SCROLL OF ESTHER
SCROLL OF ESTHER (Heb. מְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר, Megillat Ester), the festal scroll of *Purim, the only one of the Five Scrolls to bear the title megillah as part of its traditional name (see *Scrolls, the Five). The Scroll of Esther tells the story of the salvation of the Jews of the Persian Empire.
The Persian king *Ahasuerus, in the third year of his reign, climaxes 180 days of banqueting for his officials with an additional feast of seven days for the entire populace of Shushan. On the seventh day of this party, the king, while drunk, orders Queen *Vashti to appear so that all may appreciate her beauty. When the queen refuses, the king, having consulted his advisers, removes Vashti from her position, and a decree is sent to all the husbands of the realm ordering them to dominate their own households (chapter 1).
A contest is held among all the beautiful maidens of the kingdom to find a successor to Vashti. One of the girls taken to the palace is *Esther, or Hadassah, the cousin of *Mordecai the Jew. Esther, concealing her origins, finds favor in the eyes of the king and is chosen to succeed Vashti. Mordecai, who is one of the officials who "sit in the King's Gate," learns of a plot against the king devised by two of his eunuchs. He reveals this to Esther, who in turn informs the king. The eunuchs are executed (chapter 2).
Ahasuerus elevates *Haman the Agagite, a descendant of Agag king of Amalek (I Sam. 15), above his other courtiers, and all the king's courtiers bow to Haman in recognition of his distinguished rank. Mordecai refuses on the grounds that he is Jewish, presumably because there is a perpetual feud between Amalek and the Jews (Ex. 17: 14–16; Deut. 25:17–19). Angered by this snub, Haman resolves to exterminate Mordecai and the entire Jewish people and determines the appropriate day by lot. He then persuades the king that the Jews are a subversive people who should be eliminated, reinforcing this argument with an offer of 10,000 talents of silver. Ahasuerus authorizes Haman to deal with the Jews as he chooses. Haman writes to all the royal governors appointing the 13th of Adar for the slaughter of the Jews (chapter 3).
Learning of the decree, Mordecai appeals to Esther to intercede with the king. In spite of the mortal danger of appearing before the king without being specifically summoned, Esther agrees to spend three days fasting and then to go to the king (chapter 4). On the third day, Esther approaches the king and is spared. She requests that the king and Haman come to a banquet that night. At the banquet, Esther refuses to reveal her true wishes, but merely asks that Ahasuerus and Haman attend a second banquet she will give on the following night. Haman returns home proud of having been so honored. At the advice of his wife and supporters, he prepares a stake 50 cubits high upon which to hang Mordecai (chapter 5).
Since the king cannot sleep that night, he orders that the royal annals be read to him, and thereby discovers that Mordecai had never been properly rewarded for denouncing the two eunuchs. He asks Haman's advice concerning a means of honoring someone whom the king deems worthy of honor. Haman, thinking he is the chosen one, proposes a procession in royal garb upon a royal horse through the streets of the city, with a noble leading the horse and proclaiming: "This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor." The king then orders Haman to do this for Mordecai (chapter 6). At the second banquet, Esther denounces Haman as plotting the destruction of her people. When Haman appeals to Esther for mercy, the king, thinking he intends to ravish her, orders him to be hanged on the stake prepared for Mordecai (chapter 7).
Haman's place in the king's favor is taken over by Mordecai, but Haman's decree sealing the fate of the Jews poses a serious problem, since according to the Medo-Persian constitution a royal decree may not be revoked (both the idea of a Medo-Persian partnership and the attribution to it of this law are taken, with other features, from Dan. 6). Mordecai, however, writes to all the satraps, governors, and other important officials of the realm authorizing the Jews to defend themselves and to destroy anyone who may attack them (chapter 8). Mordecai's prestige is sufficient to insure that the royal officials favor the Jews on that fateful day. Instead of being exterminated on that day, the Jews seem to have suffered no casualties at all; instead, they themselves kill 500 of their enemies as well as the ten sons of Haman in Shushan, and 75,000 enemies in the provinces. At Esther's request, the Jews of the capital are also given the following day, the 14th of Adar, to avenge themselves on their foes. The Jews are so feared that many gentiles pretend to be Jews (this and not "are converted to Judaism," is the meaning of mityahadim, 8:17).
