Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
By Rav Yonatan
opens with a focus on time: "And it was on the third day…" (5:1). This serves, of course, to connect this
scene to the previous one, in which Esther declared a three-day fast for herself
and her maidens, and – at the same time – for Mordekhai and all the Jews. Thus, the reader is asked to view
Esther's entry to the king against the background of what is going on outside
the palace walls.
This perspective becomes even more striking in the continuation of the verse,
which goes on to describe Esther wearing her special royal robes and going in to
the king: "And it was on the third day that Esther donned royal garb
(malkhut) and stood in the inner courtyard of the king's house,
facing the king's house, while the king sat upon his royal
throne in the royal palace, facing the entrance to the house" (5:1). The awe of kingship is tangible in this
verse, owing to the repetition (6 times) of the root "m-l-kh" in various
forms. Aside from the narrator's
obvious desire to emphasize the threatening "kingship" before which Esther
presents herself in this scene, we must consider the statement, "Esther wore
royal apparel"? Seemingly, these are the garments that she usually wears in the
palace – certainly when going in to the king. What, then, does this piece of
information add to our understanding of the story? The Midrash addresses the
unusual formulation, "va-tilbash Esther malkhut"
(literally, "Esther donned royalty") rather than "bigdei malkhut" ("royal
robes"), and comments as follows: "'And it was on the third day that Esther
donned royalty' – she already wore royal robes; what the text hints to here is
that she was garbed in the Divine spirit.
Here it is written, 'va-tilbash' (she donned), while elsewhere it
is written, 'a spirit enveloped (lavsha et) Amasai….'"
According to this Midrash, the narrator is hinting to his readers that "the
Kingship" – to which all mortal kings are subservient – accompanies Esther into
Achashverosh's quarters. The
message of this Midrash is an important one; indeed, one of the aims of the
hidden writing in the Esther narrative is to hint at the presence of
God's Kingship even when it is concealed.
At the same time, on the level of the plain text it would seem that the
emphasis on Esther wearing royal garb as she goes in to the king is meant to
contrast her with Mordekhai, who is unable to come to the king's gate. At the beginning of the previous chapter
we read that Mordekhai tore his garments; he is therefore deprived of access to
the king's gate. Now, we read that
Esther dons her garments and goes in to the king. This comparison is not meant to create a
distance between the two characters, but rather to have one complement the
other. Mordekhai is busy outside of the palace; without the uniform reflecting
his Persian status, he is gathering assemblies, declaring a fast, and
spearheading a general movement towards repentance. Esther, for her part, is active within
the palace. She must wear royal
garments; she must play the Persian queen at her best – organizing a party for
the king, and ensuring his enjoyment.
Thus the two characters work together to overturn the decree of
annihilation: Mordekhai – with no garments and with no masks, and Esther – with
her royal robes, playing the role that is demanded of her. Mordekhai previously asked Esther, "Who
knows if for such a time you achieved royal status" (4:14), and now Esther
responds to her and takes up her destiny: "And Esther wore royalty…."
Esther's entry to the king should be viewed not only against the backdrop of
Mordekhai rending his clothes, but also against that of the banquet scene with
which the narrative began. There,
Vashti was commanded to present herself before the king; she broke the law and
did not arrive. Here, a different
royal wife breaks the law by coming to the king in a manner that is against the
law. In light of the Midrash above,
the comparison is even more sharply focused, since the king wanted Vashti to
appear without her clothing (Esther Rabba parasha 3,13),
while Esther wears special royal robes for her entry to the king.
connection has three-fold significance. First, the reader's recollection of
Vashti, when he finds Esther violating the king's command, serves to amplify the
tension in anticipation of her encounter with the king; the reader now has in
his mind a real-life example of a wife of the king who went against a law of his
reign and lost her royal status.
The threat is not hypothetical, and the reader wonders whether Esther's
end will be like that of Vashti.
Esther's deed sheds an ironic light on the law that was promulgated in the
kingdom following Vashti's refusal of the king's orders. The idea of the law was that "each man
should rule in his house" (1:22); the patriarchal authority was established as
an all-encompassing law that must not be violated. We cannot know whether there was indeed
a change amongst the Persian nation and the peoples subject to its authority,
but we may assert with certainty that there is at least one man who does not
adhere to the new law, and that is King Achashverosh himself. There is no other biblical narrative
that displays so prominently a woman's initiative, with mockery of the man at
her side. It is specifically the
Book of Esther, which starts off with a declaration as to the special
status of the man of the family, that ends up raising the banner of a woman's
actions in leading her husband, the king – without his knowledge or agreement –
towards the end that she desires.
