The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #15: Mordekhai is Led on Horseback
By Rav Yonatan Grossman
with chariots, and those with horses, but we shall invoke the Name of the Lord
our God; they have bent over and fallen, while we have arisen and been
the night between the two parties that Esther holds for the king and Haman,
sleep escapes the king. As we have
discussed previously, the king's insomnia invites us to take a glimpse into his
thoughts. The very fact that in
order to calm himself he asks for the "Book of Records of the Chronicles" (a
legal and historical work),
and that he opens it to the section recording "rebellions against the king,"
testifies most eloquently to the reason for his insomnia. Esther has succeeded in planting in the
king's heart a suspicion that insurgency is imminent, apparently on the part of
Haman. From the text itself, it is
difficult to know whether Haman is really planning a coup, although the
narrative soon makes it clear that he is enamored with the insignia of royalty
and certainly has no objection to decorating himself with them.
passive mood that characterizes the beginning of this scene is striking: "And
they were read before the king"; "It was found to be written"; "What honor and
grandeur was done"; "Nothing was done for him." The text does not specify who read the
Book of Chronicles before the king, and the expression, "It was found written,"
is also unusual (we would expect to find the accepted expression, "He found," or
the like). Likewise, the king
inquires what was "done for" Mordekhai, rather than – more appropriately – "what
did I do."
language plays a role in creating the sense – particularly powerful in this
scene – that things are happening "of their own accord," as it were: the king's
sleep "escapes him" (rather than "the king could not sleep"); the Book of
Chronicles is "read" by itself, as it were, before the king; the story of
Mordekhai "is found," and - surprisingly enough - it is discovered that no
reward "was done" for him. Through
this style, the text hints at a hidden hand that is especially manifest in this
Here, too, "the narrator avoids involving God";
indeed, in this scene the omission is most striking.
In many communities it is customary to read the first verse of our chapter – "On
that night, sleep escaped the king" – to the special prayer melody used on the
High Holy Days, thereby hinting that the King of kings Himself was "restless"
pace of the narrative might give the impression that Haman came to the king that
very night, seeking to have Mordekhai hanged, for the two accounts are closely
juxtaposed: "On that night, sleep escaped the king, and he commanded to
bring the Book of Records of the Chronicles… and it was found to be written that
Mordekhai had told about Bigtan and Teresh… And the king said: What honor
and grandeur were done for Mordekhai on account of this? And the king's servants
that ministered to him said: Nothing was done for him. And the king said: Who is in the
courtyard? – And Haman had come to the outer courtyard of the king's
house, [in order] to tell the king to hang Mordekhai upon the gallows that he
had prepared for him. And the
king's servants said to him: Behold, Haman is standing in the
courtyard. And the king
said: Let him come" (6:1-5).
The continuous style of the king's two questions to his servants ("The
king said") gives the sense that his second question, "Who is in the courtyard?"
is part of the dialogue that he held with his servants concerning Mordekhai; it
seems almost like a reaction to their words – "Nothing was done for him." This impression causes certain scholars
to question why Haman comes to the king in the middle of the night.
Could Haman possibly have known that the king was unable to sleep? Or –
alternatively – did he have to "take his place in line" and wait from the night
for the king to awaken in the morning? But such questions are out of place. Despite appearances - arising from the
way in which the story is molded - that Haman comes to the king at night, he
actually arrives only in the morning.
We know this from two indirect pieces of information:
Firstly, Zeresh already told Haman, "In the morning, tell the
king, that Mordekhai should be hanged" (5:14), and there is no indication that
Haman deviated from this plan.
Secondly, at the end of his consultation with Haman, the king declares:
"Quick – take the garments and the horse, as you have spoken, and do
that for Mordekhai the Jew, who sits at the king's gate" (6:10). This is immediately followed by Haman's
execution of the king's command: "Haman took the garments… and led him on
horseback through the street of the city… and Mordekhai returned to the king's
gate" (6:11-12). Immediately
following this, Haman is taken to Esther's party, where it is decreed that he
will be hanged. We must conclude
that this happened in the morning, while Mordekhai was sitting at the king's
gate, at a time when the street of the city is bustling.
therefore did not come to the king at night, but rather in the morning. But if this is so, why does the narrator
"mislead" his readers, creating the sense that Haman approaches the palace at
night, in the midst of the king's conversation with his servants as to the
reward owed to Mordekhai? It would seem that this false continuity serves to
highlight the irony of this scene, reaching its climax in this image. While the king deliberates as to the
proper reward for Mordekhai, Haman comes with a request to hang him on the
gallows. While the king is being
reminded of Mordekhai's loyal service in protecting him from insurgents who are
members of the royal court, Haman comes with his claim that Mordekhai himself is
a traitor and should be hanged.
seems reasonable to assume that the king's intention in asking Haman what reward
should be bestowed on someone whom the king seeks to honor is intended from the
outset as a trap. This idea arises,
inter alia, from a careful comparison of his question to Haman and his words to
his servants the previous night: "The king said to him: What should be done with
a man whom the king seeks to honor" (6:6), as opposed to, "The king said:
What honor and grandeur were done for Mordekhai on account of this?"