The days following the battles, the 14th of Adar in the provinces and the 15th in Shushan, are declared by Mordecai and Esther days of feasting and merrymaking forevermore, and they are designed "the days of Purim" in memory of the lots that Haman cast (chapters 9–10). As is pointed out by H.L. Ginsberg, Esther 9:30–31 obliquely justifies the innovation of a new festival with no basis in the Torah, by invoking the authority of the prophet Zechariah (who had flourished in the reign of Ahasuerus' predecessor Darius I) in that they call the ordinance of Mordecai and Esther "an ordinance of 'equity and honesty'" and state that its content was: "These days of Purim shall be observed at their proper time, as Mordecai
The Scroll of Esther claims to be a simple historical account of events that actually took place in the fortress of Shushan, or Susa. It is true that there was a Persian king named Ahasuerus; for Ahasuerus is merely a Hebrew form (the consonantal text of the Hebrew is quite close to the way the name is written in Aramaic documents; the vowel points added in medieval times made for distortion) of the Persian name which the Greeks heard as *Xerxes. Xerxes I (for it is he who is meant, since the reign of Xerxes II was ephemeral) reigned from 486 to 465, B.C.E. It is also true that the name Marduka (= Mordecai) is attested as a personal name in documents of the period and as a Jewish name in Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7. Finally, the author of Esther is well acquainted with Persian customs and court practices, as is illustrated by Vashti's refusal to degrade herself and appear at the drinking party. A Persian wife left when the drinking began.
Nevertheless, accepting Esther as veritable history involves many chronological and historical difficulties. If Mordecai was exiled from Judea with Jehoiachin (589 B.C.E.), as Esther 2:6 suggests, he would have been over 100 years old at the time of Xerxes I. Herodotus reports that Xerxes' queen was neither Esther nor Vashti, but a Persian general's daughter named Amestris (Hist. 7:114). Herodotus also says that the Persian king could only choose a queen from among seven Persian noble families (3:84). In addition, the entire plot is full of improbabilities; for example, while Mordecai is well known as a royal Jewish courtier (3:4), his cousin and adopted daughter, whom he visits daily (2:11), can successfully conceal her nationality and religion. Finally, the story often seems mockingly serious and suspiciously areligious. Prayers are never addressed to God in the hours of danger and need, and no mention is made of thanksgivings to God after the salvation of the Jews. Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud had to read references to God into the Scroll of Esther (Meg. 7a). The Greek translation (see below) and the Aramaic targums made the book much more pious. Assuming that Esther is not veritable history, there are innumerable possibilities for the book's origin, date of composition, historical context, meaning, and purpose.
