Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayiqra-Shabbat Zakhor 5765/ March 19, 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,


Esther and Realpolitik

Prof. Haim Genizi

Department of World History 


When Mordecai charged Esther to “go to the king and to appeal to him and to plead with him for her people” (Esther 4:8), Esther put him off with a formal response:  “Now I have not been summoned to visit the king for the last thirty days” (4:11).   Only after Mordecai’s sharp response did Esther understand the gravity of the situation and decide to take action:   “Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish” (4:16).  On a first reading it seems that Esther was taking a desperate step, almost suicidal. We shall attempt to show that far from being puppet theater, with extremes of rash actions, many of the moves taken by the characters in the Megillah may be understood as sophisticated political moves. Esther too had a well-formed, realistic plan with a good chance of success. We shall cite some of her actions and try to understand them in the above light

Delaying Tactics

“On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel” (5:1).  Wearing the clothes the king liked best, in order to appear pleasing to him, she stood at the entrance of the palace.  The king, well aware of the prohibition against coming to the inner court, was astounded at seeing her and called out, “What troubles you, Queen Esther?” (5:3).   He was eager to know what it was that was important enough to cause Esther to risk her life.   But Esther avoided his question and instead invited him to a feast with Haman.

Now, to invite the king to a feast there was no need to risk one’s life; a respectable invitation could have been sent by means of one of the eunuchs.  Therefore at the feast the king seems to have been preoccupied in finding out what was on Esther’s mind. The queen however did not give the slightest inkling as to the matter on her mind, while as a proper hostess, saw to it that the conversation never lagged.  Finally the king turned to her, asking, “What is your wish?   It shall be granted” (6:5).   Esther was again in no hurry to satisfy the king’s curiosity and promised to do the king’s bidding at the feast that she would give the next day. 

We may add that Esther may well have acted frivolously with Haman during the feast.  As the Midrash Lekah Tov comments, “She played it up greatly, to display before the king that she loved Haman with all her soul, so that the king would be jealous of him and would say that it was not for naught that he had been invited two days in a row – given this great love – therefore the king had trouble sleeping that night.”  Indeed, Haman left the feast “happy and lighthearted.”

Unfounded Suspicions?

Unlike Haman, Ahasuerus left the feast troubled and wondering.   What was it that Esther wished?   What important matter had led her to risk her life, appearing so dramatically in his inner court?   It appears that another matter began to trouble him as well – the question of Esther’s relations with Haman.  What was Haman doing at a closed, private, family party of the king and queen?  Moreover, when the queen invited both the king and Haman to the second feast, it was clear to Ahasuerus that it was not simply a chance occurrence.  After all, the two feasts that Esther gave were not for the public at large, unlike the banquets which the king had given “for all his officials and courtiers” (1:3; 2:18). 

Seizing the Queen and the Crown

The king’s concern was not only on the romantic and personal level. According to the Midrash Ahasuerus was not actually the son of a king but had seized the throne by force. [1] He must have had many political rivals whom he feared might try to seize the crown from him.  This may be the rationale behind the strict security measures taken with everyone, including the queen.   Anyone who might enter the inner court without being summoned was liable to death.  The earlier assassination attempt by Bigthana and Teresh is indicative of this atmosphere.   Ahasuerus began to have misgivings that Haman’s dizzying rise to power as prime minister had gone to his head, making him think of seizing the crown.  Haman’s demand that all the king’s servants bow down before him (3:2) can be seen as pointing in this direction.

One of the ways of seizing the crown in ancient times was by first taking the king’s wife as one’s own, [2] as Rashi noted:  “The beginning of sovereignty is in using the king’s scepter.” Opinion in the Talmud is divided as to whether Ahasuerus was smart or dumb, but it is clear that regarding women he was quite expert.   Therefore, the relations between Haman and Esther that seemed to him to be emerging under his nose were a threat to his throne.  He feared that Haman would use Esther for his own political purposes and since he could not meet Esther covertly, since one of the king’s servants would surely report it, a banquet in the king’s presence was chosen as a way for them to meet in the open.   The king’s fear that Haman was plotting against him worried him so much that he could not fall asleep:  “That night, sleep deserted the king” (6:1) – that was the night between the first and second feasts.   While the king had not forgotten the issue of Esther, concern over Haman held primacy of place at that moment.

