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Notes from Limmud 2008

Romance in the margins of the Book of Esther

Stewart Brookes

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. If you are reading this post on Facebook, it will not lay out correctly; click on "View original post" at the bottom to view the original on my LiveJournal blog.]

[This session took place on Shabbos, so I only have here what's on the handout, and not some of Brookes' discussion; and certainly not the extracts from the novels about Esther that he quoted.]

Esther 4:13-17 אסתר ד יג־יז
Then Mordechai said to answer Esther, Do not think in your soul that you will escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. For if you deafen yourself to our need at this time, space and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your father's house shall be destroyed: and who knows whether you might not have come to the kingdom for such a time as this? Then Esther bade them return Mordechai this answer, Go, gather together all the Jews that are to be found in Shushan, and fast for me: neither eat nor drink three days, night or day. I also and my maidens will fast thus; and so I will go to the king, though that is not according to the law—and if I perish, I perish. So Mordechai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him. וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי לְהָשִׁיב אֶל־אֶסְתֵּר אַל־תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית־הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל־הַיְּהוּדִים׃ כִּי אִם־הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית־אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם־לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת׃ וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לְהָשִׁיב אֶל־מָרְדֳּכָי׃ לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל־תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל־תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם גַּם־אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי אָצוּם כֵּן וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל־הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא־כַדָּת וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי׃ וַיַּעֲבֹר מָרְדֳּכָי וַיַּעַשׂ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־צִוְּתָה עָלָיו אֶסְתֵּר׃

The text goes on (5:1-3):

It came to pass on the third day that Esther donned her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king's house, over against the king's house. The king sat on the throne of his kingdom in the palace, over against the entrance of the house. It happened, when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his eyes, and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the sceptre. Then said the king to her, What can I do for you, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half of the kingdom, it shall be given to you. וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַתִּלְבַּשׁ אֶסְתֵּר מַלְכוּת וַתַּעֲמֹד בַּחֲצַר בֵּית־הַמֶּלֶךְ הַפְּנִימִית נֹכַח בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁב עַל־כִּסֵּא מַלְכוּתוֹ בְּבֵית הַמַּלְכוּת נֹכַח פֶּתַח הַבָּיִת׃ וַיְהִי כִרְאוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת־אֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה עֹמֶדֶת בֶּחָצֵר נָשְׂאָה חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וַיּוֹשֶׁט הַמֶּלֶךְ לְאֶסְתֵּר אֶת־שַׁרְבִיט הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדוֹ וַתִּקְרַב אֶסְתֵּר וַתִּגַּע בְּרֹאשׁ הַשַּׁרְבִיט׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמֶּלֶךְ מַה־לָּךְ אֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וּמַה־בַּקָּשָׁתֵךְ עַד־חֲצִי הַמַּלְכוּת וְיִנָּתֵן לָךְ׃

However, the Greek Greek Alpha-Text expands this considerably:

On the third day, when Esther ended her prayer, she took off the garments in which she had worshipped, and arrayed herself in garments of splendour. Then, majestically adorned, after invoking the aid of the all-knowing G-d and Redeemer, she took two maids with her, leaning daintily on one, while the other followed carrying her train. She was radiant with perfect beauty, and her face was as if she was beloved, but her heart was in anguish. When she had gone through the doors, she stood before the king. The king was seated on the royal throne, clothed in the full array of his majesty, all covered with gold and precious stones, and he was most terrifying.

Lifting his face, flushed with splendour, he looked upon her like a bull incited to fierce anger. And the queen was terrified, and her face turned pale from faintness, and she collapsed upon the head of the maid who went before her. Then G-d changed the spirit of the king and turned his rage to gentleness; and in alarm he sprang from his throne, and took her in his arms and comforted her, and said "What is it Esther? [...] Take courage, you shall not die [...] for the prohibition does not apply to you. Behold the sceptre in your hand." Then he raised the sceptre and touched it to her neck, and he embraced her, and said "Speak to me." And she said to him, "I saw you like an angel of G-d, and my heart fainted at the glory of your wrath, my lord." And her face was drenched with sweat. And the king was agitated, as were all his servants, and they sought to comfort her.

[IIRC, Brookes here drew attention to the fact it said Esther had prayed; which it did not in the Biblical text.]

The rabbis of the Talmud have a field day playing midrashically with this:

Megilla 15b ב טו מגילה

When the king saw Queen Esther [standing in the court, she gained favour in his eyes; and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre in his hand].

R. Yochanan said: Three ministering angels encountered her at that hour. One that raised her neck, and one that endowed her with charm, and one that stretched the sceptre [towards her].