One significant group of scholars considers Esther, much like Daniel, a pseudepigraph, in which the narrative set in Persia is merely a stage setting for the true meaning. Willrich, for example, suggests that Ahasuerus is really Ptolemy Euergetes II (170–164 B.C.E. and 145–117 B.C.E.); Esther, his queen, Cleopatra III, who was friendly to the Jews; and Haman, the anti-Jewish party at the Ptolemaic court. Haupt and Lewy have proposed solutions that understand Esther in relation to the periods of the Maccabees and Herodians, respectively. A detailed examination of one example of these "historical" interpretations of Esther will reveal the difficulties inherent in this approach. R.H. Pfeiffer argues that Esther was written during the Hasmonean era, specifically at the time of John Hyrcanus (135–104 B.C.E.). Haman, Pfeiffer proposes, looks like a caricature of Antiochus Epiphanes. He persecutes the Jews on the grounds that they are different from other peoples (3:8), just as Antiochus ordered that all peculiar national customs be discontinued (I Macc. 1:41). The Jews in Esther have taken matters into their own hands with great success, and, indeed, ultimately force the gentiles to convert to Judaism (8:17), just as they did under the Maccabees. The author of Esther, like that of Maccabees, is militantly nationalistic, more ardent in his patriotism than in his religious zeal. He outwardly conformed to religious practice, but "appears to have made no demands on God and to have expected that God would make none of him." The background of Esther, according to Pfeiffer, is therefore neither the Persian period nor the period of the persecution of Antiochus (168–165 B.C.E.) but rather the reign of John Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus, among his other achievements, forced the conquered Idumeans to accept Judaism by compulsory circumcision. Represented in our book by Mordecai and Esther, Hyrcanus was the author's ideal and hero. These parallels between the events described in Esther and those of the Maccabean period are, however, at best broad and general. Furthermore, the reign of Hyrcanus may not represent the low level of spiritual life essential to Pfeiffer's argument. Finally, if Esther is the product of intense nationalism, why does the author allow his heroine to hide her Jewish origin and enter the harem of a gentile king? Why must the Jews depend on successful intrigues at court and not revolt openly, as Hyrcanus' ancestors had done?
Another school of thought bases its interpretation on the fact that the names of Mordecai and Esther are derived from the names of the Babylonian deities *Marduk and Ishtar. This approach sees the story as an account of the conflicts of these gods or of their worshipers. The most extensive formulation of this approach is that of Lewy. Lewy's analysis of Esther begins with the fact that the Septuagint and II Maccabees preserve different features of the story than the Hebrew text. Thus, according to the Septuagint, the Persian king is Artaxerxes rather than Xerxes. Haman is called Bugaean and not the Agagite, and the name of the holiday is Phrouraia, or Phourdaia, and not Purim. Finally, the holiday is called the "Mardochaic day" in II Maccabees 15:36.
A proper understanding of these divergences, Lewy maintains, can solve the problem of the origin and purpose of Esther and of the feast of the 14th and 15th of Adar which it
While Lewy's interpretation explains many features of Esther, it must be considered more as a hypothesis or conjecture rather than as proof. It seems far too complicated to be true, and accounts for the features of Esther only by disregarding the scientific canon of economy. The same canon of economy would account for the absence of God's name and of prayer and thanksgiving and of dietary and marital restrictions: Esther was produced in non-pious circles in which ethnicity mattered more than religion.
Research on the Scroll of Esther, in particular the contributions of E. Bickerman, has elucidated many aspects of this deceptively simple book. Bickerman has solved many of the problems left unsolved by the other commentators we have considered. He has clearly recognized the literary structure of the book and the fact that, while it may be ultimately based on actual events, Esther contains two originally independent plots derived from Oriental romance: one plot of harem intrigue of which Esther is the heroine, and another of court intrigue of which Mordecai is the hero. Mordecai's story is based on a type of Oriental romance. It is the story of the struggle between the vizier and the dashing new courtier who outwits the vizier and replaces him in the king's favor. Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman (3:2), which puzzled the later Jewish commentators, is thus comprehensible as an attempt by Mordecai to demonstrate his equality with Haman. Haman is angry, consults his friends and prepares the stake. Meanwhile, the episode of the king's sleepless night occurs, and at its conclusion Haman must honor Mordecai. Finally, Haman is overthrown and Mordecai replaces him in the king's favor.
