The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Dedicated by Aaron and
Tzipora Ross and family in memory of our grandparents
Shmuel Nachamu ben
Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, and Shimon ben Moshe,
yahrzeits are this week.
Shiur #10: Does The King Know of Haman's
By Rav Yonatan Grossman
noted in our introduction to the Esther series, in a narrative that makes
special use of concealed messages, even the characters themselves are sometimes
somewhat in the dark; the situation itself hints that not everything in the
story is clear and known, and therefore attention should be paid to what is
going on below the surface. Needless to say, if it is the king himself – on
whose word everything in the kingdom depends – who is acting out of lack of
knowledge, then the concept of concealment is emphasized manifold. This would
seem to be the case in Esther, and not only in minor contexts in the plot
(such as the king being unaware of the fact that Esther is Jewish); rather, at
its major junctures, too, the king acts out of ignorance of the real
Haman cast the lot, the text describes him visiting the king. In their secret
conversation Haman proposes his plan: "If it is agreeable to the king, let it be
written that they be destroyed, and I shall weigh out ten thousand talents of
silver into the hands of those responsible for the labor, to be brought into the
king's treasury" (3:9).
requests Achashverosh that the nation which is scattered and dispersed
throughout the provinces of his kingdom be "destroyed" (le-abed).
His intentions are opaque; there is no indication of the concrete method by
which he intends to "destroy" the nation that he is talking about. The Bible
offers several possibilities for "ibud" of a nation. Most commonly the
word is used to mean annihilation, or killing.
This meaning is reflected in many different sources, such as: "Her princes in
her midst are like wolves, devouring prey, to spill blood and to destroy souls,
in order to make dishonorable gain" (Yechezkel 22:27). Further on in
Esther, too, the decree is formulated by Haman with the words, "To wipe
out, to kill and to destroy" (3:13). It is in this sense that modern translators
have rendered Haman's request of the king; for example: "Let it be written that
they may be destroyed."
Bible, however, recognizes other forms of "destruction" – as, for instance, in
the curses of the covenant forged in the plains of Moav: "And it shall be, just
as God rejoiced over you to do good for you and to multiply you, so God shall
rejoice over you to have you destroyed, and to wipe you out, and you shall be
plucked off the land to which you come, to inherit it. And God shall scatter you
among all the nations, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you
shall worship other gods, which you have not known – neither you nor your
ancestors; of wood and of stone… and you shall be sold there to your enemies for
servants and maidservants, and none will buy…" (Devarim 28:62-28).
these verses, "destruction" is meant in the sense of exile ("You shall be
plucked off the land") and loss of freedom ("You shall be sold there to your
enemies for servants and maidservants") since a slave lacks the legal status of
a person, and a nation that is conquered and becomes a nation of servants ceases
to exist as a national entity.
opacity of Haman's words to the king, concerning the manner of "destruction"
that he has in mind, stands out starkly in comparison with the explicit
elaboration in the letters that Haman sends to all of the provinces: "To wipe
out, to kill and to destroy all the Jews, young and old, children and women"
(3:13). Since "destruction" is mentioned here along with "killing," it is clear
what the intention is. But Haman tells the king only, "Let it be written that
they be destroyed."
the other hand, even if the expression that Haman uses is technically equivocal,
the general atmosphere that he creates through his monologue may lead the king –
as well as the reader – to understand the "destruction" to which he refers in
the economic sense – as, for example, by selling the nation as slaves and
possibility arises from the economically oriented framework within which Haman
presents his request. At first, he tells the king: "It is of no worth (ein
shaveh) for the king to tolerate them" (3:8). This is usually interpreted to
mean, "It is of no benefit to the king to leave the nation as it is."
Indeed, the phrase itself in no way necessitates any economic associations.
However, following his request, Haman goes on to add: "I shall weigh out ten
thousand talents of silver into the hands of those responsible for the labor, to
be brought into the king's treasury" (3:9).
meaning of this offer is obscure; as Chakham writes: "Haman's intention in
offering the money is not made clear." 6] In any event, as several
commentators have noted, the sum is exorbitant; it is clearly not Haman's own
money that is being discussed.
