Esther’s Ambiguity

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Rabbi David Fohrman, in OU Press’ new book, The Queen You Thought You Knew: Unmasking Esther’s Hidden Story (pp. 43-46), addresses some difficult language surrounding Esther’s banquets.

Dangling Pronouns

Esther doesn’t remain silent. But she doesn’t ask the king to save her people, either. Instead, Esther chooses a third option. She invites the king to a party. But she doesn’t just invite him. She invites Haman, too.

If I have found favor in your eyes, let the king and Haman come today to a banquet I have made for him…”… (Esther 5:4)

What is Esther doing here?

As it turns out, a clue comes in the form of a grammatical incongruity in the verse. There is a subtle ambiguity in Esther’s words, a dangling pronoun:

“… let the king and Haman come today to a banquet I have made for him…” (Esther 5:4)

Him, who?

Esther has invited two people to this banquet – but then says she is making it for only one of them. Who, exactly, is the “him” that this banquet is for? There are only two possibilities – and if you were Achashveirosh, neither is especially appealing.

One possibility is that Esther is making the banquet for Achashveirosh. But if that’s the case, what’s she doing inviting Haman, too? What is he doing interrupting a private dinner for two?

The other possibility, of course, is that she’s making the party for Haman. But that possibility is even worse. Why is she making a party for him?

Things only get worse once the banquet actually takes place. At the feast, the king again asks Esther to tell him what’s on her mind. Up to half the kingdom, and he’s happy to give it to her. Just tell me, Esther – and it’s yours.

Esther’s response? She seems almost surprised that the king has asked her what’s on her mind:

“My request and my petition? If I have found favor in the eyes of the king and if it please the king to grant my petition, and to perform my request – let the king and Haman come to [another] banquet that I shall make for them, and I will do tomorrow as the king has said.” (Esther 5:7-8)

Now go back and check the pronouns. Notice anything?

Now, all of a sudden, Esther uses the plural. The banquet is for both of them, both the king and Haman. Things are in flux. Whoever the banquet was for the first time – the king or Haman – it’s changed now. Now it’s for the king and Haman. What, exactly, does Esther think she is doing here?

Shared Destruction

Stop and ask yourself: How would you characterize Esther’s choices here? Would you call them safe or hazardous?

Esther is planting the seed of an exceptionally dangerous idea in the mind of the king. As Rashi, grandfather of the medieval commentators, suggests, Esther is insinuating, without quite saying it, that perhaps something is going on between her and Haman. If we look at what she is doing without the benefit of hindsight – without knowing that in the end, things worked out safely for her ^ndash; it would seem that Esther is embarking on something close to a suicide mission. In Persia during the fourth century BC, how long is the average lifespan of a queen whom the king suspects of adultery?

Why is she being so risky? Evidently, Esther has concluded that she has little choice. Yes, if the king perceives Esther to be involved with Haman, then maybe they will both hang on the royal gallows before the banquet on the morrow. But if that is the case, so be it. She will at least have brought the Jews’ tormentor down with her, and perhaps her people will somehow emerge whole from her and Haman’s shared demise.

The Only Thing Worse than Knowing is Not Knowing

Having embarked on this perilous path, Esther plays the part to the hilt. Not only does she suggest the possibility of a dalliance with Haman, she cloaks that possibility in ambiguity. Who is the banquet for? Could be for the king. Could be for Haman. And then, a second invitation for them, for both the King and Haman. The situation is dynamic and in flux. If the king is trying to figure out what’s going on, he is pursuing a moving target.

Often, when we find ourselves faced with difficult or dangerous circumstances, the most unbearable part is not the danger itself, but the uncertainty associated with it. When the doctor tells the patient that yes, something is seriously wrong – but he doesn’t know what it is; he needs to order more tests that’s when the patient’s blood pressure skyrockets. When, in a horror novel, the victim walks slowly through the corridors of an empty house and nothing happens – yet – that’s the most frightening part of the book. From the king’s perspective, the worst part of these banquets is the not knowing. Who is the banquet for? Either possibility is bad – but what’s even worse is not knowing which it is. And as if that weren’t enough, whatever the reality was yesterday, has changed today. And then, of course, the final uncertainty: Maybe I misheard her. Maybe she just stumbled over her words. Why am I letting my imagination get the best of me? Why am I making such a big deal over nothing?