The second plot is that of the queen who brings about the downfall of the vizier. In Esther, the conflict between Haman and the queen is accidental, as he does not know that she is Jewish. This cannot have been the motive in the original story or stories. Yet the fact that Esther is not the "original story" explains one puzzling feature of the book – the non-Jewish, if not un-Jewish, character of the narrative. The heroes of the original story were not Jewish. These two plots were combined quite effectively. Having heard stories of the struggles of a Jewish courtier and of a Jewish queen against an evil vizier, the author combined them. However, traces of the independent stories can still be seen in several places in the book, as in the two separate epistles at the end (9:20–28 and 9:29–32) or in the unexplained presence of two where one would suffice – the delay being necessary for Mordecai's first triumph over Haman on the night of the king's insomnia. The Scroll of Esther presents Purim as a festival commemorating the victory of the Jews, but it is odd in that it occurs on the day following the victory, unlike other Jewish festivals celebrated on the anniversary of the event itself. It is therefore clear, Bickerman concludes, that the author of Esther invented his story to explain an already existent festival. Purim, Bickerman suggests, was originally a seasonal festival of mock ritual combat between "our side" and "their side" celebrated for two days in the capital and one day in the countryside, followed by a day of pleasure. Similar festivals are well known in the ancient world. On these days, stories such as those which eventually contributed to Esther were told for the pleasure of the celebrants.
This festival, originally a local feast of the Jews of Shushan and Persia (cf. Meg. 7a), received the name Purim after the story of Mordecai and Esther had been elaborated. The name Purim is based on the story of Esther and is properly explained by our author as being derived from the lots (Akkadian pūrū; not a Persian word) which Haman cast to determine the date for the annihilation of the Jews (3:7; 9:24).
This analysis of Esther makes it difficult to propose a specific date for its author, since most of the motifs occurring in the book are now explained as belonging to the long tradition of Oriental romance. Nevertheless, a few facts may be established. The author was definitely a Persian Jew, possibly from Shushan. He certainly wrote before 78/77 B.C.E., the date the Greek translation of Esther (see below) was brought to Egypt, and before the composition of II Maccabees 15:36, which mentions the 14th of Adar as the "Day of Mordecai."
Much recent research has been directed to the way in which Esther presents a picture of Persian life quite similar to that drawn by the Greeks (see Berlin, xxviii–xxxii); Persians love luxury and are constantly drinking. Persian emperors are controlled by women. Persians love making laws and finding ways of getting around them. Herodotus' portrayal of the bloodthirsty Amestris is refracted in Esther's request for additional killing (Est. 9:12–14). Another avenue focuses on the ways in which Esther borrows elements from earlier biblical books, which were already Scripture for the author. The virgin search in Esther 2:2 is borrowed from I Kings chapter one; In Esther 8:2 Ahasuerus gives Mordecai the ring off his finger just as Pharaoh does in Genesis 41:42. (Other parallels to the Joseph story were already pointed out over a century ago by Rosenthal.) More significant, the Book of Esther permits the Jews to right ancient sins of omission and commission. In I Samuel 15, Mordecai's ancestor Saul
Canonization and the Greek Version
One direct result of the non-Jewish atmosphere which pervades the Scroll of Esther was the refusal of some of the rabbis to admit Esther into the Jewish canon. The Talmud (Meg. 7a) preserves debates on whether Esther was written with the proper divine inspiration (Ru'aḥ ha-Kodesh) and whether it "defiles the hands" like other scriptural works. The major objection to including Esther in the canon seems to have been the lack of clear references to God, His providence, or His intervention in the events of our story. The stridently militant and anti-gentile tone of the concluding chapters added to the rabbis' objections. They seem to have been afraid that Esther might arouse the jealousy and hatred of non-Jews. Ultimately, of course, the book was admitted (Meg. 7a and Rashi ad loc.). The Christian reception of Esther was historically cool. The book is never quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. Martin Luther declared his hostility to II Maccabbees and Esther, and famously wished they did not exist "for they judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety."
