views updated May 18 2018


ESTHER (Heb. אֶסְתֵּר), daughter of Abihail, an exile at *Susa, and heroine of the Book of Esther. The name Esther is probably from Old Persian star (well attested in the later Persian dialects), with the same meaning as English "star." She is once called Hadassah (Esth. 2:7), a testimony to the practice of Jews having double names, as do the heroes in *Daniel. She was orphaned as a child, and her cousin *Mordecai adopted her and brought her up.

When Queen *Vashti fell into disgrace because of her disobedience to King *Ahasuerus, Esther was among the beautiful virgins chosen to be presented to the king (1:19–2:8). Ahasuerus was struck by her beauty, and made her queen instead of Vashti (2:17). Esther, however, did not reveal the fact that she was a Jew.

Later, when *Haman, the prime minister, persuaded the king to issue an edict of extermination of all the Jews of the empire, Esther, on Mordecai's advice, endangered her own life by appearing before the king without being invited, in order to intercede for her people (4:16–17). Seeing that the king was well disposed toward her, she invited him and Haman to a private banquet, during which she did not reveal her desire, however, but invited them to another banquet, thus misleading Haman by making him think that he was in the queen's good graces. Her real intention, however, was to take revenge on him. During the second banquet, Queen Esther revealed her origin to the king, begged for her life and the life of her people, and named her enemy (7:3–6). Angry with Haman, Ahasuerus went into the palace garden. Haman, in great fear, remained to plead for his life from the queen. While imploring, he fell on Esther's couch and was found in this compromising situation on the king's return. He was immediately condemned to be hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. The king complied with Esther's request, and the edict of destruction was changed into permission given to the Jews to avenge themselves on their enemies.

See also *Scroll of Esther.

In the Aggadah

Esther was a descendant of King Saul. Her father died soon after her conception and her mother when she was born (Meg. 13a), and she was brought up by Mordecai as his daughter. Her real name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther by non-Jews, this being the Persian name for Venus (ibid.). Esther was one of the four most beautiful women in the world (ibid. 15a), though some say that she was of sallow complexion but endowed with great charm. Like the myrtle (Heb. hadassah) she was of ideal height, neither too short nor too tall (ibid. 13a). All who beheld her were struck by her beauty: she was more beautiful than either Median or Persian women (Esth. R. 6:9). In addition, everyone took her to be one of his own people (Meg. 13a). Before Esther was made queen, Ahasuerus would compare women who entered with a statue of Vashti that stood near his bed. After his marriage the statue was replaced by one of Esther (Midrash Abba Guryon, Parashah 2). When Esther became queen she refused to disclose her lineage to Ahasuerus though she claimed that like him she was of royal descent. She also criticized him for killing Vashti and for following the brutish advice of the Persian and Median nobles, pointing out that the earlier kings (Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar) had followed the counsel of prophets (Daniel). At her suggestion he sought out Mordecai whose advice he requested on how to induce Esther to reveal her ancestry, complaining that neither giving banquets and reducing taxation in her honor nor showering gifts upon her had been of any avail. Mordecai suggested that maidens be again assembled as if the king wished to remarry and that Esther, aroused by jealousy, would comply with his wishes. But this too was in vain (Meg. 13a).

Mordecai was appointed to the king's gate, the same appointment that Hananiah and his companions had received from Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 2:49). His task was to inform Ahasuerus of any conspiracy against him. Bigthan and Teresh, who had previously kept the gate, became incensed, saying: "The king has removed two officials and replaced them by this single barbarian." To prove the superiority of their guardianship over that of the Jew, they decided to kill the king. Not realizing that Mordecai as a member of the Sanhedrin knew 70 languages, they conversed together in their native Tarsean. In Mordecai's name Esther informed the king, who ordered the two to be hanged. All affairs of state were entered into the king's chronicles and whenever the king wanted to be reminded of past events they would be read out to him. The information given by Mordecai was written in the book, and this was the beginning of Haman's downfall (Esth. 6). This was why the sages said: "whoever repeats something in the name of one who said it brings redemption to the world" (Perek Kinyan Torah = Avot 6:6 in the prayer book version; Esth. R. 6:13; Meg. 15a; pdre 50). The three days appointed by Esther as fast days (Esth. 4:16) were the 13th, 14th, and 15th of Nisan. Mordecai sent back word complaining that these days included the first day of Passover! To which she replied: "Jewish elder! Without an Israel, why should there be Passover?" Mordecai understood and canceled the Passover festivity, replacing it with a fast (Esth. R. 8:6). Esther's motive in inviting Haman to the banquet was that he should not discover that she was Jewish, and that the Jews should not say: "We have a sister in the king's palace," and so neglect to pray for God's mercy. She also thought that by being friendly to Haman she would rouse the king's jealousy to such an extent that he would kill both of them (Meg. 15b). Haman thought that Esther prepared the banquet in his honor, little realizing that she had set a trap for him (Mid. Prov. 9:2). With the revocation of the evil decree, Esther sent to the sages and asked them to perpetuate her name by the reading of the book of Esther and by the institution of a feast. When they answered that this would incite the ill-will of the nations, she replied: "I am already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia (Meg. 7a)."