From where did Haman hope to obtain such a huge amount of money? Some view his
words at hinting to a plundering of the Jews,
but others note the improbability of this reading.
simpler understanding of the offer – and the way in which Achashverosh appears
to have understood it – is that the monetary value of that scattered and
dispersed nation would be added to the kingdom. In other words, a great sum
would accrue to the crown if they were to be sold into servitude. The construct
of Haman's monologue, with the juxtaposition of "Let it be written that they be
destroyed" to "I shall weigh out ten thousand talents of silver"
lends an economical atmosphere to his conversation with Achashverosh, and it
seems likely that the king understood it in this way.
must be remembered that a decree of this type concerning Jews is not exceptional
in biblical literature. Suffice it to recall Pharaoh's decree of subjugation of
the Jews in Egypt: "And the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with
rigor. And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with mortar and bricks
and all types of labor in the fields; all of their bondage, which they made them
serve, was with rigor" (Shemot 1:3-4). In effect, Haman exploited the
ambiguity of his own words, and specified in the actual decree: "To wipe out, to
kill and to destroy".
did Haman deliberately mislead the king by using ambiguous language?
Achashverosh is depicted in Esther as enjoying his indulgence in wealth
and honor. It is perhaps for this reason that Haman felt that a decree that
carried with it some economic benefit would be easier for the king to
already noted, this image of Haman asking to "destroy" Mordekhai and the Jews is
presented as an analogy to the image of Achashverosh seeking to rid himself of
Vashti (chapter 1). The two scenes share certain common elements: in both cases,
a person who holds a position in the royal court refuses to carry out the king's
orders (Vashti refuses to show herself; Mordekhai refuses to bow down); in both
cases the refusal of the individual is expanded and presented as a universal
problem affecting the entire kingdom (Memukhan's speech in light of Vashti's
defiance; Haman's suggestion to Achashverosh in light of Mordekhai's
brazenness). In both cases, the person whose wishes were not fulfilled seeks to
do away with the violator ("That Vashti should not come…"; "Let it be written
that they be destroyed"); and in the wake of this, in each case letters are sent
to all of the king's provinces.
the perspective of our discussion, I wish to point out that just as Memukhan's
suggestion that Vashti be banished is ambiguous as to the manner in which this
is to be carried out, and it seems that Memukhan is not suggesting that physical
harm be done to the queen, but rather that she be demoted from her status as the
king's wife, so Haman's parallel proposal is somewhat ambiguous: he does not
explicitly propose physical harm towards the dispersed nation; rather, he
recommends only that they not be "tolerated" or "left in their place"
(le-hanicham); he wants them to be "destroyed" (as a nation).
would seem that Haman's deception of the king represents a strong element
throughout the plot; two further images from further on in the narrative,
recalling his decree, connect with it. The first is where Mordekhai informs
Esther of the decree; the second is where Esther informs the king.
Mordekhai tells Esther
message that Mordekhai sends to Esther via Hatakh contains three pieces of
information, and a request – that Esther go before the king (4:7,8):
all that had happened to him
and the matter of the money, which Haman had said that he would weigh out
to the king's treasury for destroying the Jews
and he gave him a copy of the document of the edict that had been
proclaimed in Shushan - to wipe them out, to show it to Esther and to tell
[and the request:] to command her to go to the king and to plead to him
and to entreat him for her people."
is reasonable to assume that the first point ("All that had happened to him")
hints at the personal conflict between Mordekhai and Haman – i.e., Mordekhai's
refusal to bow before Haman, and how this had led to the casting of the lot.
The third point is likewise clear: Mordekhai shows Esther the decree promulgated
by Haman, concerning the annihilation of the Jews. But how are we to understand
the second point? What is the meaning of "the matter of the money"? Why is
Haman's proposal of payment to the king so important that it warrants being
mentioned again in Mordekhai's message to Esther?
commentators have suggested that the mention of the money "reinforces the malice
of Haman's plan."
But this reading is problematic. Does an emphasis on the monetary benefit that
will accrue to the kingdom from the destruction of the Jews render the decree
any more "malicious" than the annihilation of an entire nation for no rhyme or
seems more likely that by noting how Haman presented his case to the king in
economic terms, while actually promulgating a decree of annihilation, Mordekhai
is conveying to Esther the approach that she should adopt: revealing to the king
how he was misled by his trusted advisor.
fill in the literary discrepancy between the intimate, secret conversation
between Haman and Achashverosh and the fact that Mordekhai knows about it, the
narrator introduces this scene with the words, "Mordekhai knew of all that had
been done" (4:1). By means of this innocent statement, the narrator hints to his
readers that Mordekhai knows what is going on in the royal court.