Esther was translated into Greek by Lysimachus son of Ptolemy of Jerusalem. His translation was brought to Egypt in the "fourth year of the reign of Ptolemy and Cleopatra," according to the colophon at the end of the Greek version. Of the three Ptolemies associated with a Cleopatra in the fourth year of their reign, the most probable one in this case is Ptolemy XII Auletos and his sister and wife Cleopatra V. Documents about Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V are the only ones which illustrate in the same royal style as the colophon. The translation was thus brought to Egypt in the year 78/77 B.C.E.
Lysimachus follows his original fairly closely, although he obviously felt free to adapt and alter the text for the sake of clarity or his own notions of probability. For example, he makes the slaughter of the opponents of the Jews occur on the same day as the festival rather than on the day before, so that Purim will be celebrated on the anniversary of the victory, as were Hellenic and Jewish festivals.
The Greek translation also contains six passages not found at all in the Hebrew text. These passages should not all be understood as entirely new compositions of Lysimachus. The representations of Esther on the walls of the synagogue at *Dura-Europos also contain scenes not in the Hebrew text. This suggests that the author of the Hebrew Esther only utilized part of a larger circle of stories concerning his heroes. Lysimachus' "additions" and the paintings at Dura-Europos may be other elements of this cycle.
The character and purpose of these additions have been much debated. Three purposes, at least, can be discerned. These passages add a religious element, specifically prayer, to the book to help explain how and why the Jews were saved. The additions also adapt the book to the tastes of contemporary readers by introducing documents, namely the decrees of Haman and Mordecai. Finally, a particular interpretation of the conflict between Haman and the Jews is emphasized. Haman's decree, according to the Greek version, charges the Jews with exclusiveness and disloyalty which endanger the state. The Jews, in Mordecai's decree, answer that their God is the ruler of the world who takes and gives away kingdoms. Sovereigns ought to recognize this, as Ahasuerus ultimately does, understanding that those who oppose the Jews are the real traitors who seek to deprive the kingdom of the support of the "chosen people" and of their God. This exchange of charges of disloyalty fits well into the reign of Alexander Yannai, and it may be conjectured that this is when Lysimachus translated the work.
[Albert I. Baumgarten /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
Since the talmudic period it has been customary to write the Book of Esther on parchment in the form of a scroll, and the rules governing its production and writing are basically the same as those for a traditional Torah scroll. It is not known when and under what circumstances artistic embellishment of Esther scrolls began. The earliest extant illuminated Esther scrolls emanate from 16th-century Italy, commissioned by well-to-do Italian Jews. Cylindrical or polygonal cases were often made to house such scrolls, often provided with a crank handle to roll the parchment through a vertical slot. Cases were made of copper, tin, and wood, but fine silver and some ivory cases have survived as well.
The decoration and illustration of Esther scrolls, mostly by unknown Jewish artists, reached its height during the 17th and 18th centuries, in Italy and other countries in Europe, particularly Holland. The great demand for an illustrated megillah led the makers to produce engraved scrolls, printed from copper plates, while the text was still copied by hand, as required by Jewish law. Some of the best-known engraved Dutch megillot were produced by the Jewish engraver Shalom *Italia (1619–1664?), born and raised in Italy.
The decorative programs of Esther scrolls usually depict the Esther story in great detail, one episode after the other. The episodes usually refer directly to the text column in the center, but often include midrashic elements. The narrative scenes are often set in exquisite landscapes or contemporary buildings. Other forms of decoration include architectural elements, allegorical representations, nude putti, the signs of the zodiac and the twelve tribes, heavenly Jerusalem, and scenes that reveal the daily life of the Jews of the time, particularly scenes related to the celebration of the festival.
Outside Italy and Holland figurative representations in megillot appear among the Ashkenazi communities in German-speaking
lands: Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia. Many of the attractive megillot from these lands were produced by the scribe-artists of the so-called "Moravia School" of Hebrew illumination (for example, Aaron Wolf Herlingen of Gewitch or Meshullam Zimmel of Polna). Noteworthy are also the fine silver cases from these lands, at times engraved with the Triumph of Mordecai or other central episodes in the Esther story. Some figurative scrolls are also known from Poland and France (Alsace).