[Elimelech Epstein Halevy]

In the Arts

Of all the biblical heroines Esther has enjoyed greatest popularity among writers, artists, and musicians, representing feminine modesty, courage, and self-sacrifice. From the Renaissance era onward she figured in a vast array of dramas, including many Jewish plays intended for presentation on the *Purim festival. Two early works on this theme were La Representatione della Reina Hester (c. 1500), an Italian verse mystery that went through several editions during the 16th century, and the last of the 43 plays of the French Mistére du Viel Testament, a work of the later Middle Ages. These were followed by the German Meistersinger Hans Sachs' Esther (1530) and an English verse play, A New Enterlude of Godly Queene Hester, published anonymously in 1561. The latter, which entirely omitted the character of Vashti and muted the role of Mordecai, contained marked political undertones reflecting popular dissatisfaction with King Henry viii and his ministers of state. A work of the same period was Solomon *Usque's Esther, first staged in Venice in 1558. This Portuguese play, later revised by Leone *Modena, was remarkably successful and attracted many non-Jews to its performances.

The subject gave rise to a series of dramatic interpretations in France, beginning with the Huguenot playwright Antoine de Montchrétien's three verse tragedies, Esther (1585), Vashti (1589), and Aman (1601). During the 17th century a drama, Esther (1644), was written by Pierre Du Ryer and a long epic poem of the same name (1673) by Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, both in the austere religious manner of the period. The major French literary treatment of the theme was *Racine's epic tragedy Esther (1689), written for presentation at the Saint-Cyr girls' school supervised by Madame de Maintenon, the morganatic wife of Louis xiv, and first performed with choruses by J.-B. Moreau. Esther herself, a model of Christian womanly virtues, evidently represented the sponsor, while Vasthi (Vashti) represented the king's former mistress, Madame de Montespan, heightening the political implications of the play. Other 17th-century works on the subject include Aman y Mardoqueo o la reina Ester, a play by the Spanish New Christian Felipe *Godínez; the refugee Portuguese Marrano João *Pinto Delgado's Poema de la Reyna Ester (Rouen, 1627), part of a volume dedicated to Cardinal Richelieu; Mardochée Astruc's Judeo-Provençal Tragediou de la Reine Esther; and Isaac Cohen de *Lara's Comedia famosa de Aman y Mordochay (1699).

Interest in the theme was maintained during the 18th-20th centuries, beginning with Manuel Joseph Martin's La Soberbia castigada. Historia … de Esther y Mardocheo (1781). A Yiddish play, Esther, oder di belonte Tugend (1827, 18543), was written by J. Herz, and Hebrew adaptations of Racine's classic drama made by S.J.L. *Rapoport (in She'erit Judah, 1827) and, in complete form, by Meir Ha-Levi *Letteris (Shelom Esther, 1843). The virtues of the Jewish heroine were emphasized in the Austrian dramatist Franz Grillparzer's unfinished play Esther (1848), and other treatments included J.A. Vaillant's Romanian Legenda lui Aman ṣi Mardoheu (1868), Joseph Shabbetai Farḥi's Italian Alegria di Purim (1875), and the U.S. writer Frank C. Bliss' verse drama Queen Esther (1881). Almost the only biblical play to escape censorship in 19th-century England was Esther the Royal Jewess: or the Death of Haman, a lavishly produced melodrama by Elisabeth Polack, which was staged in London in 1835. There have been numerous plays about Esther from the early 20th century onward: Esther, princesse d'Israël (1912) by André Dumas and S.C. Leconte; H. Pereira *Mendes' Esther and Harbonah (1917); Max *Brod's Esther (1918); John Masefield's Esther (1922), a pastiche of Racine; and other works of the same name by Felix *Braun (1925), Sammy *Gronemann (1926), and the U.S. dramatist Sonia V. Daugherty (1929). Three other modern treatments are Izak *Goller's fantasy A Purim-Night's Dream (1931) and James Bridie's What Say They? (1939); and a rare biblical novel on the subject, Maria Poggel-Degenhardt's Koenigin Vasthi; Roman aus der Zeit Esthers (1928). Most successful were the satiric Megilla-Lieder of the Yiddish poet Itzik *Manger adapted for the stage in Israel in 1965.