This wife of the king, the lawmaker, performs "the word of Mordekhai"!
Obviously, by presenting Esther's violation of the law (presenting herself
before the king) against the background of the law stipulating women's
subservience to their husbands (as a result of Vashti not presenting herself
before the king), the text points a mocking finger at the law.
have already made mention of "disobedience" or "violation of orders" as a
central motif of the narrative.
The entire plot rests upon people who violate the law, starting with Vashti who
refuses to present herself before the king, via Mordekhai who refuses to bow and
prostrate himself, and finally Esther, who goes in to the king "which is against
the law." We may almost say that
the only person in the story who is faithful to the laws of the Persian kingdom
is Haman, but he is hanged on the basis of a different law enacted by the king.
In this sense, the salvation that begins to take shape with Esther's entry to
the king, parallels the beginning of the narrative, making the violation of the
king's laws an internal engine that drives the plot.
enters the inner court of the king's house, she "finds favor" in the eyes of
Achashverosh. Here the king
"chooses" Esther all over again, as he did in chapter 2, when he selected her to
be his queen: "She found favor and grace with him" (2:17). Just as the king held a banquet there,
in honor of Esther's selection ("Esther's party" – 2:18), so Esther now makes a
party and invites the king and his closest advisor: "Let the king and Haman come
today to the party which I have prepared for him."
For what reason does Esther make a party? Why does she not present her request
immediately after the king generously offers her "up to half the kingdom"?
Apparently, the answer has to do with Persian culture and the norms of the
regime. Herodotus, the Greek
historian, reveals that at a Persian banquet, "it is impossible to refuse any
In other words, this is more than a matter of the king's heart being merry at
the banquet, such that it is reasonable to assume that he will accede to various
requests. It was actually part of
the etiquette of that period, such that it was expected that a king would accede
to the quest of whoever had prepared a banquet for him.
of Haman to Esther's party, however, is a double surprise – both for the king
and for the reader. For the king,
the very invitation of a third person (especially another man) to an intimate
party prepared for him by his wife, is discomforting. What is Esther's connection with Haman,
the king asks himself; how is Haman – with his political or security-related
function – connected with a party that his wife arranges for him? Attention
should be paid to the fact that Esther invites the king to a party "which I have
prepared for him" – for the king – but Haman is invited too. As we shall see, Esther deliberately
seeks to arouse these questions in the king's mind, and therefore the king's
surprise should be viewed as a fundamental element of her objective.
reader, too, is surprised. Esther
is about to ask for Haman's decree to be annulled; seemingly, this would be more
easily achieved if Haman were not in the same room! His presence at the party
may lead to an airing of his own view as to the decree, and then the king will
be put in the position of having to decide between them.
The Gemara addresses this question and poses several possible explanations
taught: For what reason did Esther invite Haman?
- Rabbi Eliezer taught: She laid a trap for
him, as it is written, "May their table be a trap before them."
- Rabbi Yehoshua taught: She learned this
from her father's house, as it is written, "If your enemy is hungry, feed him
- Rabbi Meir taught: In order that he would
not take counsel and rebel (Rashi: "Against the king, for he was at the pinnacle
- Rabbi Yehuda taught: In order that it
would not be recognizable that she was Jewish.
- Rabbi Nechemya taught: In order that the
Jews would not say, "We have a sister in the king's house" – and [rely on that,
and] not plead for Divine mercy.
- Rabbi Yossi taught: In order that he
would be within her sights all the time (Rashi: "Perhaps she would be able to
cause him to stumble in some matter before the king.")
- Rabbi Shimon ben Mensaya taught: Perhaps
God would take note of this and perform a miracle (Rashi: "That even I am trying
to endear Israel's enemies" [Rashi also provides another explanation])
- Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha taught: I shall
smile at him in order that he will kill both parties [Rashi: "That (the king)
will suspect him on my account, and kill both of us."]
- Rabban Gamliel taught: He is a fickle
king. Rabban Gamliel said: We are
still in need of the Moda'i, as we learn, "Rabbi Eliezer the Moda'i taught: She
made the king jealous of him, she made the ministers jealous of him."
Further on in
our discussion we shall come back to several of the explanations proposed in
this Gemara. It should be pointed out that at this
stage the reader is not aware of Esther's intentions; he can only shelve his
question for the meantime and continue reading.
