Holidays

Esther, Feminist Ethics, and the Creation of Jewish Community

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(“The Feast of Esther,” Jan Lievens, ca. 1625)

The four rabbinic mitzvot of Purim include the reading of the Megillah, the festive meal, the sending of portions (mishloah manot or shalah manos in Yiddish), and alms for the poor (matanot la-evyonim). Three of these observances are ordained in the Megillah itself―such that the middle two appear first as part of the Jews’ organic responses to the events (Esther 9:19)―and then all three latter practices are legislated by Mordekhai’s writ (9:20) and confirmed and transcribed by Esther’s decree (9:32).

If the origin of these observances in the Purim story is undeniable, the relationship of all of these observances to that story is far from clear. Certainly, banquets (and fasting) are an important structural motif in the book, and there seems to be a theme in which Jewish banquets correct the wrongs perpetrated at Persian banquets; therefore, it is small wonder that a banquet would be ordained as one of the day’s commemorative activities. But it is more difficult to discern an independent link between the events of Purim and the observances of mishloah manot and matanot la-evyonim; these practices, ostensibly directed at increasing amity among Jews, does not seem to respond in any direct manner to the external existential threat directed at them by Haman. If anything, one might have instead expected such mitzvot in the context of the rabbinic holiday of Hanukkah, which commemorates an event and historical period marred by significant internecine conflict.

Two late rabbinic sources take up this question, if indirectly. For R. Israel Isserlein in his responsa Terumat ha-Deshen (1:111), the obligation of mishloah manot is simply an extension of the meal obligation: “It seems that the reason for sending of portions is so that each one will have enough to fulfill the meal as it is ordained…” For R. Shlomo ha-Levi Alkabetz in his commentary Manot ha-Levi (Esther 9:16), it serves a purpose independent of the mandated banquet. It is, rather, a response to the state of the people as they were described by Haman: “…For this hints that they are bound in one group and in love and brotherhood, the opposite of what the oppressor [Haman] said: ‘scattered abroad and dispersed’ (3:8)…” The halakhic sequelae that emerge from this difference is the bread and butter of Brisker lomdut with regard to Purim.[1]

Both proposed justifications seem to reflect less than the entire story. The prescription of a festive meal has precedent―the biblical text explicitly prescribes a sacrificial meal for all Jews on Passover night, and the rabbinic sources mandate provision of the attendant festal needs, such that even wine is furnished from the communal charity plate if need be (m. Pesahim 10:1). However, there is no special enactment of mishloah manot with regard to Passover, nor for any other mandatory festive meal (with the exception of the special case of the Rosh Hashanah of Nehemiah 8:10-12, in which the distraught people needed the restoration of good cheer). As for matanot la-evyonim, there is a custom of collecting ma’ot hitim (money for wheat) dating to as early as the Talmudic period, but this donation―which supports a strictly biblically obligatory meal whose non-fulfillment results in excision, karet―nonetheless remains at the lenient level of minhag. Mishloah manot and matanot la-evyonim, in contrast, are awarded the same level of obligation as the seudah—though to which, per the first view, they are subordinate.

A weakness of the second view is that although Haman indeed referred to the Jews as “scattered abroad and dispersed,” in the simplest reading of the text, this reflects their spatial disposition rather than their emotional disconnectedness. Also, even if the latter is to be assumed, there is no indication that Jewish fractiousness was the cause of Haman’s malice nor the basis of the argument in favor of their annihilation; on the contrary, it was Jewish unity―clannishness and nationalism―that drew the opprobrium of Liberal Protestant critics of the Book of Esther from the eighteenth century forward, a theme ultimately echoed and amplified in anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazis, Haman’s ideological heirs.[2]

Academic scholarship has also engaged with this question―some locate the practices in (proposed) Babylonian textual influences on Esther; others, in Babylonian or Persian feasts that occurred around the same time of year, some of which also featured gift exchanges.[3] There is no consensus on this issue.

Perhaps identification of another motif in Esther may help us elucidate the place of these practices. A close reading of the structure of the Megillah will help us uncover the ethics that animate the narrative and motivate these practices.

Why begin with the first chapter?