In art the Book of Esther is represented in the cycle of paintings from the third-century synagogue at *Dura-Europos and also in the ninth-century mural in the basilica of San Clemente in Rome. The scenes depicted at Dura-Europos were Esther and Ahasuerus enthroned and Mordecai riding in triumph on a regal white horse. They could be seen clearly from the women's benches, and it has been suggested that they were placed there because women normally came to synagogue to attend the reading of the Scroll of Esther which, according to *Joshua bar Levi (Meg. 4a), they were obliged to hear. In medieval Christian iconography, Esther was associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary. Her intercession with Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jews was interpreted as a prefiguration of the Virgin's mediation on behalf of mankind. After the Middle Ages the story of Esther was treated in a less symbolic manner and was used instead as a storehouse of picturesque episodes. The story was sometimes presented in a narrative cycle of varying length or in individual episodes. Examples of the cycle form may be found on an arch over the north portal of the Chartres Cathedral (13th century), a 17th-century Belgian tapestry in the cathedral of Saragosa, and an 18th-century set of Gobelin tapestries. Popular single subjects were the toilet of Esther, the triumph of Mordecai, and the punishment of Haman. Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Mantegna, Tintoretto, and Paolo Veronese painted subjects from the Book of Esther. Botticelli (or Filippino Lippi) decorated two marriage-caskets (1428) with scenes from the biblical story, including the long misinterpreted figure La Derelitta, now supposed to represent Mordecai lamenting before the palace at Shushan. The Venetian painters Tintoretto and Veronese treated the Esther story as an occasion for pomp and pageantry, Tintoretto painting the Swooning of Esther (1545), a subject later treated by Poussin. The Book of Esther was also popular with 17th-century artists in the Netherlands. Rubens and Jan Steen painted Esther Before Ahasuerus, and Jan Steen also executed a spirited, almost farcical, Wrath of Ahasuerus (1660). Rembrandt painted Mordecai pleading with Esther (1655), Ahasuerus and Haman at Esther's Feast (1660), and Haman in Disgrace (1660). A charming Toilet of Esther was executed by Théodore Chassériau in 1841.

An early musical treatment of the subject is a 14th-century motet for three voices, Quoniam novi probatur, in which Haman, or someone whose fate he symbolizes, voices his complaint (see C. Parrish, The Notation of Mediaeval Music (1957), 138–40). Palestrina wrote a five-voiced motet, Quid habes Hester? (publ. 1575), the text of which is the dialogue between Esther and Ahasuerus in the apocryphal additions to Esther (15:9–14). From the late 17th century onward the Esther story attracted the attention of many serious composers. Some 17th- and early 18th-century works were A. Stradella's oratorio Ester, liberatrice dell' popolo ebreo (c. 1670); M.-A. Charpentier's quasi-oratorio Historia Esther (date unknown); G. Legrenzi's oratorio Gli sponsali d'Ester (1676); J.-B. Moreau's choruses for Racine's Esther; A. Lotti's oratorio L 'umilità coronata in Esther (1712); and A. Caldara's oratorio Ester (1723). Handel's masque Haman and Mordecai, with a text by John Arbuthnot and (probably) Alexander Pope based on Racine's drama, was first performed at the Duke of Chandos' palace near Edgware in 1720, and was Handel's first English composition in oratorio form. Worked into a full oratorio 12 years later, with additional words by Samuel Humphreys, it had a triumphant reception at the King's Theater in London in 1732. The libretto was translated into Hebrew by the Venetian rabbi Jacob Raphael Saraval (1707–1782), and two copies of it – with the scenic indications in English and Italian respectively – are in the Ets Haim Library, Amsterdam; no evidence of a performance has yet been discovered (see Adler, Prat Mus, 1 (1966), 123–4, 212). One of the few works on the subject in the second half of the 18th century was K. Ditters von Dittersdorf's oratorio La liberatrice del popolo giudaico nella Persia o sia l'Esther (1773).

The 19th century saw a few operatic variants of the story, such as Guidi's Ester d'Engaddi, set by A. Peri (1843) and G. Pacini (1847), while Eugen d'Albert wrote an overture to Grill-parzer's Esther (1888). For performances of Racine's play at the Comédie Française during this period the choruses were composed by several undistinguished musicians; later contributions include those by Reynaldo *Hahn (1905) and Marcel Samuel-Rousseau (1912). The most notable modern work on the subject is Darius *Milhaud's opera Esther de Carpentras, which dramatized the staging of an old Provençal Purim play with the threat posed by a conversionist bishop of Carpentras. Esther, an opera by Jan Meyerowitz with text by Langston Hughes, was written in 1956. Meyerowitz also wrote a choral work, Midrash Esther (premiere, 1957).

