Modern Commentary

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During the reign of the Persian king Ahashwerosh [Khshayarsha/Khshawarsha in Old Persian, Xerxes I in Greek] (reigned 486-465 b.c.e.) a chain of events occurred that turned a planned catastrophe into days of salvation and joy for the Jewish People. The Persian Empire at the time extended from India to Ethiopia (see Ester [Esther] 1:1) and most Jews lived within it. The reign of Ahashwerosh [Xerxes] was a splendiferous, but decadent, period.

In the third year of his reign (484-483 b.c.e.) Ahashwerosh [Xerxes] threw a drinking banquet in his winter palace in Shushan [Shushan in Old Persian, Susa in Greek] for the officials of his empire that lasted 180 days during which he made an ostentatious display of his wealth. No sooner was this 180 day drinking orgy ended then he threw another 7 day drinking feast for all the residents of Shushan [Susa] in the palace garden with an even greater ostentatious display of his wealth. Vashti (Vahishti in Old Persian) [Herodotus calls her Amestris], the chief one of the kings wives (which , according to Persian law, had to come from one of the seven Persian royal families and through whom the heir to the throne had to be born, while other wives/concubines could be from anywhere), also threw a banquet for women. (see Ester [Esther] 1:2-1:9) On the seventh day of the second drinking feast (after drinking heavily for 187 days!) he ordered the royal eunuchs to bring Vashti (who was, at that time, hosting a feast for the women) to display her beauty before all the men at his feast (something that he would have considered unthinkable had he been sober). She, however refused (after all, a queen was not an object to be displayed before drunken men and for her to abandon her guests at her feast would have been the height of impropriety), and the irate drunken king, on counsel of the seven highest princes, heads of the seven royal families of Persia, issued a decree that Vashti be deposed from the king’s favour and no longer able to enter the presence of the king in public and that her favoured state be conferred on another new wife/concubine to be selected from among the most beautiful virgins from all the lands under his rule. (see Ester [Esther] 1:10-2:4).

Ester [Esther] (Stara, which means “star”, in Old Persian), whose Hebrew name was Hadassah (which means "myrtle tree"), the cousin and adopted daughter of Mordekhai [Mordecai] (the name means “flowing myrrh”), was taken to the palace along with the other virgins to undergo a year’s preparation with oils and perfumes before being presented to the king. Mordekhai instructed her not to reveal from which nation she was and would come daily to the courtyard outside the harem to find out how she was doing. During the month of Tevet, in the seventh year of the reign of Ahashwerosh [Xerxes] (2 Dec.-31 Dec. 480 b.c.e.), Ester [Esther] was brought before the king and he favoured her above all the other women and conferred Vashti’s former favoured state upon her. He then threw another drinking feast (!) for his officials to celebrate this. (see Ester [Esther] 2:5-2:20).

Mordekhai [Mordecai], a minor official in the King’s administration, overheard two of the kings guards plotting to assassinate the king and got word to Ester [Esther], who then reported it to the king. The matter was investigated, found to be true, the plotters executed, and the matter recorded in the official history record. But the king forgot the matter after that. (see Ester [Esther] 2:21-2:23).

Some time afterward, the king promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Aghaghite, a notorious anti-Semite, to be his highest official. While all other officials knelt and bowed down before Haman, Mordekhai [Mordecai] refused to do so. Haman then decided to plot to destroy all the Jews in the empire. In the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of the reign of Ahashwerosh [Xerxes] (16 March-14 April 475 b.c.e.), Haman, being a superstitious person, cast lots to decide which day of which month would be auspicious for carrying out his plan and the twelfth month, Adar, (3 Feb.-3 March 474 b.c.e.) was chosen. Haman then went to the king and maligned the Jewish people, telling the king that it was not in the king’s interest to tolerate them and asked the king to issue and edict for their destruction, for which Haman would pay 10,000 talents (approximately 215,100 Kilograms / 473,220 lbs.) of silver for the expense of carrying it out (a sum the king could not afford to take away from the financing of his war with Greece). The king, believing him, granted his request and told him to spend the money however he saw fit. On the thirteenth of Nisan (28 March 475 b.c.e.) official orders were sent to all the officials in every land of the Empire to destroy, kill, and exterminate all the Jews on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, (15 Feb. 474 b.c.e.) and to plunder their possessions. The king then sat down to drink again (!). (see Ester [Esther]3:1-3:15).

Mordekhai [Mordecai], upon learning of the proclamation, tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes (signs of mourning) and all the Jews did the same. He sent word to Ester [Esther] about it and told her that she must go to the king, even though she hadn’t been summoned (which could result in her being put to death unless the king decided to receive her), and to appeal to the king and plead for the Jews. She then asked that all the Jews fast along with her for three days (as a means of supplication before God) after which she would go to the king. (see Ester [Esther] 4:1-4:17).

After three days (30 March 475 b.c.e.), Ester [Esther] took her life in her hands and went unbidden to the king. Fortuitously, the king received her even though she had not been summoned. He could see that something was on her mind and, in accordance with Persian royal practice, she asked that he and Haman come to a drinking feast that she will prepare the next day at which she would tell him the matter. (see Ester [Esther] 5:1-5:8).

Haman, being so full of himself, was happy about being invited along with the king to the drinking feast, feeling that he had merited higher and higher honour, but was not happy when he saw Mordekhai [Mordecai] at the palace gate and Mordekhai [Mordecai] did not rise up (as a sign of honour to him) and, on the advise of his wife and friends, decided to erect a 75 foot high stake on which to impale Mordekhai the next morning before going to the drinking feast. (see Ester [Esther 5:9-5:14).

