Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tezaveh 5770/February 27, 2010

Purim

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

 

The Book of Esther – An Economic Reading

Shmuel Zeiler

Herzlia

 

Economics receives especial emphasis in the Book of Esther.  Even subjects that are not inherently economic are cast in language taken from this sphere:

For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated.  Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s troubles (Esther 7:4).

These words of Queen Esther to King Ahasuerus are the turning point and climax of the book.  Esther expresses opposition to Haman’s plans as being devoid of economic wisdom and efficiency.  The question that naturally arises is how the king of such a great empire became party to a failing business proposition, and what better offer does Esther make that wins the King over?

The detailed description of the king’s banquets and his wives, at the beginning of the book, is designed to lead us to understand that this king is flighty, hopelessly hedonistic, and a squanderer of public funds.  The author’s scorn for the king becomes more clear from verse to verse.  This is a king who devotes his time to deliberations about the behavior of his wives and is even so absurdly ridiculous as to involve his ministers and advisors in this matter.  Giving of his time and energy to such concerns necessarily comes at the cost of the time and energy needed to run the empire which he heads.

Concrete examples of the king’s dissipation are provided by the description of the three banquets in chapter 1.   First he gives a banquet lasting 180 days to the entire diplomatic corps, “all the officials and courtiers – the administration of Persia and Media, the nobles and the governors of the provinces in his service.”   This is followed by a seven-day banquet “in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike…   Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design.”  Alongside, the women had a banquet of their own.  The king’s wealth and extravagance are shown by the furnishings, dishes, decor and investment in the bill of fare which is described in such detail.

When it seems to this flighty king that he has been insulted by his wife, Queen Vashti, with abysmal seriousness he turns for counsel to his wise men, astrologers, and even senior ministers, in order to decide how to respond to her comportment.  Indeed, after a cutting speech by Memucan, one of his senior ministers, a sweeping political decision is taken to remove the queen from office and make a lesson of the entire affair, broadcasting it throughout the kingdom.   To satisfy the king’s need for wives, an administration is set up delegated to gather numerous candidates from all ends of the kingdom, and these women prepare themselves for an entire year for their intimate night-time meeting with the king.

It stands to reason that such administration of the kingdom would necessarily lead to financial difficulties, especially if the description of the banquets and affairs with women is only the outward expression of this administration.  The king, however, does not have his mind on solving his financial problems and thus finds it easy to fall for the wonder-solution suggested by Haman, a senior official and well-to-do man in his own right.  The possibility of increasing taxes is not in the running, since it is likely to embitter people in his kingdom.  Only after all else has failed and all available revenues have been gathered using Mordecai’s approach (see below) are taxes imposed on the mainland and the islands (Esther 10:1).

The structure of politics and government

At the banquet itself one can already detect signs that the kingdom supports cultural freedom and personal liberty; one might even assume that the bill of fare at the banquet was tailored individually to each person:  “And the rule for the drinking was, ‘No restrictions!’  For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes” (Esther 1:8).  This cultural tradition is also reflected in the respect paid by the empire to the provinces comprising it.  For example, every proclamation is translated and elucidated according to the language and culture of the recipient:  “Dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the king, to every province in its own script and to every nation in its own language” (Esther 1:22).  Ahasuerus is also characterized by his great fickleness and his lack of understanding of proper governance.   For example, he is prepared to readily hand over signatory rights in the name of the crown without any period of training and examination:  “The king slipped off his ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai” (Esther 8:2).

Haman’s proposal

Haman is the new rising star in the government.   In a short time he not only is appointed a senior minister but even becomes prime-minister:   “Some time afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials” (Esther 3:1).  Haman, aware of the economically deteriorating condition of the court, suggests a solution that will satisfy his own desires as well as the needs of the kingdom – genocide.  This solution must not contradict the basic principles of the empire – the respect and freedom given each and every province in the kingdom.   Therefore, Haman introduces his proposal to Ahasuerus with the words:  “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm” (Esther 3:8).   In other words, a people that does not behave according to the political concepts of Ahasuerus insofar as it does not even behave as a guest in other provinces, adapting its ways to those of its hosts, and its “laws are different from those of any other people.”  On the one hand, Haman argues that the king has nothing to lose from attacking them – “it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them,” while on the other hand he promises in exchange to deposit the handsome predetermined sum of “ten thousand talents of silver” to the king’s coffers.  The king is enticed by the magic economic solution proposed to him by Haman.

