Parashat Tzav/ Purim 5768/ March 22, 2008
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“Im mi-Zera Ha-Yehudim--If Mordecai is of Jewish stock”
Dr. Boaz Spiegel
Department of Talmud
After Haman finished leading Mordecai through the streets on the king’s horse he returned home and, as the megillah tells us (Esther 6:13), there he “told his wife Zeresh and all his friends everything that had befallen him. His advisers and his wife Zeresh said to him, ‘If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him; you will fall before him to your ruin.’” The phrase Im mi-Zera Ha-Yehudim, “if of Jewish stock,” said by Zeresh and Haman’s advisers, is problematic. Is it conceivable that they did not know for certain that Mordecai was a Jew? According to the plain sense of the text, Haman had known this since Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him. In fact, Haman’s entire plan to annihilate the Jewish people was devised on no other basis than Mordecai’s Jewish identity, as we read in the megillah (3:5-6):
When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to
him, Haman was filled with rage. But he
disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s
people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people,
It is highly probable
that this event – Mordecai’s refusal to kneel or bow low to Haman because of
his Jewish faith – had become known and publicized throughout the capital city
One other detail deserves attention. Several hours earlier, when Ahasuerus himself was instructing Haman to lead Mordecai on the horse, he said to him (): “Quick, then! Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate.” The megillah had not previously mentioned Haman reporting to Ahasuerus that Mordecai belonged to the Jewish people. So how did the king know this? This fact, as well, seems to indicate that by this stage in the plot it was common knowledge that Mordecai was a Jew, so also Zeresh and Haman’s friends presumably knew this. And above all, on the previous day Haman had unburdened himself about his troubles to his wife and advisers, telling them about Mordecai and his Jewish ways (-13):
“What is more,” said Haman, “Queen Esther gave a feast, and besides the king she did not have anyone but me. And tomorrow too I am invited by her along with the king. Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordecai sitting in the palace gate.”
All this increases our wonderment: What could have been meant by the words, “if Mordecai is of Jewish stock”?
Many commentators have discussed this striking problem in the megillah, and their many and varied ways of resolving the issue fall into three main groups, as set forth below:
(1) There are those who hold that Zeresh and Haman’s
advisers were not expressing any doubt--“if Mordecai is of Jewish stock”-- but
knew for sure that Mordecai was a Jew.
The advocates of this approach maintain that the word im (rendered
as “if”) does not indicate a matter of doubt. Some have interpreted it as
meaning “truly” or “certainly.” For
example, Rabbi Joseph Nahmiash (
Or, in saying, “if of Jewish stock” [the text] wanted to convey the idea that even if he is of Jewish stock, as in the words, “And even when the Israelites observe the jubilee” (Num. 36:4), or “Even if a man should beget” (Eccles. 6:3). Thus it wanted to say that even though he is one of the Jews, on whom you look disdainfully, since you have begun to fall before him you will not overcome him, for with you, once you begin to fall you will not rise again.
Others interpreted im as meaning “since” or “inasmuch as.” For example, Rabbi Samuel di Ozaida (Safed, 16th century) wrote:
The word im here is used in the sense of ki (= since, inasmuch as), as in “If you bring a meal offering” (Lev. ), or “And even when ... the jubilee” (Num. 36:4). Here, too, his advisers and his wife Zeresh were answering that his downfall was because Mordecai was of Jewish stock; for one cannot take im according to its face meaning, for it was common knowledge that he was of Jewish stock.
(2) A few are
of the opinion that Zeresh and Haman’s advisers indeed raised a doubt, but not
with respect to Mordecai. For example,
Rabbi Eleazar of
(3) Many are of the opinion that Zeresh and Haman’s advisers were raising a doubt concerning Mordecai, but it was not about his Jewish identity, rather about something else. The Sages thought that Zeresh and Haman’s advisers were raising a question about Mordecai’s tribal affiliation, wondering whether he was a descendant of certain Jews (= of Jewish stock). The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 16a, says:
Many commentators on the megillah followed the lead set by the above Midrash. Some stressed that Zeresh and Haman’s advisers were primarily apprehensive about Mordecai possibly being a descendant of Rachel, and especially a descendant of Benjamin, since Amalek had already been brought low twice by the hands of “Rachel’s sons” – once by Joshua son of Nun, of the tribe of Ephraim, and a second time by King Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin; hence, if Mordecai was one of their descendants, also Haman the Amalekite would surely fall before him.
In contrast to this approach, in which they wondered which tribe Mordecai came from, the Targum Rishon (6:13) indicates that they wondered whether Mordecai was from “righteous stock,” since precisely in such an eventuality it would be fitting that Haman fall before him, just as the kings fell before Abraham (Gen.14), Abimelech before Isaac, the angel before Jacob, and Pharaoh and his entire army before Moses and Aaron. Similarly, it says in Targum Sheni (loc. sit.) that Zeresh and Haman’s advisers wondered whether Mordecai was a descendant of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, for if so, then Mordecai would be destined to be delivered from Haman’s wicked plot, just as the former were delivered from the furnace.
Other commentators have said that the question was whether Mordecai was descended of Jews, in which case Haman would fall before him, or whether he was a convert or a descendant of a convert, in which case there was a possibility that Haman would overcome him.
Some commentators, differing from the direction mentioned above, interpreted that Zeresh and Haman’s advisers were not questioning Mordecai’s pedigree, rather other characteristics of his. For example, some said that Zeresh and Haman’s advisers were raising the question whether Mordecai had any mercifulness, a trait characteristic of the Jews, for if so they would advise Haman: “surely fall before him” – i.e., fall before him, begging and entreating him for mercy. Others, basing their interpretation on midrashic literature, said that Mordecai used to study Torah along with the young children. According to this interpretation, Zeresh and the advisers told Haman: “If Mordecai is of Jewish stock” – if Mordecai draws his strength from the Jewish children, and if he has to his merit having studied Torah with young children, then “you will not be able to overcome him.” Indeed, the Sages informed us of the power that lies in Jewish children studying Torah (Midrash Abba Gurion, chapter 5): “The Holy One, blessed be He, did away with Haman’s evil plot only for their sake, as it is said (Ps. 8:3): ‘From the mouths of infants and sucklings You have founded strength [= and strength is none other than Torah] on account of Your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger.’”
Esther with the commentary Akedat Yitzhak, ed. Rabbi Avidor,