This assumption also rests upon the manner in which Mordekhai was presented
earlier in the plot, and his knowledge of the attempt to assassinate the king
in Mordekhai's message to Esther we discern a discrepancy between "The matter of
the money which Haman had said that he would weigh out to the king's
treasury for destroying the Jews," and "He gave him a copy of the
document of the edict that had been proclaimed in Shushan, to wipe
them out." In other words, Mordekhai is pointing out to Esther the
difference between what Haman had "said" (to destroy) and the document of the
edict that actually "had been proclaimed" in Shushan, explicitly speaking of
Esther tells Achashverosh
second image – in which Esther informs the king of Haman's decree (chapter 7) is
one that raises a number of difficulties. We may question Esther's choice of
tactic – expressing herself so forcefully against the decree and its proponent
("A man who is an adversary and an enemy"), rather than adopting a more
conciliatory stance, or appeasement, bribery etc. We may also question why Haman
sought to plead for his life before Queen Esther – whom, he has just found out,
is included in the edict of annihilation that he has dispatched throughout the
Persian kingdom – rather than making his appeal to Achashverosh, whose closest
advisor he has been.
the most perplexing problem facing the reader in this scene is the king's
reaction. There is a sense that the king knew nothing of the existence of the
decree ("Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed in his heart to do this?")
But Haman received the king's permission to write his decree! The decree even
bears the royal seal!
narrator emphasizes the king's great surprise by repeating the verb: "King
Achashverosh said, he said to Queen Esther" (7:5).
This serves to portray the king as surprised and angry; as Ibn Ezra comments ad
loc.: "'King Achashverosh said, he said' – twice, showing that the king
immediately grew angry, and in his great anger he said, 'Who is he….'"
is the meaning of the king's surprise? Is the narrator suggesting that he has
forgotten his agreement to the decree of annihilation that Haman proposed?
We may point to three exegetical approaches to this fundamental question:
The king is surprised that the decree applies to Esther and to her
nation. Since Esther's identity was not known to the king (2:10; 20), he did not
know that she belonged to the nation that was the subject of Haman's decree.
As part of the caricature of Achashverosh, here too the "drunken,
foolish" king fails to recall the decrees that Haman agreed upon with him.
The king actually knows "Who is he, and where is he," but he pretends not
to know. The king does not wish to show himself as having agreed to such a
decree, and so he feigns surprise.
none of these three approaches suits the molding of this scene or the
development of the plot. It is difficult to posit that the king's surprise is
related to the identity of the queen, since these are not the words that the
narrator places in his mouth. What the king splutters, in his wrath, is not:
"Are you, then, also of the Jewish people?!" or the suchlike. Rather, the king's
words relate to the actual establishment of the decree in his kingdom, without
his knowledge: "Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed in his heart to do
this?" In other words, the king does not imagine for a moment that this is a
decree to which he gave his agreement, and that the man "who has presumed in his
heart to do this" is in fact Haman, who is sitting right in front of him. This
reading is given extreme emphasis in the Targum Yonatan:"Who is
he, and where is he – a brazen, guilty, and rebellious man – who has presumed in
his heart to do this." The king regards the proponent of this decree a rebel
against the crown, and it is clear that this goes beyond Haman's ignorance of
the fact that Esther belongs to the nation that is the subject of the decree.
From the king's words "[i]t is also clear that he has no memory whatsoever, at
least not at this moment, of Haman's insidious plot against the Jews or of his
own part in it."
the continuation of the scene likewise does not sit well with an interpretation
that views Esther's belonging to the Jewish nation as the focus of the king's
surprise. It is difficult to imagine that just because of Haman's ignorance (and
his own) in this regard, the king would sentence Haman to death and have him
hanged. This is a punishment suited to traitors, not to a king's
second-in-command who has made an innocent mistake – especially since the king
himself is party to this mistake and has placed his royal seal upon the
seems similarly unlikely that this scene is based on the drunken king having
forgotten the decree to which he previously agreed. Were this the case, the
reader would expect Haman to plead for his life before the king, and to remind
him of their secret conversation and the king's agreement to the letters that
Haman wrote in his name. The development of the plot shows that Haman, too,
understands that "evil was destined against him by the king" (7:7). Any
suggestion of momentary forgetfulness is out of place here.
noted previously, the molding of the narrative indicates that the king is
astounded at Esther's words informing him of the decree. This impression arises
both from the repeated introduction ("King Achashverosh said, he said to Queen
Esther") and from his exit to the palace garden. As many scholars have noted,
the narrator provides no explanation for the king leaving the site of the party.
Various opinions are offered,
but attention must be paid to what the narrator does choose to say: "The king
arose in his wrath from the banquet of wine, to the palace garden" (7:7).
In other words, the impression that the narrator seeks to convey is that the
king's exit is related to his wrath.
