Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shushan Purim 5765/ March 26, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

Mordecai and Esther: A Relative Matter

Dr. Ari Zivotofsky

Gonda Brain Research Center

 

Ask anyone, How were Mordecai and Esther related, and the answer you are sure to get is: they were uncle and niece. However, a look at the relevant verse in the Megillah (2:7) shows that they were cousins (“his uncle’s daughter”).  Whence did this misconception arise?  How did it develop?   Does it have any foundation in the sources?  These are the questions we shall address below.

Indeed, this misconception is very widespread.  It can be found in Louis Ginzberg’s comprehensive anthology of legends on the Bible.  In Legends of the Jews, vol. 4, p. 381, we read:  “The descent of Mordecai and of his niece Esther . . .”. [1]   This unwitting error occurred even in the works of great rabbis.  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the rabbi of Efrat, wrote this in his weekly commentary on the Torah for Parashat Pekudei in 2000.  Even Rabbi Soloveitchik termed Mordecai “uncle” several times in his lecture for Purim that was recorded in Boston in 1969.  Rabbi Isaac Sender of Chicago, as well, wrote this in his book, The Commentators’ Al Hanissim. [2]   This view has also been mentioned in an article on medicine. [3]   The most widespread testimony to this misconception is found in the well-known children’s song (in Hebrew):

I am Queen Esther

on my head is a crown.

Do you know who my uncle is?

Mordecai the Jew.

One of the sources that presents the family relationship correctly is the Encyclopedia Judaica (6:906):  She was orphaned as a child, and her cousin Mordechai adopted her and brought her up.”

In spite of all this, surely the rabbis whom we mentioned above were not unaware of the relationship between Esther and Mordecai, which is clearly set forth twice in the Book of Esther.  We have already noted the first occurrence above. [4]   In the same chapter, verse 15, when Esther is brought to the king’s palace, her pedigree is mentioned:   “daughter of Abihail – the uncle of Mordecai” (dod Mordecai), again making her a cousin.

Targum Traditions

The Aramaic translation of Esther known as Targum Sheni is more detailed, explicitly stating that Mordecai’s father Jair (Esth. 2:15), and Esther’s father Abihail (Esth. 2:15, 8:29) were brothers.   The other Aramaic translation on the Book of Esther, known as Targum Rishon, also mentions in 2:7 and 15 that Abihail, Esther’s father, was the brother of Mordecai’s father.  Nevertheless, surprisingly, in 7:6, he puts into Esther’s mouth the words that she told the king about “the righteous Mordecai, my father’s brother” – i.e., her uncle Mordecai.  Perhaps this is a scribal error, or possibly this targum has preserved two different traditions regarding the family relations.   But since the Targum Rishon contains two verses with the standard formulation, it is difficult to view the third reference as reflecting an actual source which had a tradition of uncle-niece relations. [5]

Man and Wife

We do find another sort of relationship between Mordecai and Esther.   Rashi (on Esther 2:7) cites the Talmudic interpretation (Megillah 13a) according to which Mordecai not only raised Esther but later also took her as a wife. [6]   The Talmud also concludes from Esther 2:20 that they indeed lived as man and wifeeven after Esther was taken to the king’s palace, until the day that she came of her own free will to Ahasuerus’ home. [7]   However, this may be viewed as a supplement to the plain sense of the text and does not contradict it.   On the other hand, I have not been able to find any traditional source according to which Mordecai was Esther’s uncle, for this would be a contradiction of the plain sense of Scripture. [8]

One possible source for this error, which is so very widespread, lies in several ancient versions of the story of Esther.  The most ancient appears in Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (Book 11, ch. 6 [11:198]) dating approx. to 37-101 C.E., [9] where he tells the story of Esther.  In presenting Esther he writes, “In the ruins that were gathered, there was found one young girl, orphaned of both her parents, who had been adopted by her uncle Mordecai – that being his name, ... and Esther was her name.” Professor Louis Feldman notes that it is unreasonable to assume that Josephus took this version from the Septuagint, since there Mordecai and Esther are presented as cousins, and Rahlf’s scholarly edition, which cites all the major manuscripts, indicates no other reading regarding this point.   Perhaps Josephus simply was careless.  

Josephus

However, Feldman [10] claims that most of the times that Josephus deviates from the biblical text he does so deliberately.  He shows that in the story of Esther it is clear Josephus availed himself of the Septuagint, since he includes certain additions in the story that are present only in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew original.  Hence Feldman concludes that his difference on this point is not accidental.  

Making Esther Younger

Feldman [11] suggests this as an example of a correction made by Josephus in order to avoid chronological implications that might adversely affect the reliability of his account in the eyes of his readers. [12]   Putting Esther in the generation of nieces, instead of cousins, lowers her age and helps make the king’s attraction to her understandable.  Feldman, being reluctant to say that Josephus inserted incidental changes, therefore suggests that Josephus might have been familiar with an oral tradition according to which Esther was Mordecai’s niece.

It is interesting to note that two ancient non-Jewish sources also give the relationship as uncle and niece: the 3rd-5th century Latin translation (Vetus Latina) and the Vulgate (dating to 390-405 C.E.).   The Vulgate, chapter 2, verse 7, says that Mordecai raised the daughter of his brother (fratis), and in the same chapter, verse 15, Esther is identified as the daughter of Abihail, Mordecai’s brother.