Examples of decorated megillot are extant from Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, and Morocco, where they were mainly decorated with floral, architectural, or other decorative designs. Megillot from former centers of the Ottoman Empire were often housed in ornamental silver cases – megillot from Istanbul in exquisite gold-plated silver cases made in a delicate filigree technique. In other lands of Islam and the East, decorated megillot were not as common. Notable are the colorful megillot of Baghdad, which feature in large capitals along the upper border a long list with the genealogy of Mordecai (tracing him back to Abraham) and contain Haman's genealogy, upside down, going back to "wicked Esau."
The art of the illustrated scroll, which declined in the 19th century, was revived in the 20th by artists of the *Bezalel School, Ze'ev Raban (1890–1970) in particular, who created megillot with images showing the influence of Persian miniatures mixed with Western-Orientalist symbolic elements. Side by side with the new hand-illuminated megillot, graphic artists in the Land of Israel joined efforts in issuing colorfully decorated printed Esther scrolls, which were far less expensive and thus popular, especially in the early days of the young state. With the improvement of the conditions of life and renewed interest in Jewish tradition in the late 20th century, young artists, including women, revived the art of the hand-illuminated megillah.
[Shalom Sabar (2nd ed.)]
H. Gunkel, Esther (Ger., 1916); J. Hoschander, The Book of Esther in the Light of History (1923); H.S. Gehmann, in: JBL, 43 (1924), 321–8; H. Lewy, in: HUCA, 14 (1939), 127–51; R.H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (1941), 732–47; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 4 (1960), 439–48; S. Talmon, in: VT, 13 (1963), 419–55; E. Würthwein, Esther, Handbuch zum Alten Testament (1964); E.J. Bickermann, Four Strange Books of the Bible (1967), 171–240; H.L. Ginsberg, The Five Megilloth and Jonah (1969), 82–88. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: L. Rosenthal, in: ZAW, 15 (1895), 278–84; idem, in: ZAW, 17 (1897), 125–28; C. Moore, in: ABD, 2:632–42; idem, in: DBI, 1:349; M. Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther; J. Levenson, Esther, A Commentary (1997); A. Berlin, The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther (2001). C. Benjamin, "An Illustrated Venetian Esther Scroll and the Commedia dell'Arte," in: The Israel Museum News, 14 (1978), 50–59; idem, The Stieglitz Collection: Masterpieces of Jewish Art (1987), 259–83; E. Frojmovic, "The Perfect Scribe and an Early Engraved Esther Scroll," in: British Library Journal, 23:1 (1997), 68–80; J. Gutmann, "Estherrolle," in: Reallexicon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte (1969), vol. 6, cols. 88–103; S. Liberman Mintz, "A Persian Tale in Turkish Garb: Exotic Imagery in Eighteenth-Century Illustrated Esther Scroll," in: J. Gutmann (ed.), For Every Thing A Season: Proceedings of the Symposium on Jewish Ritual Art (2002), 76–101; M. Metzger, "The John Rylands Megillah and Some Other Illustrated Megilloth of the XVth to XVIIth Centuries," in: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 45 (1962), 148–84; idem, "A Study of Some Unknown Hand-Painted Megilloth of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," in: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 46 (1963), 84–126; idem, "The Earliest Engraved Italian Megilloth," in: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 48 (1966), 381–432; idem, "La Meghillàh illustrata della Comunità israelitica di Padova," in: Rassegna Mensile di Israel, 32 (1963), 88–98; M. Narkiss, "The Œuvre of the Jewish Engraver Salom Italia (1619–55?)," in: Tarbiz, 25 (1956), 441–51; 26 (1956), 87–101 (Heb.), R. Wischnitzer, "The Esther Story in Art," in: P. Goodman (ed.), The Purim Anthology (1973), 222–49.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.