The music of the Jewish Purim plays has not survived in notation, except for a few songs collected by 20th-century folklorists from surviving practitioners. Some Yiddish and Hebrew poems of the early 18th century were published with the indication "to be sung to the tune of Haman in the Ahashverosh play" (see Idelsohn, Music, 437), but this tune has not yet been recovered. However, the tradition is evident in Isaac Offenbach's play Koenigin Esther (manuscript dated 1833, at the Jewish Institute of Religion, New York), which includes some "couplets" and in which the court jester seems a more important figure than the biblical personages. Hermann Cohn's five-act parody Der Barbier von Schuschan (1894) was an imitation of P. Cornelius' Barbier von Bagdad; Abraham *Goldfaden's Kenig Akhashverosh (c. 1885) produced no memorable tune; and M. Gelbart wrote Akhashverosh, a Purim play in New York (1916). For the production of K.J. *Silman's Megillat Esther by the *Ohel theater, the music was written by Y. *Admon (Gorochow). The music for the production of Itzik Manger's Di Megille was written by Dov Seltzer in a "revival style" reminiscent of the East European Jewish song tradition in general and of the Yiddish theater tradition in particular. Nahum *Nardi's songs to Levin *Kipnis' kindergarten Purim play Misḥak Purim, written in the early 1930s, have become Israel folksongs.

See also *Purim-Shpil.


bible: See bibliography to *Scroll of Esther. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index. in the arts: R. Schwartz, Esther im deutschen und neulateinischen Drama des Reformations-Zeitalters (1894); E. Wind, in: Journal of the Warburg Institute, 4 (1940), 114–7; M. Roston, Biblical Drama in England From the Middle Ages to the Present Day (1968), 72–74; L. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2, pt. 1 (1956), 335–42, includes bibliography; E. Kirschbaum (ed.), Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, 1 (1968), 683–7; F. Rosenberg, in: Festschrift… Adolf Tobler (1905), 335–54; P. Goodman, Purim Anthology (1960).


views updated May 23 2018


ESTHER , or, in Hebrew, Ester; the daughter of Abihail, also called Hadassah; heroine of the biblical book that bears her name. Adopted and raised by her cousin Mordecai, Esther, whose name is derived from the Persian stara, "star," plays a crucial role in the event of persecution and deliverance of the Jews in the ancient Persian empire that the late biblical Book (or Scroll) of Esther purports to record. The story of this deliverance, which draws on ancient Near Eastern courtier motifs, wisdom themes, and, quite possibly, topoi from Mesopotamian and Persian New Year festivals, serves as a festal legend for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

The main outline of the Book of Esther is as follows. At the outset, the Persian ruler Ahasuerus has a grand feast that is spoiled when his wife, Vashti, refuses his demand that she perform before the assembled males. Vashti is banished, a decree is issued that all wives must honor their husbands, and the stage is set for a search to replace the defiant queen. The choice is Esther, a Jewess, who follows Mordecai's counsel not to reveal her ethnic-religious origins (Est. 2:118). While Esther keeps her secret at the court, Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the king. Meanwhile, one of the viziers, Haman, is elevated to a position of high power. Piqued by the refusal of Mordecai to bow down in homage to him, Haman slanders the Jews to the king and, with the use of lots (Heb., purim ), sets a date for their annihilation (Est. 3). Mordecai now enlists the help of Esther on behalf of her people (Est. 4:117). An initial soiree between the king and queen passes successfully. Several minor scenes follow dealing with Haman's plot to hang Mordecai (Est. 5:914) and Ahasuerus's insomnia, during which he learns of Mordecai's role in saving his life and determines to reward him, an event that provokes Haman's shame (Est. 6:114). A second soiree leads to the disgrace of Haman, the elevation of Mordecai, the disclosure of the plot against the Jews, and, finally, royal permission for the Jews to protect themselves on the day of the planned uprising (Est. 7:18:17), so that a day of national fasting and sorrow is turned into a time of joy and gladness (Est. 910).

Mordecai is presented as descended from Saul, the Benjaminite, and Haman, from Agag, the Amalekite; in this way, the novella dramatizes a typological repetition of the episode reported in 1 Samuel 15 and recalls the divine exhortation never to forget the destructive deeds of Amalek (Dt. 24:1719).

Various additions to Esther have been incorporated into the Apocrypha and Septuagint, and there are numerous expansions in the Aramaic Targum sheni. In the Middle Ages, the role of Esther took on powerful symbolic dimensions among Jews for at least three reasons. First, Esther came to symbolize the court Jew who risked everything to defend the nation so often slandered, despised, and threatened. Second, Esther, as a "hidden" Jew (together with the frequently noted absence of an explicit reference to God in the scroll), symbolized in mystical circles the hiddenness of the Shekhinah (divine feminine presence) in the world and in the Jewish exile. And finally, Esther (and the festival of Purim) was a great favorite of the Marranos in Spain and in their far-flung dispersion; they saw in her disguised condition the factual and psychological prototype of their own disguised condition.

See Also



Bickerman, Elias J. Four Strange Books of the Bible: Jonah, Daniel, Koheleth, Esther. New York, 1967. See pages 171240.

Gaster, Theodor H. Purim and Hanukkah in Custom and Tradition. New York, 1950.

Ginzberg, Louis. The Legends of the Jews (19091938). 7 vols. Translated by Henrietta Szold et al. Reprint, Philadelphia, 19371966. See the index, s.v. Esther.