Perhaps this error was introduced because in the Septuagint the description is “father’s brother” instead of “uncle,” as occurs in Hebrew. [13]   If this was the source from which the Vulgate translation was made, perhaps the translators mistakenly omitted the word “father’s” and thus arrived at Mordecai being Esther’s uncle. [14]   That being so, the Catholic tradition [15] came to be based on the mistaken Vulgate, and perhaps the widespread Jewish misconception was influenced by this belief.

A Simple Explanation?

One other, simpler explanation can be suggested for this widespread mistake.   Since Mordecai adopted Esther and raised her as his daughter he is thought of as being older, and hence one tends to think of them as uncle and niece rather than cousins. [16]   This idea can draw support from the words “Mordecai’s uncle” [Hebrew:  dod Mordechai], which in contemporary Hebrew means “Uncle Mordecai”. Even though this phrase in the Book of Esther is used to describe Abihail, it might have been associated with the way a person addresses an uncle by the name of Mordecai.



[1] Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1968. See too pp. 384, 387.  Nowhere in this work is there even a hint of the correct family relation. [In Ginzberg’s defense, it should be noted that he presents the midrashic view of the Bible—ed.]

[2] In the Feldheim edition, p. 34, he writes of “the reprimand which Mordechai gave to his niece” when she was hesitant about going to the king; and on pages 273-274 he paraphrases Rabbi Soloveitchik’s lecture as follows:   “Why did he insist on persisting in his watch over his niece?”

[3] Rohn, R.D., “Galactorrhea in the adolescent,” Journal of Adolescent Health Care, 1984:5.

[4] Scriptural proof that dod means father’s brother can be found in Leviticus 18:14.

[5] It should be noted that, unlike Targum Onkelos on the Pentateuch and Targum Jonathan on the Propehts, which were redacted in the land of Israel in the early centuries of the Christian Era and accepted as authoritative, the Aramaic translations and elaborations on Esther apparently date to a far later period (the eighth or ninth century), and according to Rabbi Hai Gaon are less authoritative.

[6] This interpretation can be found as early as the text of Esther in the Septuagint ( Esth. 2:7), where it says:  “and when her parent’s died, he [Mordecai] took her to himself as a wife.”  Some modern exegetes suggest that the Greek translator simple erred, reading le-beit instead of le-bat, leading to a substantial a difference of meaning:  “took her to his home” as opposed to “took her to be as his daughter”].  It is more reasonable to assume that the Greek translator knew the oral tradition that was widespread by then and later documented in the Talmud.

[7] Initially they could remain husband and wife because a woman who has been forced to have intercourse with another man, if she is not the wife of a Cohen, remains permissible to her husband (Ketubbot 51b; Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 6.10-11).   Esther’s life with Ahasuerus was considered coerced (cf. Tosefot, Ketubbot 51b, s.v. asurah.  Also see Tosefot Megillah 13b, s.v.ve-tovelet,” regarding what Esther did to prevent bearing a child whose father would be uncertain).   The Talmud explains (Megillah 15a) in a commentary on Esther 4:16 that only from the fateful day on which she came to the king of her own free will, as part of her plot to save the Jews, was she no longer permissible to Mordecai.

[8] Without direct relation to our case, traditionally it was considered a mitzvah to marry one’s niece (Rema, Even ha- Ezer 2.6).  Tradition has it that Abraham did so when he took the daughter of his brother Haran to wife.  Such a tradition exists to this day; for example, the Netziv’s second marriage was to Bathya Miriam, daughter of his sister and Rabbi Jehiel Michael Epstein, author of Arukh ha-Shulhan.

[9] I wish to thank Rabbi M. Wechselman for calling my attention to this source.

[10] L. Feldman, Josephus' Interpretation of the Bible, Berkley : University of California Press, 1998.

[11] Idem , Studies in Josephus' Rewritten Bible, Leiden : Brill, 1998, pp. 532 and 561.

[12] Feldman draws a connection between this and the fact that Josephus omitted all mention of Mordecai being “in the group that was carried into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon,” which would have implied that by the time of the story of Esther he would have been at least 123 years old.   See Feldman, loc. sit., pp. 532-534, for a list of other changes that Josephus made in order for his account be more “credible.”

[13] Several languages, including Aramaic, do not have a special word, or at least not a widely used word, denoting uncle.  The Hebrew original of Leviticus 18:14 says, “Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother; do not approach his wife, she is your aunt.” Onkelos translated this using the words “wife of your father’s brother” instead of “aunt,” seemingly making the end of the verse superfluous.  Likewise, in Leviticus 20:20 Onkelos renders the text “father’s brother” and “wife of one’s father’s brother” instead of “uncle” and “aunt.”

[14] The source for the Vulgate might have been Josephus, considering that Jerome made extensive use of Josephus’ works.

[15] For example, cf. The Catholic Encylopedia (vol. 5, p. 556), which describes the relationship as “uncle (or cousin).”

[16] Jewish tradition has other instances of uncles who raised their nieces or nephews, such as Abraham and Lot and Rabba bar Nahmani and Abaye.