That night God caused the king to have insomnia and, not being able to sleep, he ordered that the official history record be brought and read to him. In the reading it was found what had been written about how Mordekhai [Mordecai] had saved the king’s life by exposing the guards’ plot. The King then inquired as to what honour or reward was given to Mordekhai [Mordecai] for this and was told that nothing had been done. Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about having Mordekhai [Mordecai] impaled on the pole he had prepared for him. When the king heard him enter the outer court he had him come in in order to ask him what would be the proper thing to do to a man that the king wished to honour. Haman, not knowing about what the king had just heard read, being so full of himself that he thought that the king must be referring to him, said to the king that royal clothes should be put on the man, that he should be mounted on a royal horse, that a royal crown be put on his head, and that the horse be paraded through the street by one of the king’s noble courtiers, while proclaiming "This is what is done for a man whom the king wishes to honour!" The king then told him to have all this done to Mordekhai [Mordecai], upon which he did so and paraded Mordekhai, so dressed and so crowned, on a royal horse through the street. (see Ester [Esther] 6:1-6:11).

After this Haman bemoaned the state of affairs and was told that by his wife that, if Mordokhai is a Jew, he could not overcome him and that his hatred of the Jews would cause his own downfall. The king’s servants then arrived to bring Haman to the drinking feast that Ester [Esther] had prepared for the king and him. On that second day, during the feast (31 March 475 b.c.e.), the king again asked Ester [Esther] what the matter was. She then told him that her people, were to be destroyed, killed, and exterminated because of the machinations of an adversary. The king demanded to know who dared to do such a thing and she told him that it was Haman. Haman cringed in terror and the king, overcome with rage, left the feast to go out into the palace garden. Haman, now afraid for his own life, pleaded with Ester [Esther], who was still reclining on her couch, and when the king returned to the banquet room from the garden, he saw that Haman was lying prostrate upon the couch where Ester [Esther] reclined. The king thought that Haman was trying to ravish the queen. Then one of the king’s servants said that not only that, but Haman had erected a 75 foot high pole at his house upon which he planned to impale Mordekhai [Mordecai], the man who saved the king. The king then ordered that Haman be impaled on it. (see Ester [Esther] 6:12-7:10).

That day the king gave Haman’s property to Ester [Esther]. With her having revealed how she was related to Mordekhai [Mordecai], Mordekhai presented himself before the king. The king put Mordekhai in Haman’s place as head official and Ester [Esther] put him in charge of Haman’s property. Persian law was constructed in such a way that, once a law was decreed and written, it could not be repealed, so Ester [Esther] appealed to the king that another decree be issued allowing the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies who were going to destroy them. So on twenty-third day of Siwan (5 June 475 b.c.e.) letters were written at the dictation of Mordekhai [Mordecai] to the Jews and provincial governors and officials of all the provinces from India to Ethiopia and they were sealed with the king’s seal. They were sent out in due haste by royal messengers and declared that the king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they, the Jews, may destroy them on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, (15 Feb. 474 b.c.e.). (see Ester [Esther] 8:1-8:17).

So, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, (15 Feb. 474 b.c.e), the day on which the enemies of the Jews had planned to exterminate them, the opposite happened and the Jews overcame their enemies. The fighting in Shushan [Susa] was particularly hard and the king granted permission for the Jews to continue the fighting on the next day, the fourteenth of Adar (16 Feb. 474 b.c.e.), as well. In the spread out towns of the empire the Jews fought on the thirteenth of Adar (15 Feb. 474 b.c.e.), killing 75,000 of their enemies, and rested on the fourteenth of Adar (16 Feb. 474 b.c.e.), while in Shushan [Susa] they fought on the thirteen and fourteenth of Adar (15-16 Feb. 474 b.c.e.), killing 800 plus the ten sons of Haman, and rested on the fifteenth of Adar (17 Feb. 474 b.c.e.). (see Ester [Esther] 9:1-9:19).

The Jews took it upon themselves then to observe both the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the twelfth month, Adar, now called Purim from the word Pur, which means lot in Assyrian, after the lots that were cast to determine the date of their destruction but which was turned into days of light and joy, every year as days of wine feasts and joy, sending gifts of food and drink to one another, and gifts to the poor. (see Ester [Esther] 9:20-9:32).

Therefore, as it says in Ester [Esther] 9:21 and 9:27-28, we celebrate these days (both the fourteenth and the fifteenth of the twelfth month, Adar, even in a leap year) with joy by reading Meghillat Ester [the scroll of Esther], having drinking feasts, sending gifts of food and drink to one another, and giving gifts to the poor.

It is our custom to read the Megillah after Tefillah five times: on the Mosa’ei Shabbat [Saturday night] that precedes Purim and the evening and morning of both days of Purim. Some people have the custom of additionally reading it at the table during the feasts, lest we forget the purpose of the feasts.

To listen to the recitation of Meghillat Ester by Hakham Mosheh Ben-Sa‘ad Dabbah of Jerusalem click on the following links:

Meghillat Ester Pereq Rishon

Meghillat Ester Pereq Sheni

Meghillat Ester Pereq Shelishi

Meghillat Ester Pereq Revi‘i

Meghillat Ester Pereq Hamishi

Meghillat Ester Pereq Shishi

Meghillat Ester Pereq Shevi‘i

Meghillat Ester Pereq Shemini

Meghillat Ester Pereq Tish‘i and Pereq ‘Asiri