In his Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading, Jonathan Grossman notes that the choice of the author to begin the story with the king’s feast in his third year of reign is not at all intuitive; the plot would remain unharmed had the story begun with Haman’s rise to power nine years on. He argues that the scenes are included both for the reader’s experience, and to present the image of Ahasuerus, who emerges as an antihero, a powerless foil to God, the true “king of kings” and real, if hidden, protagonist.[4] Needless to say, the identification of God as the protagonist of a book that does not mention Him even once is contested by most academics, even many Orthodox Jewish ones.[5]

Approaching the “beginning” of the Megillah from another angle, a separate question surrounds the rabbinic determination as to which parts of the book must be read on Purim. The Talmud identifies three desiderata in the reading of the Megillah―it serves (1) to publicize the miracle, or (2) as a memorial of Amalekite malice (both 18a), or (3) as a sort of Hallel, praise for Divine salvation ( 14a). One would expect that those portions of the Megillah that are directly relevant to the crisis and salvation suffice for this purpose, much as relevant excerpts from the Torah and prophetic literature are read on other holidays. The Talmud ( 19a) takes up the subject:

Mishnah: …From where must a person read the Megillah in order to fulfill his obligation? Rabbi Meir says: all of it. Rabbi Yehudah says: from “a certain Jew” (Esther 2:5). Rabbi Yosei says: From “after these things” (Esther 3:1).

Gemara: … It is taught: Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai says: “On that night” (Esther 6:1). Rabbi Yohanan said: And all of [these] were expounding the same verse: “Then Esther the queen, and Mordekhai the Jew, wrote about all the acts of power” (Esther 9:29). The one who said [the Megillah must be read] in its entirety [interprets this to refer to] the power of Ahasuerus; and the one who said from “There was a certain Jew”―the power of Mordekhai. And the one who said from “After these things”―the power of Haman. And the one who said from “On that night”―the power of the miracle… Rabbi Helbo said that Rav Hama bar Gurya said that Rav said: The Halakhah is in accordance with the statement of the one who says in its entirety. And even according to the one who said “There was a certain Jew,” [it] must be written in its entirety.

R. Shimon bar Yohai’s view seems to dovetail with that which sees the reading as publicity of the miracle; indeed, the Midrash sees Esther 6:1 as the beginning of Divine action ( 10:1; 15b). R. Yosei’s view approximates that which considers the Megillah a memorial of Amalekite enmity, beginning with the rise of Haman. R. Yehudah’s position fits the view which allows for the beginning of the reading with Esther and Mordekhai; the significance of Hallel is seen in its depiction of the sweep of Jewish history, including its travails (118a). And in its introduction of Mordekhai and his cousin, the text connects him with the central biblical trauma, the Babylonian conquest and exile (2:6). None of the Talmud’s rationales for the Megillah reading account for R. Meir’s insistence on reading the entire book; nevertheless―unusually for such disputes (15b, 46b)―the Halakhah is decided in favor of R. Meir.

Apparently, the first chapter of Esther is seen to fulfill an important role not merely for the literary needs of the book, but it also bears significance for the crowd assembled for the holiday, so much so that the reading is invalidated by its omission. What could that significance be?

A closer look at the structure of the Megillah: Reversal in the first and last chapters

The discernment of chiastic structures in biblical passages is a staple of contemporary biblical literary analysis, both for the new Orthodox school of Tanakh study as well as academia.[6] Chiastic structure involves inverted parallelism, in which biblical passages are arranged in an A-B-C-B’-A’ pattern, such that the importance of the central passage is highlighted. In many narrative passages, this center is a “hinge” or pivot that is responsible for the transformation of the elements of the first half of the pattern. The theme of reversal, or peripety, is already explicit in the text of Esther (9:1, 9:22). With numerous obvious examples,[7] the book would seem to lend itself to the identification of such a pivot.

The phenomenon of over-diagnosing patterns―“chiasm mania”―has come under harsh critique in scholarly circles, but a consensus has emerged (among those who allow for “macrochiasms” that embrace entire sections or books) that indeed, a macrochiasm does structure the entire book of Esther, and several means for its construction have been proposed.[8] In the most recent and meticulously ordered chiasm, the text is arranged in fifteen parts, such that the introduction describing the glory of Ahasuerus (1:1-2) contrasts the conclusion, describing the glory of Ahasuerus and Mordekhai (10:1-3); the two feasts of the king and Vashti’s downfall (1:3-22) contrast the two feasts of the Jews and Haman’s downfall (9:18-32); and so forth. The pivot is identified as Esther’s invitation of the king to a feast (5:1-8), which confirms the identification of Esther as the main character of the story―something that is itself a matter of contention among contemporary interpreters.