The king and
Haman attend the party that Esther had already prepared (as Esther makes clear
in her request, "To a party which I have prepared for him"), and there Esther
utters her request. A reader who is
not familiar with the story is confounded: The king is allowing her to ask for
anything that she desires, and instead of begging him to cancel the decree,
Esther invites the king and Haman to yet another party! Now we can no longer
invoke Persian manners: Esther is already at the party, and she is able to ask
for Haman's decree to be rescinded.
The question is made even more perplexing in light of the timeline that
Esther makes clear. In her
invitation to the party, she says, "Let the king and Haman come today to
the party" – giving the king (as well as the reader) a sense of haste. "Today" Esther has to discuss something
with the king. But at the party she
says, "Tomorrow I shall do as the king has said"!
is the subject of extensive debate.
Among modern scholars, the postponement of the request is regarded as a
purely literary device, facilitating the scene of the horse:
reason for Esther's delay is purely literary; the author needs time for the
humiliation of Haman and the exaltation of Mordecai before the final blow
explanation is unsatisfactory. As
Fox points out, the narrator could have humiliated Haman in a simpler way.
Also, were this the sole reason for the postponement, we are left with some
unsolved questions – such as why Haman was invited to the party along with the
king, and others.
early commentators there are various approaches; we shall focus on two major
views, both of which are related to the development of the plot.
Ibn Ezra says:
"To my view, Esther postponed talking on the first day at the party because she
saw no sign from God in response to the Jews' fasting. On the second day, she was emboldened by
the honor given to Mordekhai." According to this explanation, according to
Esther's original plan the request to cancel the decree was to have been
presented at the first party.
However, since Esther sensed no special Divine aid – "She saw no sign
from God" – she decided to postpone her request until the next day, and to make
another party. This explanation
rests upon the next stage of the plot, as Ibn Ezra himself implies: "On the
second day, she was emboldened by the honor given to Mordekhai." Since this new situation is created
before the second party – at which Esther finally utters her request – it is
reasonable to posit that this is what she felt was missing at the first
party. However, this is precisely
the weakness of this explanation: Esther of course had no idea at the first
party as to what was going to happen; hence one has the feeling that this
explanation projects from the subsequent events onto the preceding stages. In other words, Esther had no idea
whether Divine Providence would provide any hint in the real situation as to His
acceptance of the Jews' prayers, and it seems unlikely to propose that Esther
was waiting for a Divine sign before she would take action.
At the same
time, the suggestion that the second party was not planned in advance has some
support. This is our impression
from the molding of Esther's request of the king:
answered and she said: My petition and my request. If I have found favor in the
king's eyes, and if it please the king, to grant my petition and to perform my
request – let the king and Haman come to the party which I shall prepare for
them, and tomorrow I shall do as the king has said" (5:7-8).
wind-up is exceptionally long-winded (compare, for example, her opening words at
the second party, when she requests the annulment of the decree – 7:3). The wordiness stands out in the
seemingly unnecessary repetition, "My petition and my request." Esther starts off her request with these
words ("Esther answered and she said: My petition and my request…"), such that
she could immediately go on to present her request. However, this is not what she does: she
starts off with some polite formulas which apparently characterize Persian
manners of the time: "If I have found favor in the eyes of the king." Even now, Esther does not get to the
point; rather, she adds, "And if it please the king." Thus far, there is long-windedness, but
we may put it down to manners and the norms of the time. But even at this stage Esther refrains
from giving voice to her plea; instead, she seems to be starting all over again:
"To grant my petition and to perform my request." This clumsiness gives rise to a sense
that she is unable to bring herself to say what it is that she seeks. Apparently, Esther is trying to say what
is in her heart, but she is not succeeding; for this reason she procrastinates
and prevaricates. In this sense, it
may be that Ibn Ezra is correct in the general idea that Esther sought already
at this point to plead for her nation, but was not able to;
she senses, as it were, that right now she is not receiving any Divine
assistance, and that she must wait for a different opportunity.
comparing the descriptions of Esther's two parties there is a noticeable
difference in the depiction of the relations between the characters who are
partaking of the drink. In the
context of the first party, we read: "The king came, and Haman, to the party
which Esther had prepared" (5:5), while in the second we are told: "The king
came, and Haman, to drink with Queen Esther" (7:1). The first party seems to be dominated by
a strong male coalition (the king and Haman), with Esther standing by and
serving drinks. At the second
party, in contrast, Esther appears to be counted among the drinkers, along with
the king and Haman ("with Esther").
