial” — the destruction of Amalek is written about in the Prophets (‘I remembered what Amalek had done’ I Samuel 15:2), “in the book”– the destruction of Amalek is written about in the Book of Esther” (Megillah 7a).
Not all the Sages agreed to rely upon this questionable exegesis. Thus, for example, Samuel thought that the Scroll of Esther was not written with Divine guidance and therefore should not be considered part of the Holy Writ (Megillah 7a).
Something which should be emphasized is the Sages’ commentaries and interpretations of the scroll, which amusingly helped them turn it into Holy Writ. “R. Eliezer said: The Book of Esther was dictated by the Holy Spirit, as it is written, ‘And Haman said in his heart.’ And if it were not by the Holy Spirit, how could we know what he said in his heart?” There is nothing more comic than turning an imaginary story into a serious, holy, Divine factual tale. Imagine the reaction were we to find a community which treats “Little Red Riding Hood” as a Divine text simply because it reads, “And Little Red Riding Hood said in her heart,” and for generations they read the story and copied it with precision and great care.
To add to the ridicule, R. Akiva brought additional proof: “Rabbi Akiva said, Esther was dictated by the Holy Spirit because it is written, ‘And Esther found favor in the eyes of all those that beheld her.’ This also could not be known, but for the Holy Spirit.”
The second problem facing the Sages is the prohibition against innovating holidays not written about in the Torah. “These are the commandments which G-d commanded Moses.” Only these are written in the Torah, and one has no permission to add to them.
To add the commandments of reading the scroll and the holiday of Purim without violating the iron rule of not adding commandments, the Sages drew an analogy: when we went out of slavery to freedom we said the Song of the Sea — how much more so when Haman’s decree of death was changed into life, and it is said the song is the Scroll of Esther (Megillah 14a).
Literally thus. The prophets could not add commandments, but the Sages can draw a questionable analogy and get permission to add an innovate commandments. The gap created between understanding the severity of the prohibition — to innovate and add commandments to the Torah — and the ease with which they added commandments is a puzzling phenomenon. The Palestinian Talmud even more strongly emphasizes the importance of the Scroll of Esther. The comic tale of Esther and Achashverosh, written in the era of Persian rule, became a Divine creation written in the era of Moses our Teacher: “This scroll was dictated to Moses at Sinai” (Palestinian Talmud, Megillah 1:70). The sages of Eretz Israel used anachronism [treating the book as though it were of an earlier period], not seeing anything wrong in doing so, as Maimonides did. Thus did Maimonides write in the first root of Sefer HaMitzvot: “I do not think that anyone would think or conceive that the scroll was dictated to Moses at Sinai and think that Moses commanded us to read the scroll before the event took place.”
To give the characters in the story — Mordechai, Esther, and Haman — a dimension of holiness and an ancient purpose, the Sages found hints of their names in the Torah. “Where in the Torah is Haman? Hamin Haetz [‘Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat from?’ Genesis 3:11]. Where in the Torah is Esther? ‘And I shall hide (haster estir) My face on that day’ [Genesis 31:18]. Where in the Torah is Mordechai? ‘Now take choice spices: myrrh’ [mor dror, translated by Onkeles as mira dichia Exodus 30:23]” (Chullin 139b).
Go see how our Sages become archeologists from the Holy Writ. The Sages determined different dates for Purim and the reading of the scroll: The cities and towns encircled by a wall in the days of Joshua son of Nun read the scroll on the 15th of Adar and cities which were not so encircled read it on the 14th of Adar. How do we know which cities were encircled by a wall in the days of Joshua son of Nun? The Sages of the Talmud are the ones who will tell us!
Thus, for example, the city Tiberius, named after the Roman caesar Tiberius, was founded and built by Herod Antipatus the some of Herod in 19/20 CE. What did Chazal say about it? “Hezekiah used to read the scroll in Tiberius both days — the 14th and the 15th – -because it was doubtful to him whether Tiberius had been surrounded with a wall from the time of Joshua son of Nun. But how can this be doubtful? Is it not written [Joshua 9:35]: ‘And the fortified cities Ziddim, Zer and Chammat, Rakkat and Kineret’? And we have a tradition that Rakkat is Tiberius… R. Yohanan said: When I was a child I thought Rakkat is Ziporit, but Rava said Rakkat is Tiberius. And why is it called Rakkat? Because even the common men there are full of religious merits as a pomegranate. Rabbi Jeremiah thought that the city was called Tiberius because it is good to see (Tova raiyta)” (Megillah 5b/6a). This is the way of the Sages; they determine laws using language tricks as they did with the names of people in the Scriptures. Zerubavel is Nechemiah (Sanhedrin 38a). The prophet Malachi is Mordechai (Megillah 15a). See what we wrote on the portion of Miketz.
The Laws and Customs of Purim Were not Crystallized in the Period of the Talmud
This section will show that the crystallization of the laws and customs of Purim has been a long process, and in the way of holidays, symbols, and cultures has changed from time to time.