It’s no wonder the king can’t sleep that night.

That night the king couldn’t fall asleep, and he asked that the Book of Chronicles be brought before him to be read to him…(Esther 6:1)

Learn more about the book here: link.

And here is a video about the book:

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

16 comments

  1. An interesting idea, but why doesn’t it work? Far from the king having doubts about her, he offers her half the kingdom. I guess you can say her response was to try it one more time, but why didn’t it work? Too subtle?

  2. No preview is available on Amazon or the OU page linked, so it is hard to determine whether this is mussar/drash or scholarship. Can you share, for example, the bibliography?

  3. It’s a popular work. No footnotes and no bibliography.

  4. I listened to the author’s shiur on the topic, downloadable from his site. It’s definitely pshat rather than mussar/drash. Perhaps someone will argue that it’s not scholarship, but I found it interesting and thought-provoking.

  5. Rabbi Fohrman is brilliant. He occasionally uses Medrash to buttress a point he is making. But his original thinking is more in the mold of Rabbi Leibtag and that school, which uses the Koach of poshut pshat analysis that leads to some very novel, enlightening and convincing conclusions and approaches, and not the “quote a dozen meforshim” style that some people prefer because of the Mesora feel it generates.

  6. I heartily recommend R’ Yaakov Meidan’s take on this, in a series of recorded shiurim, on קול שידורי תורה (http://torah.libsyn.org/), and in fact, I wonder how many parallels we can find between R’Fohrman and R’Meidan. R’ Meidan considers this scene, however, in the larger context of the megillah, where he develops the idea that Achashverosh. after a very heavy defeat, had become a puppet king, and was entirely uninvolved in matters of state, being left a virtual prisoner in his palace. Achashverosh was not planning to kill Haman, but rather, as Esther was edging him on, thought the gallows Haman was reparing were for him. Esther was hoping he’d finally become a man and strike Haman when they were all three in private, but Achashverosh took a while to get the message; he only gets it when he realizes that Esther is really not in cahoots with Haman and Achashverosh’s might is not entirely broken. Sensing he can get back on his feet, he then charges Haman with atempting to seduce the queen.

    By the way, he also explains the two days of fighting in Shushan as being one day in Shushan haBira, i.e., in the palace complex, where all the remaining allies of Haman’s party had to be eliminated, only after which tehy could venture, the next day, into Shushan the city. Very compelling.

    @Yehupitz, I must agree with your assessment that “Rabbi Fohrman is brilliant.” The only two points where I disagree with you is (a) your use of the word “but” and (b) really, what R’ Leibtag does is not studying eshat while ignoring midrash, but rather showing that the midrashim are rooted in peshat, though usually, this is overlooked and consequently midrashim are often misunderstood. I fully concur.

  7. I am not exactly sure of the chiddush here about Esther. This idea is well documented that she wanted the king to kill them both in the gemoro. The whole megilla and story of esther who plays the major part is ‘difficult’. Why was Esther brought when he was only looking for virgins. Was her marriage to Mordechai such a secret, if so why. Tosfos says a daily get from him had to be kept secret. Or did he know somehow that she always remained a virgin when he wanted as the gemoro says. That was the reason he took her not that she looked nice, she didnt she was ‘green’. Or did he test them all like the gemoro says such tests exist by a barrel of wine which she naturally failed. It says that the Jews knew they had a sister in the palace, so how is it possible that the king didnt. I dont think any other story of tnach has so many questions.

  8. “The whole megilla and story of esther who plays the major part is ‘difficult’.”
    These are all questions on chazal, not on the megillah.