Moore, Carey A. "Esther." Anchor Bible, vol. 7B. Garden City, N.Y., 1971.

Réau, Louis. Iconographie de l'art chrétien, vol. 2. Paris, 1956. See pages 335342.

Michael Fishbane (1987)


views updated May 23 2018


Persian Queen Esther (492 B.C.–c. 460 B.C.), born as a Jewish exile named Hadasseh, eventually became the queen of Persia, which during her lifetime was the greatest empire in the known world. Married to King Ahasuerus after he divorced the former queen for disobedience, Esther would intercede on behalf of the Jewish people of the kingdom and prevent their annihilation. Her story is recounted in the Bible in the Book of Esther.

Esther was born around 492 B.C. as Hadasseh (a Jewish name meaning myrtle). The myrtle tree was native to Babylonia, but Jewish exiles who returned to Jerusalem took the tree with them, and it became a symbol of the nation of Israel. The name Esther itself means star and happiness. Esther was the daughter of Abihail, of the tribe of Benjamin. It is believed she adopted the Persian name Esther when she entered the Persian court harem when she was a young girl. Actually, as with many figures from the Bible, there is now some scholarly controversy about whether Queen Esther really did indeed exist. Some scholars now believe that her story, recounted in the Book of Esther in the Bible, is actually a "historic fiction" with no basis in fact, and that it was intended as an allegory designed to teach essential truths.

Much has been made of the similarities between the Jewish festival of Purim, which commemorates the rescue of the Jews by Esther and her adopted father Mordechai, and a Persian festival that celebrates the god Marduk and the female Ishtar and their victory over their rivals. It has been suggested that "Esther" and "Mordechai" are Hebrew forms of the names "Ishtar" and "Marduk." Still, there are many scholars who believe that Queen Esther really did exist, as events of her life show up in other historical records besides the Bible. The story of Esther involves someone from the humblest of origins, a Jewish exile, who rises to become a queen. More importantly, in her royal position, she is able to save her people from a genocide designed by a scheming court figure.

Adopted by Her Uncle

According to accounts, when Esther's parents died, she was adopted by her father's brother, Mordecai, who later became a courtier of the Persian King Ahasuerus. Mordecai raised her as his daughter, and they became residents of Susa (Shushan), which was formerly the capital of Elam. But in their time, it was one of several Persian capitals and was located about 200 miles east of Babylon, 75 miles east of the Tigris River, and 130 miles north of the Persian Gulf.

Both Esther and Mordecai's descendants were among the Jewish tribes of Judah and Benjamin who had been conquered by the Babylonians ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar. After the Babylonian empire was itself conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great, the exiled tribes were allowed to return to Jerusalem. But Esther's descendants were among those who decided to remain in their land of exile.

Became Queen of Persia

In 478 B.C., Esther became the queen of Persia. Previously, she was a member of the harem of the Persian king Ahasuerus, who was also known as King Xerxes. But when the former queen, Vashti, fell into disfavor with her husband, Ahasuerus, the king chose Esther to be his wife and queen.

The discord between the former queen and the king arose from Vashti's refusal to appear before his people at a great banquet, a one hundred and eighty–day feast held in Susa. There is speculation as to the exact nature of this refusal. According to one translation of events, she refused to appear at the banquet "wearing her royal crown." It is believed that the correct translation was "to appear wearing only her royal crown." That is, King Ahasuerus had ordered Queen Vashti to expose herself in front of his male guests. The event was attended by people from one hundred twenty-seven provinces of Persia, a kingdom that stretched from India to Ethiopia. According to historians, the lengthy banquet had eventually turned into a prolonged drunken revelry, and the king himself was intoxicated with wine at the time he made his request. King Ahasuerus has been described as a sensualist who enjoyed drinking and other forms of debauchery. In addition, it was said that he ruled with no great wisdom, even though he reigned over what was the greatest empire of its time. Apparently, Queen Vashti refused to comply with her husband's degrading wishes. She risked death with her refusal, but the king only banished her, using this as an example to all wives living in his empire. Further, he sent an edict throughout his kingdom that gave male subjects the right to rule over their wives in all matters.

Ahasuerus now sought a replacement queen and wife among the beautiful young virgins of his kingdom. He ordered the most attractive maidens to be brought before him. One of these included Esther. At the time, Esther was only fourteen years old, but she possessed remarkable beauty as well as charm and precocious tact. When her opportunity finally came to appear before the king, Ahasuerus was immediately taken with Esther's attractiveness, and he made her his new queen. Esther's adopted uncle Mordecai remained constantly near the palace, so that he would be able advise her in all matters. As his first bit of counsel, he told her to conceal the fact that she was Jewish. It has been suggested that Mordecai served as a gatekeeper, and this position enabled him to stay in continual communication with Esther.