And how far [did it stretch]? R. Yirmeya said: It had been two cubits long, and he made it twelve—but some say, sixteen. And others say twenty-four. In a Mishna [sc. בָּרַייתָא] it was taught: [it was stretched] to sixty [cubits].

Thus do you find with the forearm of Pharaoh's daughter*; thus do you also find with the teeth of the wicked, as it is written, "The teeth of the wicked you have broken" (Psalms 3). Reish Lakish said, Do not read shivarta "You broke" but sherebavta "You extended."

Rabba bar Ofran said in the name of R. Eliezer, who had heard it from his teacher, and he from his teacher: [it was stretched to] two hundred [cubits].

ויהי כראות המלך את אסתר המלכה

אמר רבי יוחנן שלשה מלאכי השרת נזדמנו לה באותה שעה אחד שהגביה את צוארה ואחד שמשך חוט של חסד עליה ואחד שמתח את השרביט׃

וכמה אמר רבי ירמיה שתי אמות היה והעמידו על שתים עשרה ואמרי לה על שש עשרה ואמרי לה על עשרים וארבע׃ במתניתא תנא על ששים׃

וכן אתה מוצא באמתה של בת פרעה וכן אתה מוצא בשיני רשעים׃ דכתיב שיני רשעים שברת ואמר ריש לקיש אל תקרי שברת אלא שריבבת

רבה בר עופרן אמר משום רבי אליעזר ששמע מרבו ורבו מרבו מאתים׃

* Which was miraculously stretched to the length of sixty cubits in order to withdraw Moses from the Nile.

† What; you didn't know about the vampires in the Book of Psalms? ;^b

Josephus, in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2, Ch. 6.3, explains the source of Esther's terror:

Now the king had made a law that, that none of his own people should approach him unless he were called, when he sat on his throne; and men, with axes in their hands, stood around his throne, in order to punish such as approached to him without being called.

The various post-Biblical interpretations differed on how they portrayed Esther's relationship with Achashverosh. The Latin Vulgate (Esther 14.15-16) paints a very different picture to the accounts above:

You know that I hate the glory of the wicked, and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised, and of every stranger. You know my necessity: that I abominate the sign of my pride and glory, which is upon my head in the days of my public appearance, and detest it as a menstruous rag, and wear it not in the days of my silence.

Finally, consider the resemblance between Esther and Ruth:

Ruth 3:1-9 רות ג א־ט
Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee? And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor. Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do. And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do. And she went down unto the floor, and did according to all that her mother in law bade her. And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of corn: and she came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down. And it came to pass at midnight, that the man was afraid, and turned himself: and, behold, a woman lay at his feet. And he said, Who art thou? And she answered, I am Ruth thine handmaid: spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman. וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ נָעֳמִי חֲמוֹתָהּ בִּתִּי הֲלֹא אֲבַקֶּשׁ־לָךְ מָנוֹחַ אֲשֶׁר יִיטַב־לָךְ׃ וְעַתָּה הֲלֹא בֹעַז מֹדַעְתָּנוּ אֲשֶׁר הָיִית אֶת־נַעֲרוֹתָיו הִנֵּה־הוּא זֹרֶה אֶת־גֹּרֶן הַשְּׂעֹרִים הַלָּיְלָה׃ וְרָחַצְתְּ וָסַכְתְּ וְשַׂמְתְּ שִׂמְלֹתַיִךְ עָלַיִךְ וְיָרַדְתְּ הַגֹּרֶן אַל־תִּוָּדְעִי לָאִישׁ עַד כַּלֹּתוֹ לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת׃ וִיהִי בְשָׁכְבוֹ וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב־שָׁם וּבָאת וְגִלִּית מַרְגְּלֹתָיו וְשָׁכָבְתְּ וְהוּא יַגִּיד לָךְ אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשִׂין׃ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאמְרִי (אֵלַי) אֶעֱשֶׂה׃ וַתֵּרֶד הַגֹּרֶן וַתַּעַשׂ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־צִוַּתָּה חֲמוֹתָהּ׃ וַיֹּאכַל בֹּעַז וַיֵּשְׁתְּ וַיִּיטַב לִבּוֹ וַיָּבֹא לִשְׁכַּב בִּקְצֵה הָעֲרֵמָה וַתָּבֹא בַלָּט וַתְּגַל מַרְגְּלֹתָיו וַתִּשְׁכָּב׃ וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה וַיֶּחֱרַד הָאִישׁ וַיִּלָּפֵת וְהִנֵּה אִשָּׁה שֹׁכֶבֶת מַרְגְּלֹתָיו׃ וַיֹּאמֶר מִי־אָתְּ וַתֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי רוּת אֲמָתֶךָ וּפָרַשְׂתָּ כְנָפֶךָ עַל־אֲמָתְךָ כִּי גֹאֵל אָתָּה׃

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