(6:3) Why does the king omit any mention of "grandeur" when he describes to
Haman the man whom he seeks to honor? This may simply be an abbreviated
expression of the same idea, but it is possible – as Levenson maintains – that
the omission is intentional. After
all, Haman's special promotion was previously described in exactly these terms:
"After these things, the king promoted (gidel – gave grandeur to) Haman
son of Hamedata, the Agagite, and elevated him" (3:1). Perhaps the king suspects that if he
mentions grandeur as well, Haman may think that the king has someone other than
him in mind, since Haman has already attained "grandeur" in Achashverosh's
The king, seeking to test Haman and uncover his true desires, apparently
wants Haman to think that it is he whom the king is talking about.
Haman hears the king wondering what to do for someone whom he wishes to honor,
he has no doubt that the person in question is himself: "Haman said to himself:
Who would the king seek to honor, more than me?" (6:6). But the wicked, whose hearts are full of
their own importance, have big surprises in store for them…as the wise man
teaches in Mishlei: "Sedition is in his heart; he is continually devising
evil, he sows discord. Therefore
his downfall will come suddenly; all of a sudden he shall be broken, with no
repair" (Mishlei 6:14-15).
responding to the king, Haman incriminates himself by requesting (for himself)
the royal regalia, thereby supplying the king with additional proof that he
longs to wear the royal robes and to ride upon the king's own horse: "Let the
royal garments be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse
upon which the king rides and upon the head of which a royal crown
is placed. And let the garments and
the horse be given into the hand of one of the king's ministers, and let
them dress the man whom the king seeks to honor, and lead him upon the
horse in the street of the city, and proclaim before him: So shall be done to
the man whom the king seeks to honor" (6:8-9).
expression, "Upon the head of which a royal crown is placed," which Haman uses
to describe the horse, has already appeared in our narrative, in the description
of Esther's coronation: "The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she
found favor and grace before him more than all of the virgins, and he placed
a royal crown upon her head and made her queen in place of Vashti" (2:17).
This expression appears nowhere else in all of Tanakh, and it is
reasonable to assume that, at least in the king's mind (even if Haman does not
intend it that way), the two images are connected: Haman hints at a different
scene, in which the present queen replaced the previous one ("And made her queen
instead of Vashti"); now he himself seeks to complete the picture and to take
the throne in place of the ruling king!
king's anger is palpable in his order that Haman himself lead Mordekhai through
the street of the city. Haman had
suggested that "one of the king's ministers" lead the man whom the king sought
to honor, but the king places the mission squarely on the shoulders of Haman –
the king's second-in-command! This is clearly an outlet for the king's
anger. Through the very same act,
the king does Mordekhai a favor in punishing Haman, his closest advisor.
narrator dwells once again on all the details, describing how Haman takes the
garments and the horse, how he dresses Mordekhai, how he leads him on horseback
through the street, and how he proclaims, "So shall be done to the man whom the
king seeks to honor" (11-12). Only
one detail is ignored: the narrator makes no reference to any dialogue between
Haman and Mordekhai. How did Haman
explain his actions to Mordekhai? How did Mordekhai respond? Fox provides the
following apt insight:
"But the silence itself speaks, leaving the impression that
nothing was said. Haman gritted his
teeth and did what he had to, while Mordecai taciturnly accepted the honor"
(Fox, p. 78).
fundamental question with regard to this image of Haman leading Mordekhai on
horseback through the streets is: what is the point of it? What need is there
for this scene? Every other scene in the narrative serves in some way or other
to advance the plot. In this case,
however, it would appear that the plot could develop just as well without the
image of the horse.
are various approaches to this question.
Let us examine three of them, and then propose a fourth:
Rav Mordekhai Breuer maintains that the episode of the horse should be
interpreted in light of the fundamental duality of Esther; the "two
aspects" that are taking place in the narrative. Throughout the story, he posits, we
discern two separate plots. The one
concerns the personal conflict between Mordekhai and Haman, while the other
concerns the grudge that Haman harbors against the Jewish nation. To his view, the scene of the horse
represents Mordekhai's unequivocal personal victory over Haman. (He emphasizes that the final blow comes
when Haman is hanged upon the gallows that he had prepared for Mordekhai, but in
the "horse scene" it is already clear that Mordekhai has the upper hand). The function of this scene, then, is not
to advance the plot; rather, it serves as a concluding image in the story of the
personal conflict between Mordekhai and Haman.