Once, while at the palace gate, Mordecai overheard a plot being hatched by two of the king's eunuchs to kill Ahasuerus. Mordecai revealed this information to Esther, who then told the king about the plot. After an investigation, the eunuchs were executed, and Mordecai's loyalty and aid to the king was recorded in the chronicles of the kingdom.

Saved the Jews from Slaughter

In 473 B.C., Esther managed to save the Jewish people of the kingdom from a massacre, a life–risking accomplishment that made her famous. Shortly after Esther became the queen, Haman the Agagite, the prime minister of Persia and a favorite of the king, obtained a royal decree that authorized the slaughter of all of the Jewish people living within the borders of the Persian Empire. In addition, the decree called for the confiscation of all of their property.

This decree was obtained through a cunning deception that, at its core, was essentially an act of revenge on the part of Haman against Mordecai. Haman regarded Mordecai as an upstart who did not show him the proper respect. When Haman was named prime minister, the king had issued a general order that all were to bow to him. However, Mordecai constantly refused to prostrate himself before Haman at the palace gate. After Haman found out that Mordecai was Jewish, he designed a plot to have all Jews in the Persian kingdom killed. Haman cunningly obtained the king's unwitting consent for a general massacre, to take place in one day, of all the Jews.

Obviously, the Jews were greatly distressed by the decree, and Mordecai turned to Esther for help. Esther then planned to appeal to the king on behalf of the Jews, but this would require that she reveal to her husband the king that she, too, was Jewish. In doing so, she placed her own life at great risk. Esther's appeal to the king involved her requesting that he attend a banquet in her quarters, and that he be accompanied by Haman. But before she made her request, she waited for three days and spent the time in fasting and prayer.

The king eventually accepted her invitation and all went well, so Esther asked her guests to join her again the following night. On the night of the second banquet, the king told Esther that he would grant whatever she would ask. Esther then revealed all to the king: her petition for the Jewish people, her own Jewish heritage, and Haman's deceit in obtaining the decree. The king was enraged and he stormed away from her. When he returned, he found Haman at Esther's feet. Haman was pleading to the queen for her mercy, but the king misinterpreted the actions as an attempt at seduction. Earlier, Haman had built a gallows that he intended to use to hang Mordecai. Now, the king ordered that Haman be executed, along with his ten sons, on the very same gallows. After Haman was executed, the king chose Mordecai to fill the empty position.

However, reversing the decree regarding the slaughter of the Jews would be complicated. Esther reminded the king that the decree for the massacre was still in effect. But Ahasuerus informed her that a royal edict could not be revoked, according to Persian royal custom. To get around this, Esther convinced the king to give the Jews all of the weapons and military authority they would need in order to defend themselves against the slaughter. Mordecai was then authorized to write a counter–edict that would allow the Jews to arm and defend themselves. This counter–edict was addressed to all of the governors in the Persian kingdom, and it informed them that the Jews had been authorized to defend themselves against their persecutors and to kill all those who would attack them. The king signed Mordecai's new decree.

On the day of slaughter appointed by the original decree, the Jews were allowed to fight for their lives, and they proved to be worthy warriors. Many of the Jewish males had already served in the Persian army and they benefited from their military training. The fighting lasted two days and took place in Susa, where the Jews exacted a bloody revenge on their enemies. At the end of the two days, the Jewish warriors successfully defended themselves, and a catastrophe had been averted, thanks to Esther's intercession.

To commemorate their deliverance, the Jews established the two–day festival of Purim, which is still observed to this day. The festival begins on the very day that Haman had marked for the slaughter of the Jewish people. After Haman's execution, Esther and Mordecai were awarded all of Haman's estate.

Woman of Deep Faith

Esther, as depicted in the Bible, was a pious woman who demonstrated great faith, resolve, mercy, and courage combined with reasonable caution. To her adopted father, Mordecai, she was a dutiful daughter who was obedient to his wishes and heedful to his counsels. Esther reigned as the queen of Persia for a period of about 13 years. With King Ahasuerus, she had one son, named Darius II, who would later rebuild the holy Temple in Jersusalem. It is believed that her life extended into the reign of her stepson, Artaxerxes. Although the date of her death is not known, Jewish tradition indicates that Queen Esther's tomb is in Hamadan, also known as Ecbatana, located in what is now western Iran.


"Esther," Catholic Encyclopedia, (January 6, 2005).

"Esther," Christian Resource Center, (January 6, 2005).

"Esther," Daily Bible Study, (January 5, 2005).

"Esther," Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness,–esther.html (January 6, 2005).

"Queen Esther,",–p1mw.htm (January 6, 2005).


views updated May 18 2018


Queen Esther, also called Hadassah, the heroine of the biblical Book of Esther, is considered one of the pivotal females in scripture because, according to Jewish tradition, she was divinely ordained to save her people from genocide. Physical beauty and great courage were combined in her to such a degree that she merited having her name immortalized by becoming part of the Hebrew biblical canon. The narrative of this post-exilic book also provides the etiology of Purim, the carnival-like holiday that Jews celebrate every spring with much merriment even in the early-twenty-first century.