If the two concluding sections of the Megillah―which contain, among other content, the holiday of Purim and its practices, as well as the story’s triumphant conclusion―are to be read against the two sections of the first chapter, perhaps the first chapter deserves a closer look. In some narratives―for example, the highly analogous Joseph story―the conclusion of the structure contains the resolution of a core issue that is revealed in the introduction; in that instance, the tension between Joseph and his brothers that is introduced in A is completely resolved only in A’, the cycle’s conclusion. Are the comparisons and contrasts between the termini of Esther mostly stylistic, or does the all-important denouement of the book contain a thematic reversal of its introduction, as with the Joseph story?

The first chapter divides into two equal parts. The first eleven verses are characterized by an extensive description of the extent of the reign of Ahasuerus, and the lavish opulence by which two sets of feasts were held―one for 180 days, for all his princes and servants; and then a seven-day feast for the capital city of Susa―culminating in his summoning of Queen Vashti on the last day, to flaunt her beauty to the assembled.

The second eleven verses begin with Vashti’s refusal to come; this angered the king, who in turn consulted with the seven princes of Persia and Media. Memukhan argues that Vashti’s refusal would cause women throughout the kingdom to “despise their husbands in their eyes,” and it would be necessary to issue a law that Vashti be deposed, and to publicize the decree so that wives would honor their husbands. The king thus sends letters to all his provinces, in every language “that every man should bear rule in his own house.”

There are clear textual affinities here with the last two chapters; in addition to mentions in both of “days,” “provinces,” and “writing,” as already noted by others,[9] both contain the unusual ve-lo ya’avor, “so as it should not fail,” as a feature of the decree upon Vashti (Esther 1:19) and the Jews’ acceptance of Purim (9:27). Vashti did not come, le-havi (1:11, 1:17), la-vo (1:12), ve-lo ba’ah (1:17), and therefore will no longer come, ve-lo tavo (1:19); it is emphasized that it is with Esther’s coming before the king, be-vo’ah (9:25), that Haman’s decree was reversed, leading to ba, the arrival of the number of those killed before the king (9:11).

But the symmetry runs much deeper. Three key thematic elements of the first chapter clearly appear to be reversed in the final two chapters.

Three Thematic Reversals

The banquets of the first chapter are the first element subject to reversal in the last chapter. At first glance, the banquets described in Esther 1 appear as acts of generosity on the part of the king, convivial, at least until their degeneration into uxoricidal fury.

However, the co-optation of historical methods within the context of literary approaches can assist in resolving this difficulty. The use of “le-har’ot” (to display) points us to an inherent arrogance characteristic of the function of Persian royal feasts, which is quite different from the egalitarian commensalism of Greco-Roman banquets. Konrad Vössing describes the Achaemenid royal banquet, at least as it is preserved for us through Greek eyes:

In the sixth century BC, the Greeks encountered, as part of the splendor of the Achaemenid court, a type of banquet that politicized the consumption of food in three ways: the place of the king could be singled out and positioned at a distance from the rest of the diners; the sheer cost and richness of the menus likewise served to differentiate the king’s table from those of his subjects; and finally the diverse origins of the foodstuffs from various parts of the empire reflected the extent of royal power.

These three characteristics could work together to make visible the fundamental qualities of the Great King’s rule: he alone was the true recipient of all tribute from his subject areas, which was assembled on his table, and, in the same way, he alone was authorized to redistribute it…[10]

As Vössing continues to describe, the great banquets were the means of exercising power, subjugation, and humiliation, frequently through violence and sometimes mass slaughter. Rather than respecting difference, they serve to intimidate and demand obeisance and conformity. The king’s later acquiescence to the destruction of the Jewish “misfits”―the people “scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom,” with “laws diverse from all people” (3:8)―is of a piece with the ideology of conformity revealed in his banquet. In the text of Esther, this indeed emerges as the aim of the king’s banquet: “[He] displayed the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty” (1:4).

It is notable that the Rabbis detected an aggressive aspect to the feasting. The Midrash ( 2:2) reads “many days” (1:4) as “days of sorrow”; the Talmud ( 11b) envisions the proximate cause for celebration as Ahasuerus’s calculation that the prophecy of Jewish redemption had gone unfulfilled, that he made use of Temple vessels and implements, and that the meal was a focus of Jewish assimilation―the banquet was thus envisioned as one of exploitation and eradication of difference.