Along similar lines to the distinction drawn by Rav Breuer, other
scholars have sought to view the personal struggle between Mordekhai and Haman
as a representation of the broader national battle between Israel and
Amalek. For the purposes of
clarification, we may recall the battle between David and Goliath, the
Philistine, as described in I Shemuel 17. There, too, the personal struggle is
perceived by all the soldiers on both sides as a reflection of the general
battle between Israel and the Philistines.
Perhaps the idea is that the military heroes should be regarded as
representatives of the gods of the two nations (as arises from the words of the
Philistine and from David's response), or perhaps it is simply the application
of an ancient military norm. In any
event, if we look at the story of the personal conflict between Mordekhai and
Haman in this light, the image of Mordekhai being led on horseback by Haman
serves as a preview of the results of the national struggle. This idea is supported by Zeresh's words
to Haman after he returns home: "If Mordekhai, before whom you have begun to
fall, is of the seed of the Jews, then you will not prevail against him, for you
shall surely fall before him" (6:13).
Perhaps Zeresh's words should be understood as being based upon the view
of the personal struggle between Haman and Mordekhai as reflecting the general
struggle between Haman and the entire Jewish nation, or at least as a real-life
hint of what is going to happen in that general struggle.
Rav Mordekhai Sabbato has proposed that the significance of the scene of
Mordekhai being led on horseback lies in the closing of the circle that began
with Mordekhai's refusal to bow before Haman. In the past, Mordekhai had avoided
prostrating himself before Haman, despite the king's order to do so, but Haman
could still console himself and save his honor: "Haman could claim that were he
given the opportunity, he, too, would violate the king's command and would not
bow before Mordekhai. For this
reason there is a need for a further confrontation; a confrontation in which
Haman is commanded by the king to show submission before Mordekhai. This confrontation is realized in the
episode of the horse, where Haman is commanded to run in front of Mordekhai; he
is commanded, and he submits." Mordekhai thereby prevails over Haman not only in
the concrete reality, but also in psychological courage, in standing up for his
aside from all of these readings, it would seem that this scene holds a special
status in the narrative, and from a certain perspective it may be seen as the
turning point of the entire story.
This idea arises from the overall literary structure of
Esther. As we have noted in
the past, the narrative has a concentric structure, a structure of "it was
overturned," with the scene of the horse serving as its central axis, as
Introduction – extent of Achashverosh's kingdom
Two banquets held by the king: one for the princes of
the provinces (180 days), and the other a special party for the inhabitants of
Shushan (7 days)
Esther is taken to the king, but conceals her identity
Description of Haman's status: "…And elevated him, and placed his seat above all
the princes who were with him"
Casting of the lot: war destined for the 13th of Adar
Passing of the ring to Haman; Haman's letters,
rending his garments, fast of the Jews
Esther's first party
Haman's consultation with his close friends
Scene of the horse
Haman's consultation with his close friends
Esther's second party
Passing of the ring to Mordekhai; Mordekhai's letters; Mordekhai is dressed in
royal robes; partying of the Jews
Jews wage war against their enemies on the 13th of Adar
Description of the status of the Jews and of Mordekhai: "And all the princes of
the provinces… held the Jews in esteem… for the man Mordekhai grew increasingly
Esther comes to the king and asks for an additional day of fighting in
Two parties of salvation: one of the Jews of all the provinces (14th
of Adar), and the other a special party for the Jews of Shushan (15th
Conclusion – extent of Achashverosh's kingdom
we noted at the beginning of our Esther series, this structure serves to
emphasize the "turnaround" of the narrative. We may say that the expression that
appears at the end – "It was reversed" – is a central motif in the narrative,
manifest even in the literary structure.
The episode of the horse is the central axis upon which the turnabout
occurs. Up until this point Haman
has been on the rise; from this point onwards, Haman is destined to fall (except
for one last time when he is "raised," upon a very tall gallows…).
would seem that this itself is the function of the scene of the horse: to point
to the turnaround of the plot; to express the "it was reversed." The horse scene shows up very clearly
the chasm separating the emotions with which Haman approaches the king, and the
emotions with which he returns home.