Contemporary scholars prefer to read the Book of Esther as a comedy, romance, even a fairy tale, downplaying any verisimilitude to ancient (Achaemenid Empire) or medieval Persian (Islamic/oriental) court life and deeming the story's plot to be "structured on improbabilities, exaggerations, misunderstandings, and reversals." Even if "the setting of the Persian court is authentic … the events are fictional" as no corroborating sources of the events has ever surfaced (Berlin and Brettler 2004, pp. 1623-1624).

In brief the plot of the Book of Esther centers on Esther's fairy-tale-like good fortune, a destiny that transcends mere personal dimensions through the divine plan (although God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther) that turns her into a savior of her people. An orphan, Esther was raised by her cousin Mordekai. When King Ahasuerus repudiated Vashti, his first wife, because she had disobeyed him, Esther was among the virgins brought to the court and Ahasuerus chose her as his next queen. On the advice of Mordekai, Esther kept her Jewish identity hidden. When Haman, Ahasuerus' prime minister, convinced the king to issue an edict condemning the Jews to extermination, Esther presented herself before the king unbidden (an act punishable by death) and invited him and Haman to two banquets. Haman, thinking himself in the queen's good graces, was totally unprepared for her powerful intercession at the second banquet on behalf of her people. Revealing her origins Queen Esther begged for and was granted the lifting of the edict as well as revenge against Haman. The reversal that ensued, that is, the saving of the Jews and the elevation of Mordekai, and the fall and death of Haman, his family, and many of his party who persecuted the Jews, forms the dramatic linchpin of the narrative.

Numerous details enhance the biblical account, which highlight Ahasuerus' credulity, Haman's arrogance, Mordekai's cleverness, and Esther's beauty and loyalty to her faith. More embellishments appear in the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Book of Esther and many more in Jewish rabbinic and legendary (midrashic) sources. The Septuagint version is a much longer version of the narrative and contains six large additions as well as a number of details not found in the Masoretic text. It deemphasizes the comic and stresses the melodramatic elements and it is considerably more concerned with issues of Jewish ritual. Jerome (d. 420) added the larger segments at the end of his translation of the book. In the Jewish rabbinic and legendary (midrashic) texts, which range from the second to the fourteenth centuries, Esther's character, both physical and psychological, is richly enhanced. Thus Esther herself is of royal blood, a descendant of King Saul, worthy of royal marriage. She is one of the four most beautiful women in the world (the other three, also in the Bible, being Sarah, Rahab, and Abigail), and her beauty flourished unabated throughout her life. However Esther's spiritual characteristics surpass her physical ones, the latter being mere reflections of the former. "Esther put on royal apparel" (Esth. 5:1) is traditionally interpreted as referring to her being wrapped in the Holy Spirit. Troubled by the marriage of such a paragon to a gentile monarch, even in the cause of saving her people, rabbinical texts try to explain away the marriage as a formality without substance, outright rape, or, in an extreme instance, by claiming that Ahasuerus made love only to "to a female spirit in the guise of Esther" (Ginzberg, 4:387; 6:640n. 79; 4:387-388; 6:460n. 80).


Since Esther is an Iranian heroine, it is not surprising that Iranian Jews have preserved her memory with great devotion. A shrine in Hamadan, Iran, grew up around a tomb purported to contain the cenotaphs of Esther and Mordekai, which dates no earlier than the thirteenth century. It became a frequent pilgrimage destination for Iranian Jews. Esther's memory is also preserved in two fourteenth-century Judeo-Persian (Farsī in Hebrew letters) epics, Ardashīr-nāma (The book of Ardashīr [Ahasuerus]), and Ezra-nāma (The book of Ezra) by the Iranian Jewish poet Mowlānā Shāhīn. Familiar with both the biblical and rabbinic narratives, Shāhīn composed his own version of the Books of Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah by creating an audacious link between Esther's marriage and the fate of the Jewish people. According to Shāhīn, the purpose of Esther's happy marriage to Ahasuerus (preceded by an elaborate courtship and properly sanctified in a Zoroastrian wedding ceremony) was to give birth to Cyrus the Great (559–530 bce), the king who issued the famous edict (539 bce) granting permission to many minorities, including the Jews of Babylonia (western Iran), to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. Thus in Shāhīn's account, Esther's role as savior is much broader and fully justifies her marriage to a gentile monarch.