In contrast, chapter 10 reveals a king who collects a tribute from his subjects. While this seems the very opposite of generous, historical data suggests otherwise. Xerxes/Ahasuerus is actually noted for his reform of the taxation rules, replacing a system of unfair taxation of the Babylonian elite with a fairer system of taxation levied upon all subject nations equally.[11] This is associated with his cessation of attempts at territorial expansion and consolidation―and development―of his existing empire.[12] While this point is not fully discernable in the text of the Megillah, the ensuing verse seems to associate this accomplishment with the valiant, salutary acts of Xerxes that are recorded in his annals.

The second notable feature of reversal in the first and last chapters concerns what Michael V. Fox calls “a conscious and sustained interest in sexual politics.”

In the first chapter, Ahasuerus and his men are frightfully concerned that “this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes” (1:17) and consequently go to the effort of sending letters (sefarim) to all the king’s provinces, notifying them that every man should act as ruler of his own house (1:22). The end of the book has Esther writing and sending letters (sefarim) (9:29-30) to the Jews in each of the king’s provinces; the final verse in the chapter reiterates that it was “the decree of Esther [that] confirmed these matters of Purim” (9:32). In place of the king deposing his wife and sending books to make her an example for all the empire’s women to ensure that the man retains control (1:20), it is now the king’s wife who is ceded full control (with the king’s signet, 8:8), and who sends books that are ultimately authoritative. Fox goes so far as to call the author of Esther “something of a protofeminist.”

Whether Esther herself can serve as a feminist role model is a matter of debate. Some feminist readers critique Esther as “a passive sex object, able to succeed only by pleasing men and by conforming to a male-centered view of women”[13]and offer Vashti as a better model of feminist defiance. A different approach, one of “structured empathy,” appreciates Esther’s efforts to wield influence within the context that she was in, and the limitations of her world.

The Emergence of an Ethics of Care

Regardless of how one assesses Esther’s behavior in the immediate term, there is something intriguing about the decree that Esther enacts into law. Recent decades have seen the emergence, alongside virtue, deontological, and utilitarian ethics, of a “feminist ethics.” Carol Gilligan first suggested that men and women approach morality differently.[14] While men focus on the “justice perspective,” women tend to view issues from a “care perspective.” This is not necessarily an essentialist position; rather, individuals are thought to formulate moral theories out of the experiences to which they have access. Theories of psychological and moral development have classically been formulated from a male perspective, equating maturity with individuation and disentanglement from family matrices, with attendant emotion and context-specificity; women tend to form their identities within the context of ongoing relationships.[15] Also, while men have historically been the ones permitted to exercise control over others and engage in violent conflict, women have generally been asked to navigate the moral problems of family life, and to take responsibility for people in need of care―the sick, frail, illiterate, very young, or very old. 

Nel Noddings formulates an “ethics of care” such that the one caring (carer) is engrossed in, or “feels with,” the cared-for and makes it a point to attend to the cared-for in deeds as well as in thoughts; when all goes well, the cared-for actively receives the deeds.[16] Ethics of care, unlike deontological, consequentialist, and traditional conceptions of virtue ethics, recognizes that different persons have different degrees of dependence on one another; that people who are more vulnerable and endangered by one’s choices are entitled to a greater degree of consideration; and that universal principles cannot be extrapolated, but rather each scenario must be evaluated on the basis of context.

Against Kant and Mill, this approach accounts for caring for one’s own child more than the neighbor’s and certainly more than a stranger, though it is possible and desirable for one to widen one’s circle of intimate connections by extending to “chains” of persons linked to those for whom he or she already cares. While authors acknowledge that deontological ethics are better suited to the justice system (and utilitarian ethics to public policy), an ethics of care is best suited to interpersonal relationships. However, the spheres may be more poorly demarcated than they appear.

These concepts are not foreign to rabbinic literature; Alan Jotkowitz demonstrates that an ethics of care is operative in a key Talmudic narrative relevant to end-of-life issues, one which is cited for its halakhic import by R. Moshe Feinstein.[17] Shira Wolosky detects an ethics of care in the writings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik.[18] However, some see it already in the biblical context; feminist authors have noted a shift in the book of Ruth in which Boaz is guided by Ruth from a deontological ethics of duty to a feminine ethics of care.[19]

In Esther, this spousal shift appears even more obvious. In the context of the Megillah, Ahasuerus seems to begin as the consummate universalist, a strongly “male” trait in the Freudian Oedipal schema. He renounces all particularity; not only does he open his palace and wine cellar to his officers from all over the kingdom, but at the end, he attempts to share his own wife.