Bush adds that the narrator recounts the king's actions from Haman's point of
view, too: "Haman saw that evil was destined against him by the king" (7). From
this perspective, too, the king's anger is evident.
the above reasons, a reading that perceives the king as feigning surprise and
shock, while actually fully aware of the decree, seems unlikely. The narrator
takes pains to paint this scene in such a way as to present the king as
(genuinely) surprised and (genuinely) angry over the existence of a decree of
destruction concerning which Esther has informed him.
conclude, then, that the simplest reading of this scene indicates that the king
is truly unaware of the decree that Esther is talking about. It is for this
reason that he is so surprised, and so angry, and therefore Haman pleads for his
life before Esther, rather than before the king himself.
scene, too, fits in with our previous assumption that the king understood the
decree as involving servitude, while what Haman wrote – in the king's name – was
actually a decree of annihilation.
seems reasonable that it is not enough for Esther to reveal to the king Haman's
inaccuracy in formulating his letters. The connection between the king and Haman
– at least at the beginning of the plot – is presented as a sound one. Something
more is needed. Apparently, the undermining of the king's faith in Haman is also
connected to Esther's parties, to which she invites Haman, too;
it also has something to do with the king's sleeplessness, and Haman's
suggestion to Achashverosh as to what should be done for the man whom the king
wishes to honor (the key concept there being "royalty"), as we shall see further
undermining the king's faith in Haman, Esther comes to the second party and
presents her case. Now the fateful moment has arrived; Esther seeks to emphasize
to the king the abyss separating what he agreed to and what Haman has done:
we have been sold, me and my people, to be wiped out, to be killed, and to be
destroyed. Had we been sold as servants and maidservants, I would have remained
silent, for the affliction would not be worth the damage to the king." (7:4)
my mind, Esther's declaration should be read as a pretense at innocence – as
though she had no knowledge of the private conversation that took place between
the king and Haman behind closed doors, while at the same time indirectly giving
the king the impression that his moral judgment is correct and justified. For
his part, he did agree to the nation being sold as servants and maidservants,
and had this been the case – Esther hints – she would have remained silent, for
the affliction of her nation would not have equaled the king's damage. However,
against the king's sound judgment, Haman has acted behind the king's back, and
the nation has been sold for annihilation and slaughter.
is of critical importance, because Esther must drive a wedge between the king
and Haman, despite the royal seal that adorns the decree. Through her words,
Esther opens the abyss separating a decree of servitude and a decree of
annihilation, thereby in effect creating an abyss between the king and Haman.
mention, at the outset, of the idea of "being sold" also plays a role in the
molding of the irony of her words, since the first connotation that arises in
the mind of the reader, upon encountering this expression, is economic.
Since there is a slight delay in the text, because of Esther's mention of the
subject ("I and my people"), there is a moment when the reader wonders what
"selling" Esther is talking about. Thus, this expression hints at the
discrepancy between the king's impression of what was going to happen and what
was actually taking place; the discrepancy between "Sold as servants and
maidservants" and "Sold to be wiped out, killed and destroyed."
hears of the decree for the first time, and he is taken completely by surprise.
He was unaware of the precise wording of the letters that Haman had written, and
he never imagined that this was what Haman was plotting. Now the king realizes
that his closest advisor has violated his trust and has acted behind his back.
This is compounded, as noted above, by the king's suspicion of imminent
betrayal. Haman is already "marked" by Achashverosh as a matter requiring deeper
investigation. Now the king, still in shock over the decree of annihilation,
knows that he must remove this subversive advisor who has sent letters in the
king's name without his knowledge.
is clear why Haman understands that there is no point in pleading his case
before the king,
for the latter has just discovered Haman's deception, and so all that he can do
is to plead before Esther. From this perspective, the dialogue between Esther
and Achashverosh in chapter 8 also assumes new significance. Esther asks that
the king nullify the letters sent by Haman: "If it please the king and if I have
found favor before him, and if the matter seem proper before the king and I am
pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman,
son of Hamedata the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews in all the
provinces of the king" (8:5). Esther adopts a carefully ambivalent attitude
towards the king's measure of responsibility for the decree. On one hand she
emphasizes, "Devised by Haman, son of Hamedata, the Agagite, which he wrote…,"
thereby presenting Haman as the main party responsible for the decree of
At the same time, her use of the expression "to destroy" (le-abed) – the
word that misled the king in the first place, rather than "to wipe out and
kill," as mentioned in Haman's decree – hints to the king that he bears some
indirect responsibility. His agreement – even if based on misunderstanding – led
to the decree of annihilation, and now Esther expects the king to "revoke the
here the king avoids the trap that Esther has laid for him. In his response, he
changes her words: "Behold, I have given Haman's house to Esther, and they have
hanged him on the gallows because he set his hand against the Jews" (8:7). The
king, for his part, intimates that Haman was hanged because he "set his hand"
against the Jews, and not because of his attempt at "destruction." Behind this
change in verb there lies a veiled conflict between Esther's position, seeking
to place some of the responsibility upon the king, and the king himself, who
blames Haman alone for the decree of annihilation.