Shāhīn's epic is only one of the numerous works of art inspired by the Book of Esther in general and Esther in particular. Her beauty, courage, and self-sacrifice are celebrated in numerous paintings, beginning with those in the third-century Dura-Europos synagogue and culminating with representations by famous Renaissance painters, such as Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510), Filipino Lippi (c.1458–1504), Jacopo Tintoretto (c. 1518–1594), and Paolo Veronese (ca.1528–1588), who all tended to associate her with the cult of the Virgin Mary. Musicians such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) and George Frederick Handel (1685–1759) wrote motets and oratorios inspired by the tale, and playwrights as famous as Jean Racine (1639–1699) recast the narrative in dramatic form. In Jewish tradition Purim plays flourished from the early Middle Ages onwards setting the narrative into dramatic and musical forms, some of which have survived in Hebrew and Yiddish. The contemporary tendency of feminist biblical scholarship to view Esther in a more nuanced light has further enhanced her stature. A trickster's manipulative conduct, coupled with seductive beauty, are viewed to have been part of Esther's only available means to carry out her unselfish purpose through powerful but vulnerable men. To her enduring credit, she employed these means in the service of divine aims.

see also Judaism.


Berlin, Adele, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. 2004. "Esther." In The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Brenner, Athalya, ed. 1995. A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd.

Ginzberg, Louis. 1968 (1913–1938). Legends of the Jews. 7 vols. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

Moreen, Vera B., trans. 2000. In Queen Esther's Garden: An Anthology of Judeo-Persian Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Walfish, Barry Dov. 1993. Esther in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages. Albany: State University of New York Press.

                                            Vera B. Moreen


views updated Jun 08 2018


ESTHER (pseudonym of Malkah Lifschitz , whose names by marriage were Frumkin and Wichmann ; 1880–1943), communist leader, writer, and educator, born in Minsk; one of the most original women in the Jewish labor movement. She acquired a wide Jewish knowledge in childhood, including Hebrew and Bible studies, and studied in St. Petersburg and Berlin. From 1896 Esther was active in Social Democrat circles in Minsk influenced by A. *Liessin, and from 1901 in the *Bund. She edited Bundist periodicals after the 1905 revolution. A representative of the extreme Yiddishists at the *Czernowitz Yiddish Conference, Esther was one of the main promoters in the Bund of Jewish education in Yiddish. She published two books on the subject in Yiddish: "On the Question of the Jewish National School" (1910) and "What Kind of National School Do We Need" (1917). She was imprisoned several times for revolutionary activities and went to Switzerland, where she became a member of the foreign committee of the Bund. After the 1917 February Revolution, she became a member of the central committee of the Bund, and was elected to the Minsk municipal and community councils. She took an active part in founding a network of Yiddish schools, courses for teachers, and other educational institutions. At first violently opposed to the Bolsheviks, she later became a leader of the Kombund, and in May 1921 voted for the self-liquidation of the Bund and joined the Communist Party. From 1921 to 1930 she was a member of the education department of the *Yevsektsiya. With M. *Litvakov she brought out a Yiddish edition of Lenin's writings in eight volumes, and wrote a biography of Lenin in Yiddish (3 eds., 1925–26). She also edited the Moscow Yiddish daily, Emes. She was rector of the Jewish section of the "Communist University of the National Minorities of the West" (kunmz) from 1925 to 1936. In January 1938 she was arrested and imprisoned but refused to admit to the false charges proffered against her. In August 1940 she was sentenced to eight years in detention and died in the detention camp in Karaganda.


S. Schwarz, The Jews in the Soviet Union (1951), index; lnyl, 1 (1956), 141–3.

[Moshe Mishkinsky /

Shmuel Spector (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 29 2018

Esther in the Bible, a Jewish woman chosen on account of her beauty by the Persian king Ahasuerus (generally supposed to be Xerxes I) to be his queen. She used her influence with him to save her kinsman Mordecai and the Israelites in captivity from persecution, particularly at the hands of the king's chief minister, Haman.

Esther is also the book of the Bible containing an account of these events; a part survives only in Greek and is included in the Apocrypha.


views updated May 14 2018

Esther Old Testament book narrating how the legendary Queen Esther averted the killing of her people, the Jews, by the Persians in Babylon. She persuaded the Xerxes I of Persia to ignore his grand vizier Haman, who advocated their extermination. The Jewish feast of Purim celebrates Haman's overthrow.


views updated May 23 2018

Esther. Heroine of the Jewish Book of Esther.

The Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible which does not mention the name of God. The name ‘Esther’ is therefore read as the Hebrew verb, ‘I will hide’: God is constantly active even when he does not directly reveal his action.


views updated May 21 2018

Esther ★★½ 1998

Biblical story of a young Jewish girl named Esther who is sought as the bride of Ahasuerus, the King of Persia. She persuades him to stop the slaughter of her people. 91m/C VHS, DVD . Louise Lombard, Thomas Kretschmann, F. Murray Abraham, Jurgen Prochnow, Ornella Muti; D: Raffaele Mertes. CABLE


views updated May 18 2018

Esther. Oratorio by Handel to text by S. Humphreys after Racine. F.p. as masque Haman and Mordecai, 1720, at Cannons but expanded into concert oratorio 1732. First Eng. oratorio.