As far as his ethics, he seems to be a consequentialist, legislating equal distribution of happiness with rules like sommeliers for all: “And the drinking was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure (1:8).”

Counterintuitive as it sounds, the king’s actions also cast him as one subject to a Kantian sort of ethics. Contrary to the classic stereotype of Ahasuerus as a mercurial, impulsive potentate, a careful reading actually suggests the opposite. At least in the earliest portions of the Megillah, the king’s commitment to universalism and universalizability are extreme, to the point that he subjects a rupture in his marital relationship to the political procedures of the state! Even when drunk and angry, even as his emotions well within him, those emotions are not allowed to reign―he gathers his advisers, and the advisers obligingly assess the matter from the question of universalizability (1:17), resulting in perhaps a worse outcome than a fit of pique could have generated. He coldly, rationally disposes of his own queen (who herself likely intended to assert boundaries, not insubordination). In accordance with the categorical imperative, he then legislates a universal law regarding appropriate gender relationships upon all of his provinces, effacing cultural difference.

It is all quite rational, but completely devoid of emotion and empathy. The universalist who has no boundaries brooks no particularity, no limits in others; for those who cling to a separate identity, the liberality becomes a tyranny―an exercise of power, subjugation, and humiliation. The “feminine,” both literal and metaphoric, is obliterated.

Ahasuerus democratizes the contest for his wife’s successor; he is cosmopolitan, raising a foreigner to be vizier, but one who is committed to conformity, who consigns to death a man whose culture forbids genuflection, and to genocide a nation that dares to observe different customs. Haman is a man like Ahasuerus; the king shows no favorites and has no boundaries, and he expects the same from his subjects. In parallel with Persian imperialism and Xerxes’s own campaigns of conquest early in his reign, he is committed to universalization―of the kind which is totalizing, a universality with uniformity.

Esther is trained in care by her uncle, Mordekhai, who takes her in and assumes the role of mother and father (2:7) and continues to attend to her after she is taken to the palace. (2:11) It is the tools of care―clothing and feeding―that propel the story forward. Esther sends clothes to dress the sack-clad Mordekhai (4:4) and thereby reverses the care relationship, assuming the role of the one-caring with Mordekhai becoming the cared-for.

In short order, Esther uses care―inviting Ahasuerus and Haman to a meal she had prepared (5:8), building a relationship of care and thus earning the trust of both. That night, she awakens within Ahasuerus an awareness of the need to care for Mordekhai, who had saved his life, and he forces Haman, ironically, to dress and thus show care for Mordekhai (6:1-11); and by the next meal, Ahasuerus is capable of being aroused to care for his wife, and by extension, her people (chapter 7), and he allows correct emotion to guide him to an appropriate response. The transformation is complete; the man who had his wife killed on the advice of his advisers now, without any convention of counselors, condemns his vizier to save his new wife.

Thus, the third and final thematic reversal from chapter 1 to chapter 9 is the reversal of the guiding ethics. This reversal is expressed in the mitzvot of Purim.

Ahasuerus had approached human relationships as a universalist―first a banquet for the officers of the entire empire, then a banquet for the immediate city, and finally he summons his own wife, depersonalizing his concentric circles of relationship from the periphery to the center. Esther “the daughter of Abihail” (9:29) uses the admittedly “masculine” but indispensable tools of governance to legislate a feminine ethics―a family banquet, which is then extended to the sending of portions to others in one’s own social circle and then finally extended further with gifts for the poor, those in the societal stratum beneath. Chains of care must be extended from the inside out; only duty and uniformity are brought from the outside in.

In the mitzvot of Purim, Esther and the male “carer” Mordekhai address the real crux of the existential problem of exile. Haman’s decree was simply a corollary of Ahasuerus’s totalizing universalism. Esther awakens the Persian leader and state to a new appreciation of particularity―both in himself and others―and within her own people, she creates a model of expansile particularistic caring that will bring love to their families, their friends, their people―and ultimately, the world.