This discrepancy may hint at Esther's feelings and the reason for the
postponement of her request until the second party. She senses, at the first party, that the
king feels close to Haman, and that he will not act to cancel his decrees. According to this reading, once again,
Esther's original intention had been to present her request at the first party,
but because of the atmosphere of the party she felt that it would be better to
put it off.
may of course propose that Esther's stammering and beating around the bush is
deliberate, and that both parties – along with the clumsy introduction to her
request – are part of a plan drawn up in advance. Rashi's interpretation gives rise to
such a reading, when he poses the question discussed above – why Esther invited
Haman, too, to the parties. Rashi
bases his explanation upon the words of R.
Elazar Ha-Moda'i, which we quoted previously: "Our Sages proposed many
different reason for why Esther invited Haman – [for instance,] to make the king
jealous of him and to make the ministers jealous of him, since the king would
think that he desired [Esther], and would kill him. There are also many other reasons that
are proposed" (Rashi on 5:4). While
Rashi notes that the Gemara brings several possible explanations, he seemingly
innocently integrates the reason that apparently appeals most to his logic: "She
made the king jealous of him, she made the ministers jealous of him." In other words, Ester wants the king to
suspect that his closest advisor and his wife are cooking up a joint
conspiracy. In accordance with this
reading we imagine that during the party Esther took care to sit near Haman,
frequently offering him foods or a refill of his goblet – too frequently for the
king's liking – and generally flirting with Haman throughout the meal. Haman, for his part, is only too happy
to receive all of this attention: "Haman emerged on that day happy and with a
joyous heart" (5:9). But the king
had noticed that which he was supposed to notice, and sensed the (supposed)
conspiracy that was being woven against him by his trusted advisor, responsible
for his personal security, together with his wife, the queen. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Esther
also changes the language of the invitation. Before the first party, Esther
said: "Let the king and Haman come today to the party which I have prepared for
him" (5:4), while in the second invitation Haman is treated as equal to
the king: "Let the king and Haman come to the party which I shall prepare for
have been Esther's fate, had her plan not worked out? Did she plan in advance to
sever herself from Haman at the second party (as ultimately happened), or
perhaps was her original plan as suggested by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha, in the
debate recorded above: "I shall smile at him so that [the king] will kill both
partners" – i.e., Esther meant to give up her life together with Haman. Not only
would she not deny the partnership; she would "admit" to the conspiracy that the
king suspected – and who would believe Haman after his "partner" exposed him? It
is difficult to decide which of these two possibilities is what she was actually
thinking, even though the second holds special appeal. Esther's self-sacrifice exceeds all
expectations. Not only has she
endangered her life by going in to the king uninvited; now it seems that her
intention is to give up her life, literally, and to die despised, as a traitor,
together with Haman – the enemy of the Jews. As she puts it herself: "If I perish,
then I perish…."
after the episode of the horse, Esther understands that it is the king's anger
towards Haman that exceeds her expectations, and there is no need for her to
pursue a plan that requires her to fake a partnership with Haman. It will suffice to expose the decree
explicitly. But we are anticipating
that which is yet to come.
of Rashi rests upon what happens to the king in between the two parties. During the night following the first
party, the king is unable to sleep.
What disturbs him? We may deduce the answer from his actions on that
night: his disquiet leads him to request the Book of Chronicles; the king looks
up the entry "rebellions," and sees that he has a loyal subject – Mordekhai –
who has not yet been rewarded. We
shall discuss this scene in detail later on; for now suffice it to suggest that
what concerned the king that night was related to treason. Esther had succeeded in her objective:
while Haman is "happy and of joyous heart," the king's suspicion of him is
growing more tangible. Needless to
say, when Haman comes in to talk to the king and asks for the horse (for
himself), he knocks the final nail into his own coffin, for this is final
confirmation of the king's worst suspicions. But once again we are getting ahead of
The idea that
the king's inability to sleep is due to his fear of imminent rebellion is
proposed by Rabba in the Gemara:
"He had a
thought. He said, Why is it that
Esther invited Haman? Perhaps they are planning to kill me? Then he thought: If
that is so, then would someone who was loyal to me not inform me? He thought
some more and said: Perhaps there is someone who once performed a favor for me
and I did not reward him, and for that reason people are holding back and not
informing me? At that moment, 'He commanded that the Book of Chronicles, the
records, be brought" (Megilla 15b).
To my mind,
the king's sleeplessness, in this context, seems to support strongly Rashi's
reading and to clarify the point of Esther preparing two parties, each time
inviting Haman along with the king.