Presumably Haman, a well-seasoned politician, had calculated that his own revenues would be greater than the sum he would pay out and that he would end up wealthier and appreciated by the masses, who would receive their part of the take.  Perhaps Haman had even laid a small trap here for Ahasuerus, requesting him to provide an initial budget to finance the project, for it says in the next verse, “And the king said, ‘The money and the people are yours to do with as you see fit’” (Esther 3:11).  Now the Jews were given a year’s advance notice of the date of their demise.  Presumably they would have to sell their property (under the circumstances, at a reduced price), before it be seized by the masses.

 

Mordecai's Alternative

It was clear to Mordecai and Esther that only a preferable alternative offer could avert the evil decree.  With the help of miracles, [1] but also at considerable personal risk based on the (extremely dangerous) surmise that Ahasuerus’ special relationship to her would work to her advantage, Esther finally maneuvers to have Mordecai present the king with an alternative proposal.  This proposal is accepted, drafted, and promulgated two months and ten days after the previous royal edict:  “So the king’s scribes were summoned at that time, on the twenty-third day of the third month, that is, the month of Sivan; and letters were written, at Mordecai’s dictation” (Esther 8:9).

Instead of the fixed one-time payment proposed by Haman, Mordecai presented a different solution:  kill those people who were going to murder the Jews, and hand over all the spoils to the king.  The essence of the alternative edict drafted by Mordecai was “if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children.”  Any attack on them and their families was permitted, but Scripture emphatically repeats three times:

  1. “So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying, … But they did not lay hands on the spoil” (Esther 9:5-10).
  2. “and the Jews in Shushan mustered again on the fourteenth day of Adar and slew three hundred men in Shushan.   But they did not lay hands on the spoil” (Esther 9:15).
  3. The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives … but they did not lay hands on the spoil” (Esther 9:16).

Presumably this was Mordecai’s proposal:   that the spoil be handed over to the king.  Haman’s proposal contained yet another trap.  While organizing to attack the Jews and paying the administration, as described above, he was to have the support of the defense forces and even public support after the plunder from the Jews fell into their hands.  A person in his official position as viceroy to the king, wealthy and with broad popular support, posed an unacceptable threat to the king, who had already known attempts on his life. [2]

Therefore, once the deal behind the scenes and the potential threat to him from his closest aide of all became clear to the king, his aide and all those supporting him were doomed to die.   Ahasuerus, in accepting Mordecai’s proposal, benefited on many different levels:

·                  Larger revenues (as well as budgetary savings).

·                  Removal of the potential threat of revolt by his viceroy.

·                  Winning the loyalty of the Jews.  This loyalty was important since they were scattered throughout the kingdom, whereas their relations with the people among whom they were dwelling was of lesser importance.

·                  Placing Mordecai in the sensitive post of viceroy, knowing full well that Mordecai had no aspirations to the crown.

·                  And last but not least, winning Esther’s heart.

Indeed, in war be cunning! That is how Mordecai and Esther won out.

                                                                                                                                         



[1] For example, when the king is reminded that Mordecai saved him from a past assassination attempt, he honors Mordecai and humiliates Haman, who happened by the court; Esther wins a place in the royal court even though she does not belong to any people; Ahasuerus feels special love for Esther.

[2] We infer that Ahasuerus feared an attempt on his life from the previous assassination attempt by Bigthan and Teresh, and that he suspected Haman in particular from his saying, “Does he mean also [Heb. ha-gam, omitted in the JPS translation] to ravish the queen in my own palace?” (Esther 7:8).