In the climax of the story, Esther invokes empathy for herself as wife, and in the same breath, her people. Orit Avnery has already noted that “Esther is a symbol of the Jewish people in their feminine otherness.”[20] We may add that the parallel goes further than just raising questions, beyond exploring the maintenance of a separate identity, but rather goes to the very heart of what these minorities contribute to moral thinking. Esther’s exercise in feminist ethics carves out a space for the Jewish people in exile―to remain a particularist entity within a larger, often totalizing, universality―and shows the way for empires to embrace the caring, affection, and humanity which can only be born of difference.

A major theme in the writings of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is that which Meir Soloveichik calls a “universalism of particularity.” This seems nothing less than a global version of Nel Noddings’s “chains of caring.” R. Soloveichik writes:

Bar-Ilan University Professor Ze’ev Maghen relates how he was once sitting in a restaurant in Tel Aviv when he heard that a plane crash in East Asia had killed hundreds of people. Utterly unperturbed, he continued with his meal. He then paused, thought to himself how he would feel if those killed were Israelis, and found himself without an appetite. It is preferential love for one’s own nation, he realized, that can lead to compassion for others: Preferential love is the most powerful love there is, the only truly motivating love there is. It is by means of that love—the special love we harbor for those close to us— that we learn how to begin to love others, who are farther away. Genuine and galvanizing empathy for “the other” is acquired most effectively and lastingly through a process which involves, first and foremost, immersion in love of self, then of family, then of friends, then of community . . . and so on. It is via emotional analogy to these types of strong-bond affections that one becomes capable of executing a sort of “love leap,” a transference of the strength and immediacy of the feelings one retains for his favorite people, smack onto those who have no direct claim on such sentiments.[21]

Epilogue: Embracing Alterity

In the realization that dawns on Ahasuerus―the recognition of the Other, of alterity, and its cry “do not kill me”―he perhaps recovers something more primordial. Emmanuel Levinas writes of the priority of ethics before metaphysics, before being―the primordial human experience, upon which all is predicated―is encounter with the face of the other, in all its vulnerability:

…But how can the opposition of the Same and the Other not lead to the triumph of the Same? And can we avoid wanting this triumph? Does not realism―in which the Other maintains its position―sanction the permanence of conflict?

Unless one shrinks back before the apostasy into which the hierarchy of the universal order―or totalitarianism―forces the Same. Unless one considers that an abstraction is necessary, breaking the coherent and concrete totality like a breath of fresh air. Unless one does not think that the Same does not support the other. Unless one accords to the Same a relation with that which is above Being… Can the Same welcome the Other, not by giving the Other to itself as a theme (that is to say, as being) but by putting itself in question? Does not this putting in question occur precisely when the Other has nothing in common with me, when the Other is wholly other, that is to say, a human Other (Autrui)? When, through the nakedness and destitution of his defenseless eyes, he forbids murder and paralyzes my impetuous freedom? (Transcendence and Height, Basic Philosophical Writings, 16).

Moreover, it is precisely in this that we find the hidden actor of the Megillah:

To posit the transcendent as stranger and poor one is to prohibit the metaphysical relation with God from being accomplished in the ignorance of men and things. The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face. A relation with the Transcendent free from all captivation by the Transcendent is a social relation. It is here that the Transcendent, infinitely other, solicits us and appeals to us. The proximity of the Other, the proximity of the neighbor, is in being an ineluctable moment of the revelation of an absolute presence (that is, disengaged from every relation), which expresses itself. His very epiphany consists in soliciting us by his destitution in the face of the Stranger, the widow and the orphan. (Totality and Infinity, 78)

God reveals himself in the Megillah: to Mordekhai, then Esther, then Ahasuerus, in the face of the vulnerable Other. And for all time, He is revealed to every Jew each Purim in extending love to our Others: in mishteh ve-simkhah, and mishloah manot, and matanot la-evyonim.