  9. Having checked the mesivta gemoro now. He says the ibn ezra says that mordechai had not yet married her. The monos halevi says that although the king only wanted virgins his messengers took others as well.
    I think my chiddush is excellent and much better. The messengers tested Esther and like the king found she was still a virgin (although married to mordechai). This was of course part of the nes purim. The monos halevi adds that unlike rivka the posuk never calls esther a virgin.

  10. Rabbi Fohrman is not only brilliant, but exceptionally articulate and that’s where his main strength lies imho. he might say and idea tht is well known but his ability to explain it is what makes it so pleasurable.

  11. Prof. Schiffman in “From Text to Tradition” (p. 122) writes:

    “The Septuagint’s versions of several biblical books include supplementary passages that are not found in the Hebrew originals of these texts. The Greek Esther, for instance, has six additions of this kind which fill in details presumably deemed necessary for the Hellenistic reader, whether for dramatic or religious reasons. The additions tell how Mordecai saved the king’s life and how Esther appealed to the king. The text of the king’s order to massacre the Jews is provided as well as his second letter calling on his people to support and defend the Jews. Most importantly, the prayers uttered by Mordecai and Esther are included, thus filling what some readers must have seen as an obvious spiritual lacuna in the canonical version of the book. Some of these additions were no doubt introduced by Lysimachus, an Alexandrian Jew living in Jerusalem, who translated Esther around 114 BCE, according to the book’s colophon.”

    And (p. 58):

    “While virtually all the Writings were regarded as canonical by the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, arguments continued regarding the status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, and these disputes are attested in rabbinic literature. Second Temple literature indicates that a collection of Writings existed as early as the second century BCE but was not yet regarded as formally closed.”

    And this interesting observation from Prof. Geza Vermes in “The Story of the Scrolls” (p. 102):

    “Next, since the eleven caves have proved the presence of all the books of the Bible, except Esther either in scroll form or as fragments, it may be deduced that these books commanded at Qumran the same respect as in the rest of Palestinian Jewry. In other words, there was no difference between the Qumran Bible and the Hebrew Bible of the Palestinian Jewish population at large. Whether the absence of Esther is significant – it is missing also from the canon of the Greek Old Testament of Bishop Melito of Sardis (who died in 180 CE) – or merely accidental, is impossible to decide. From the fact that Cave 4 yielded remains of a writing akin to Esther, a kind of Aramaic proto-Esther (4Q550), published by J. T. Milik, we may infer that the Book of Esther was not deliberately excluded from the Qumran canon.”

  12. R’ Gil,

    I commend the OU Press for their choice of authors. First R’ Sacks and now the brilliant but in some circles unknown R’ Fohrman.

    Any chance that we will see in the future some books from R’ Menachem Leibtag or R’ Aharon Lichetenstein?

  13. R. Leibtag, yes, if he ever writes a book.

    R. Lichtenstein, no, he has an existing relationship with Ktav. He has a new book coming out in a few months that is already on their website: http://www.ktav.com/product_info.php?products_id=2376

  14. Rafael Araujo

    In this weeks’ edition of Mishpacha Magazine, Yonason Rosenblum offers a glowing review of R’ Fohrman’s book.

  15. I find this drash to be pulling the string abit to far. Several questions can be raised to challenge Rav Fohrman’s interpritation.

    1) Why, from Ahashvrosh’s perspective, would Esther come to him to invite Haman to a party on Haman’s behalf? If an illicit affair is taking place surely inviting Ahashverosh to “their” party would only serve to allay fears of adultry not to plant those seeds.

    2) Why would Achashverosh rush to hurry Haman to attend a baquet if he suspected anything untowards?

    3) As the person to whom Esther is speaking, it seems that “him” refers to the Achshverosh. However, even if Achashverosh understands “Him” to mean Haman, it merely suggest that Esther is accepting the prominent and eminent place that Achashverosh has placed Haman. The whole “invitation” scene seems to suggest that this is the first time that Esther initiate contact with Achasverosh, implying that she is accepting her position in the Harem as a fait accomplie. Whatever the final understanding of “him” is we cannot deny that Achashverosh is excited by Esthers request.

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