Thus, for example, the custom of reading the scroll at night is not found in the Mishnah. One who reads the Mishnah will see that the commandment to read the scroll is in the day alone: “We do not read the scroll, do not circumcise, and do not immerse…until daybreak, and any who have done so from sunrise is acceptable…all the day one may read the scroll and the Hallel and blow the shofar” (Mishnah, Megillah 2:4-6). Only at a later point did it begin to be customary to read at night, too, as explained in the Talmud: “Rabbi Joshua the son of Levi said: one is obligated to read the scroll at night and to learn it by day” (Megillah 20a).
The custom to read the entire scroll is also not the opinion of all, as is said in the Mishnah: “From where does a person start reading the scroll to meet his obligation? Rabbi Meir says the entire scroll, Rabbi Judah says from ‘A Jew’ (Esther 2:5), Rabbi Yossi says from ‘After these events’ (Esther 3:1)” (Mishnah Megillah 2:3). In the Tosephta they added the opinion of Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai: “From ‘On that night sleep deserted the king’ (Esther 6:1).” Only in the period of the Talmud did they decree in favor of reading the entire scroll: “The law is as [he who said one should read the scroll in its] entirety” (Megillah 19a).
One of the obligations of Purim day is to make a feast. This obligation of Purim day was not clear to all the Sages. It is said in the Talmud: Rav Ashi sat before Rav Cahana on Purim day and waited for students. After it darkened and he saw no students came, he turned to Rav Cahana and asked, ‘Why did the students not come?’ Rav Cahana answered him, ‘Perhaps they are involved in the commandment of the Purim feast.’ Rav Ashi said to him, ‘Why did they not make their feast at night?’ Rav Cahana said to him, ‘Did you not hear Rava say the Purim feast eaten by night does not fulfill the obligation?'” (Megillah 7b). It is interesting that this law is learned from the verse “days of feasts and joy” (Esther 9:22), as though everywhere the word “days” is used refers to daytime and not night. If this were so, we would have to interpret the verse “So that you, your children, and your children’s children may revere the Lord your G-d and follow, all the days of your life, all His laws and commandments that I enjoin upon you, to the end that you may long endure” (Deuteronomy 6:2) as saying that we should obey the laws and commandments by day only, and not by night.
Below is a table showing the gap between the historical view of scientific research and the opinion of Chazal, who are not dedicated to history, but rather to theological elements.
The sources for Chazal’s opinion are found in Megillah 11b, Avoda Zara 8b, Avoda Zara 9a, and Erchin 13a.
|Chazal’s Version of Events||Events Related to Jewish History According to Historians||Historians: Names of Imperial Kings||Years BCE|
Nevuchadnezzar the Great
|Destruction of Jerusalem–
|Persian Kings – Koresh||539|
|Cyrus’s Pronouncement and the Start of the Return to Zion||538|
|Inauguration of the Second Temple by Zerubavel||515|
|Period of the comic novel “The Scroll of Esther”||Xerxes (Identified as Achashverosh)||486|
|Artaxerxes (According to the Septuagint, he was Achashverosh)||464|
|Ezra’s Emmigration from Babylon to Eretz Israel||458|
|Babylon – Reign of Nebuchadnezzaer the Great||438|
|Yehoyachin’s Exile from Eretz Israel to Babylon||430|
|Tzidkiyahu’s Exile from Eretz Israel to Babylon||420|
|Evilmardukh King of Babylon||393|
|Belshatzar King of Babylon||371|
|Persia – Cyrus’s Pronouncement||368|
|Achashverush King of Persia||365|
|Darius King of Persia||351|
|The Building of the Second Temple||350|
|Ezra’s Immigration to Eretz Israel||344|
|Greece– Alexander of Macedon||334|
|Conquest of Israel by Alexander of Macedon||332|
|Military Rule of Alexander of Macedon||323|
|Greece — Alexander of Macedon||316|
|Start of the Era of Deeds||Seleucus I Nicator||312|
|Antiochus I Soter||281|
|Antiochus II Theos||261|
|Seleucus III Soter||225|
|Antiochus III the Great||223|
|Antiochus’ Decrees and the Hashmonean Rebellion||167|
|Demetrius I Soter||162|
|Judean Independence Headed by Simeon the son of Matthias, Father of the Hashmonean Dynasty||140-63|
|Antiochus VII Sidetes||138|
|Judean Independence, Reign of the Hashmonean Dynasty||136-33|
|Demetrius II Nicator||129|
|Start of Roman Sovereignty over Eretz Israel, Loss of Independence under Hashmonean Sovereignty||
|Destruction of Second Temple||Destruction of Second Temple||Destruction of Second Temple||70 CE|
About the events of “history” according to Chazal, from the creation of the world to this day we will write a special essay, but we feel we should emphasize the following points:
- The reign of Nebuchadnezzar, according to the Sages, began 170 years after scholars have dated it.
- According to scholars the Second Temple period lasted 585 years, and according to Chazal only 420 years. This gap has Halachic implications for the count of shemita years (see the essay Shemita which we wrote).
- According to scholars, Ezra immigrated to Eretz Israel 57 years after the Second Temple was built, while according to the Sages it was only 6 years after.