[1] Marvin J. Heller, “Purim Seforim as/with Mishlo’ah Manot? A Sixteenth-Century Case Study” in Further Studies in the Making of the Early Hebrew Book (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 465-478.
[2] Lydia Lee, “Reflections on the Scholarly Imaginations of Good and Evil in the Book of Esther,” Biblical Interpretation 28, no. 3 (2020): 273-302.
[3] For Babylonian influences on Esther, see Adam Silverstein, “The Book of Esther and the Enūma Elish,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 69, no. 2 (2006): 209-223. On Persian feasts and Purim, see sources cited in Jona Schellekens, “Accession Days and Holidays: The Origins of the Jewish Festival of Purim,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128, no. 1 (2009): 115-134.
[4] Jonathan Grossman, Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011), especially 25-37.
[5] E.g., Aaron Koller, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), especially 124-135.
[6] See Yaakov Beasley, “Return of the Pashtanim,” Tradition 42, no. 1 (2009): 67-83.
[7] Michael V. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther: With a New Postscript on a Decade of Esther Scholarship, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010), 158-163.
[8] Reviewed in Anthony J. Tomasino, “Interpreting Esther from the Inside Out: Hermeneutical Implications of the Chiastic Structure of the Book of Esther,” Journal of Biblical Literature 138, no. 1 (2019): 101-120.
[9] Tomasino, “Interpreting Esther,” 111.
[10] Konrad Vössing, “Royal Feasting” in A Companion to Food in the Ancient World, eds. John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 244-245.
[11] Kristin Kleber, “Taxation in the Achaemenid Empire” in Oxford Handbooks Online, Classical Studies (Oxford, UK: Oxford University press, 2015). DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.34.
[12] Ironically, whereas hosting a royal feast in the Persian context was an expression of rapaciousness, at least one component of collecting tribute seems to have been regarded as a manifestation of magnanimity. One of the most striking features of the remains of the palace complex at the summer capital of Persepolis, completed by Xerxes I―ostensibly Ahasuerus of the Megillah―are monumental stairways decorated with carvings of the various ethnic-national groups of the empire, each in its distinctive garb, bringing a product of his native land to the king, possibly for the New Year’s festival. The Royal Treasury served as a storehouse for these ceremonial gifts, given for symbolic purposes, a concrete testimony to the relationship between the king and his subjects. Whether this is the tribute that is referenced in 10:1―certainly, the Persian economy boasted an extensive and sophisticated non-ceremonial taxation system as well―the appreciation of diversity implicit in ceremonial gift-giving, and preserved in the Persepolis friezes, is striking, and these finishing touches most likely date to the latter years of Xerxes’s reign, dovetailing precisely with the Megillah’s timeline. Paired with the elevation of a vizier who is unabashedly insular―“great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed” (10:3)―chapter 10 is a clear reversal of 1:1-11; a king who seeks to impose his will and efface heterogeneity now recognizes the gifts of diversity and respect for difference.
[13] Susan Niditch, “Short Stories: The Book of Esther and the Theme of Woman as a Civilizing Force,” in Old Testament Interpretation: Past, Present and Future, ed. Gene M. Tucker (Nashville: Bloomsbury Academic, 1995), 197.
[14] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).
[15] Susan Schept, “Hesed: Feminist Ethics in Jewish Tradition,” in Reading Genesis: Beginnings, ed. Beth Kissileff (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), 81-89.
[16] Nel Noddings, “The Language of Care Ethics,” Knowledge Quest 40, no. 5 (2012): 52-57. See also Noddings, Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 46-48; Joan C. Tronto, “The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global,” Hypatia 23, no. 1 (2008): 211-217.
[17] Alan Jotkowitz, “Nomos and Narrative in Jewish Law: The Care of the Dying Patient and the Prayer of the Handmaid,” Modern Judaism 33, no. 1 (2013): 56-74.
[18] Shira Wolosky, “The Lonely Woman of Faith,” Judaism 52, no. 1-2 (2003): 3-19.
[19] See Schept’s Hesed; see also Anne-Mareike Wetter, Judging By Her: Reconfiguring Israel in Ruth, Esther, and Judith, PhD Dissertation (PhD Diss., Utrecht University, 2014), 107-108, https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/291506.
[20] Orit Avnery, “Ruth and Esther: A Journey through Gender, Ethnicity, and Identity,” in Megilloth Studies: The Shape of Contemporary Scholarship, ed. Brad Embry (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2016), 43-71.
[21] Meir Y. Soloveichik, “The Universalism of Particularity,” in The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy, ed. Shmuel Hain (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2012), 36-50; here 46. See also Ze’ev Maghen, John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage (New Milford, CT: Toby Press, 2015), and Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002).

Aton Holzer is Director of the Mohs Surgery Clinic in the Department of Dermatology, Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, and is an assistant editor of the recent RCA Siddur Avodat HaLev.