Minister at Large

At this point we must clarify Mordecai’s standing.  It seems that Mordecai was a senior official in the Persian administration.   The recurrent phrase, “when Mordecai was sitting in the palace gate” (2:21; 5:9, and others) means he held an important office there.   He was one of Ahasuerus’ ministers and therefore could visit Esther outside the women’s court in order to find out how she was faring (2:11), and perhaps his position at the king’s gate afforded him the possibility of uncovering the plot to assassinate the king and foiling that plot (2:22). 

Given Mordecai’s lofty station, we can understand why Haman, the prime minister, could not simply have him killed, but rather needed the king’s approval for such a measure (6:4).  Moreover, even if we take Ahasuerus to be an utter fool, although I do not think he was, it is difficult to understand why the king should have appointed Mordecai prime minister after Haman’s fall, had Mordecai not already been a minister in his kingdom.

Taking all the above into account, when the king found out that Haman had come to the palace court on the eve between the two private banquets, he decided to put him to the test.  Ahasuerus asked Haman a seemingly innocent question:   “What should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor?” (6:6).  Haman, convinced that the king meant him, suggested a symbolic coronation of the person whom the king wished to honor (v. 8).   Thus Haman fell for the king’s trick, revealing his hidden intentions of seizing the crown.   Even if this was not proof of Haman’s aspirations to be king, it certainly was an indication in this direction.  Therefore the king decided to put Haman down.   The king surely knew of the hostility between Haman and Mordecai, since presumably his servants who spied for him had reported this to him, and so Ahasuerus told Haman, “Get the garb and horse, as you have said, and do his to Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate.   Omit nothing of all you have proposed” (6:10).  The last sentence indicates that the king knew full well how hard it would be for Haman to carry out this order and therefore he cautioned him, “omit nothing.” [3]

The king arrived at the second feast plagued by great suspicions of Haman and curious to know what it was that Esther wished; Haman arrived at the feast in an abject state because of the honors he had had to give to Mordecai.  Furthermore, the consultation he held at home had presaged his downfall. His wife and advisors 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” (6:13).   While the discussion at home was in full swing, before a solution had been proposed, Haman was rushed off to the feast and therefore was in a state of confusion when he arrived.  At the second feast, as well, Esther did not bring up what was on her mind, despite its importance, but waited for the king’s question.  Finally, when Esther presented her problem – “For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated” (7:4) – the king burst out, demanding to know:  “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?” 

Transfer or Destruction

The king’s wonderment is surprising, and even more difficult to understand is his wrath when Esther pointed to Haman as responsible for the plan to annihilate the Jews:  “The adversary and enemy is this evil Haman” (7:6).   For had not the king concluded an agreement with Haman when he gave him his ring, saying, “the people are yours to do with as you see fit” (3:11)?   In other words, the king knew full well about the deal with Haman; so why did he pretend not to know? 

Perhaps one could argue that Ahasuerus was lying to Esther, and his rage was false. But one could also view the deal between Haman and the king in a different light.  Haman sought “to do away with all the Jews throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus” (3:6), but Ahasuerus understood it differently.   Genocide is not heard of in that period; it is a modern invention.  Haman indeed accused the Jews of “not obeying the king’s laws” (3:8), but in ancient times even political rebellion, which was more dangerous to the empire than civil disobedience, was not punished by genocide, rather by exile, as in the exile of the ten tribes and the exile of Zedekiah.  Transferring entire populations from one area to another was an accepted method of punishment for rebels.

It seems Ahasuerus must have thought that Haman was speaking of selling the Jews into slavery, for the money that Haman proposed to raise was intended as compensation to be given the coffers of the kingdom in exchange for the work force of the king’s subject that would be lost. This explanation also accounts for Esther’s remarks, “Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble” (7:4).  True, Haman had said, “let an edict be drawn for their destruction” (3:9), but had the Jews were sold into slavery they would cease to exist as a people, since the laws of the master become the laws of the slave.  In the light of this explanation Ahasuerus’ rage is fully authentic and understandable, for he had not given his consent to the destruction of an entire people, only to their exile. [4]

When the king charged out to the palace garden in a fury, Haman began to beg the queen for his life.  But when upon returning the king saw Haman prostrated on the couch on which Esther was reclining, he perceived this as confirming his suspicions regarding Haman’s relations with the queen:   “Does he mean to ravish the queen in my own palace?” (7:8).  Were it not for the king’s earlier suspicions of Haman, it would be difficult to understand how the king might have thought that Haman would dare take advantage of the situation to seduce the queen.