In this scene it is clear who it is that is "upon the horse," and who it
is that leads others towards their new success. The contribution of this scene is to
sharpen the turnaround that takes place on that night when "sleep escapes the
king." This reversal plays an
important role in molding one of the fundamental aims of the Esther
narrative, pertaining to the spiritual, cultural conflict between Israel and
Persian paganism; we shall discuss this further at a later stage. The statement that is concealed behind
the image of the horse pertains to the profound gap between a person's plans to
bring about the downfall of someone else while gaining glory for himself, and
the recompense that awaits him: he himself paves the way for the success that
becomes the lot of the person whom he sought to harm (the idea of the horse,
after all, originated in Haman's own mind), and he himself digs his own pit,
with the intention that his enemy will fall into it (Haman apparently invested
considerable resources in the construction of the gallows that eventually
awaited him). The horse scene is a
central axis for the reversal of fate – not just because of the great irony
itself (which adds considerably to the molding of the special drama of this
narrative), but also because of the idea that lies behind it:
has made a pit and dug it out, he has fallen into the ditch that was his
doing. His efforts will return upon
his own head, and his violence will descend upon his own skull" (Tehillim
the literary turnaround that takes place in this scene, there is also – as we
have mentioned in the past – an inner revolution in the psychological state of
Esther, when she proclaims a fast, serving to warn the Jews of Shushan not to go
back to the banquets of the Persian king, but rather to return to their Jewish
identity through fasting and prayer.
As part of the "coverings" of this narrative, her psychological,
spiritual turnaround is hidden, while the revolution that serves as a central
axis for the plot is the one undergone by Achashverosh, or the turnaround as
viewed from the perspective of Haman.
The reader – like Esther and Mordekhai – is meant to understand that the
real turnaround happens "somewhere else," on a more delicate, intimate
psychological level, when Esther demonstrates her self-sacrifice for the sake of
a superficial reading would suggest that Mordekhai is indeed given great honor:
he is led on horseback through the street of the city, with a proclamation that
the king seeks his honor. It is no
coincidence that the expression "honor" appears several times in this
chapter. It should be viewed as the
key word here since everything, in this chapter, turns around the idea of the
honor ("yakar") that the king wishes to bestow upon his loyal
this "honor" is valuable only to someone who "seeks the honor" of the king!
After all, this is the very meaning of the declaration: "So shall be done to the
man whom the king seeks to honor!" It is clear to everyone that the simple fact
of being led on horseback is no special privilege; however, for someone who
seeks the king's honor, the declaration that accompanies the ride is of great
importance, since it conveys the message that the king seeks to honor the person
who is being led. In other words,
Haman longed to have the whole world hear that the king sought to honor him –
since it was by such standards that he judged himself, his status, and his
success. Does the author of
Esther share this position? Was being led through the street, with a
proclamation that the king sought to honor him, really his reward?
proposes that Haman's words are interpreted by the inhabitants of the city,
observing this spectacle, in different ways. On one hand, Haman's declaration ("So
shall be done to the man…") clearly refers to Mordekhai: he is the man whom the
king seeks to honor. But who is the
real "man" whom the king has sought to honor throughout the story? Obviously,
the answer is Haman – whom the king promoted and elevated "above all the
ministers." Haman's declaration,
then, hints at another meaning: "So shall be done to the man whom the king seeks
to honor" – "So – this humiliation and disgrace that have befallen Haman – so
shall be done to the man whom the king seeks to honor."
with this humorous reading, the narrator hints at his estimation of the great
honor that is bestowed on Mordekhai through a linguistic allusion to a different
source that serves as a background to this scene: the law of chalitza, as
set out in Devarim 25.
Haman's proclamation as he leads Mordekhai – "He called out before him:
So shall be done to the man whom the king seeks to honor" (6:11)
hints at the declaration that a widowed woman is required to make if her
deceased husband's brother refuses to fulfill his responsibility of perpetuating
his brother's name by marrying his widowed sister-in-law and bearing children
(yibum – levirate marriage): "His sister-in-law shall approach him, in
the presence of the elders, and shall remove his shoe from his foot and spit in
his face and she shall answer and say: So shall be done to the man who will not
build his brother's house" (Devarim 25:9). There is no need to elaborate on the
disdain and mockery that the text directs, by means of this comparison, towards
the king and the honor that he proposes.
The honor that the king bestows resembles a spit in the face….
Mordekhai is indeed led through the street, but it is clear that he attaches no
special importance to this event; he regards it as the embodiment of the
expression, "Deceit is the horse for salvation." The narrator emphasizes this immediately
at the conclusion of this scene: "Mordekhai returned to the king's gate, while
Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with bowed head" (6:12). The mention of Mordekhai taking up his
usual position at the king's gate is not significant for the rest of the story,
nor does it add anything to this scene itself. Its entire purpose seems to be to hint
that the honor to which Mordekhai is treated in no way influences his discretion
and good judgment; he returns to his routine as though nothing had
happened. For Haman, on the other
hand, this has been a catastrophe.
Having started out with the expectation that "the royal crown would be
placed upon his head," he returns home "with his head bowed."
Apparently, he senses that he has borne out the words of the sage that we quoted
above, from Mishlei; indeed, "his efforts come down upon his own
by Kaeren Fish