the king partly responsible for the decree, of which he was unaware? The reader
will likely take a dim view even of the relatively "minor" decree of selling an
entire innocent nation into servitude, but does the narrator give any hint as to
his own position in this conflict?
hint at a moral judgment of the king is to be found in an allusion concealed in
the description of Haman's writing of the letters. The narrator "refers" the
reader to the story of Achav and the vineyard of Navot (I Melakhim 21),
such that the letters dispatched by Haman in the name of Achashverosh parallel
the letters sent by Izevel in the name of her husband, King Achav:
the name of Achashverosh it was written
sealed with the king's seal
the letters were sent by couriers to all the provinces of the king"
Melakhim 21:8 –
she wrote letters in Achav's name
sealed them with his seal
she sent the letters to the elders"
allusion encourages the reader to pay attention to Achashverosh's ignorance of
the exact content of Haman's decree, for in the story of Navot's vineyard this
is one of the most important images in the story: Achav is unaware of the
actions of Izevel, his wife, and even though his seal appears on the letters
that have been sent in his name, he does not know what is written in them.
Likewise, the narrator tells us, Achashverosh, whose seal appears on Haman's
letters, is unaware of their content.
by hinting at Izevel, the author is also conveying a moral judgment of the
characters, thereby answering our question as to the king's responsibility for
the decree dispatched by Haman. In the story of Achav and the vineyard of Navot,
the discrepancy between the reader's impression, in view of the actions of the
characters in the story, and the judgment of the prophet, is striking. This
discrepancy is revealed in the concentric structure of the first part of the
– Navot: "Give me your vineyard… if it please you, I shall give you its price in
Izevel – Achav: "Izevel said to him… Arise, eat bread, let your
heart be merry."
Izevel – elders: "She sent letters to the elders… stone him,
that he may die."
Elders – Navot: the fictitious trial, and Navot's execution
Elders – Izevel: "They sent to Izevel… Navot is stoned, and he is
Izevel – Achav: "Izevel said… Arise, take possession of the vineyard of
Achav – vineyard: "Achav arose to go down to the vineyard of Navot.. to take
possession of it."
structure emphasizes the various levels of involvement of the characters in this
terrible incident. In the outer framework of the story (A-A1) we find Achav, who
has no idea whatsoever of Izevel's plan to kill Navot. Closer to the murder of
Navot we find Izevel, vis-à-vis her husband and vis-à-vis the elders (B-B1;
C-C1). She causes the murder to happen, but her own hands are clean of Navot's
blood. At the center of the narrative (D) we find the elders, who murder an
innocent man with their own hands.
while man can know only what he can see, God sees to the heart. As the reader
moves on to the second part of the story, where the prophet judges the various
participants, he is surprised to discover that the perspective is now reversed:
the main guilty party is Achav ("Have you murdered and also inherited? …In the
place where the dogs licked the blood of Navot, the dogs shall lick your blood,
too… Behold, I bring evil upon you, and I shall sweep you away, and I shall cut
off from Achav every male, as well as him that is shut up and him that is free
in Israel" (21:19-21). After his blazing condemnation of Achav, the prophet
makes brief mention of Izevel ("Concerning Izevel, too, God spoke, saying: The
dogs shall devour Izevel by the wall of Yizre'el" – 21:23). As to the elders, we
hear no rebuke whatsoever from the prophet. Thus, the prophetic judgment places
the principal blame upon the king – even though he was unaware of the content of
the letters that were sent in his name. Zakovitz sums up the significance of the
narrative most succinctly: "This narrative is not one of the Eliyahu narratives,
nor a narrative showing the greatness of the prophet. Rather, it is a narrative
that comes to teach a moral lesson; it is a fable or parable about 'a vineyard
that belonged to…,' with its moral: that a ruler's responsibility extends to all
actions that are undertaken in his name and by his authority, even if he seeks
to ignore them and not to know about them."
describing Haman's dispatch of his letters with the same language used to
describe the dispatch of letters by Izevel, the narrator seeks to remind the
reader of the prophet's clear judgment of the characters in the story of Navot.
This in turn hints at Achashverosh's responsibility, despite the fact that he
was misled by Haman. In light of this connection, the reader projects onto
Achashverosh, too, the conclusion that "the ruler is responsible for all actions
undertaken in his name and by his authority."
by Kaeren Fish