Harbonah’s remark that Haman had wished to hang Mordecai, “the man whose words saved the king” (7:9), without asking the king’s leave, served as further proof to Ahasuerus regarding Haman’s intentions to become king, for he had appropriated to himself authority that is reserved to the king (Haman had actually gone to request the king’s permission to hang Mordecai, but he had not succeeded in making his request – cf. 6:4).  Thus Esther succeeded in removing Haman and then canceling his decree.

Esther’s Plan

Now let us reconstruct Esther’s plan.  Esther was well acquainted with the atmosphere of palace intrigues, jealousies and suspicions.  Likewise, she knew that important decisions are taken at feasts.  Her problem was that in Persia women had no standing in running the kingdom; so how could she persuade the king to listen to her pleas regarding policy in the kingdom?   Moreover, even the queen’s status was inferior to that of the prime minister when it came to political agreements, so why should the king accept her position against the views of his prime minister?

Therefore Esther was forced to maneuver within the bounds of these limitations.   Had she invited the king to a feast by sending him a written invitation, the king would have willingly come, but he would not have been ready to listen to her request.   Therefore she appeared in person, at great risk to herself, thereby arousing the king’s curiosity and interest.   When she refused to bring up her request at the first feast, dragging the matter on from feast to feast, she kept up the king’s attention and curiosity.  Even at the second feast she did not bring her matter up, but let the king ask what she desired, [5] and thus she hoped that the king might listen to her claims and requests, even though they touched on political matters in the administration of the state.

Esther’s second challenge was to bring the king to prefer her position over the deal he had signed with Haman.  Indeed, Esther’s status was inferior to that of the prime minister in terms of politics, but there was one area in which the prime minister had no primacy over all the rest of the king’s servants, and that was in affairs regarding the queen as his wife.  Esther deliberately aroused jealousy in Ahasuerus and led him to believe that some sort of relations were developing between her and Haman. [6]   Indeed, the king suspected Haman, and his cry, “Does he mean to ravish the queen in my own palace?” expresses his thoughts in this direction.

What would have happened had the king also suspected Esther?  What would have happened had the king ordered both of them to be killed, in line with such laws as, “the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10)?   That was why Esther had earlier said to Mordecai, “if I am to perish, I shall perish.”  We know see that she was not embarking on a suicidal course, rather setting in action an intricately thought-out plan while taking a calculated risk. [7] The Holy One, blessed be He, helped Esther carry out her plan and thus save the lives of her people.

[1] Cf. Megillah 11a; Rashi on Esther 1.1; Malbim on Esther 1.1.  The coronation and victory banquet was not held until three years later (Esther 1:2-3), after he had succeeded in putting down the uprisings and riots in his country.

[2] Greek legends tell of Oedipus saving Thebes from the Sphinx and, as his prize for doing so, marrying the queen, who was his mother, and thus becoming king of Thebes.   Examples can also be brought from the Bible:  Ahithophel advised Absalom to have intercourse with his father’s concubines, “and when all Israel hears that you have dared the wrath of your father, all who support you will be encouraged” (II Sam. 16:21); Saul’s son Ish-bosheth viewed the deed of Abner son of Ner, having intercourse with Saul’s concubine Rizpah, daughter of Aiah, as an act of revolt against the crown, intending to depose the king (II Sam. 3:7).   King Solomon, as well, took Adonijah son of Haggit’s request to marry Abishag the Shunammite, who had been David’s concubine, as indicating his aspiration for kingship:   “Why request Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah?   Request the kingship for him!” (I Kings 2:22).

[3] Similarly, when the Lord sent Jeremiah to prophesy in the Temple courtyard, saying the words, “then I will make this House like Shiloh,” the Lord warned him, “Do not omit anything” ( Jer. 26:2), out of His recognition of the difficulty in delivering such a harsh prophecy as this in the House of the Lord.

[4] Cf. M. Kascher, Torah Shelemah:   Megillat Esther (Jerusalem, 1994), p. 196, note 14.

[5] Some people believe that one may not introduce a subject before the king until the king has spoken first.  While this is true at public forums it might not necessarily hold in the setting of a private feast between the king and queen.

[6] As Rashi wrote in his commentary on Esther 5:4.

[7] “R. Berakhya said in the name of R. Hiyyah Abuy that Esther acted heroically, pulling him [Haman] down onto her and saying, ‘We shall be killed, he and I, but my people will be saved.’”  Kascher, Torah Shelemah, p. 198.