Monday, March 3, 2014

Zionism and the real history of Esther and Mordechai

The Zionism of the Purim Story

The Book of Esther is one of the great mysteries of our tradition.

Yet the book is hard to place in history.  When and where did it occur? If Esther and Mordechai lived at a time when return to Israel was possible, then what lesson does it teach us about modern Zionism?

Here’s how we solve the mystery:

The Megillah’s only “historic” reference comes in Esther 2:5-6 – In the fortress Shushan lived a Jew by the name of Mordecai, son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish a Benjaminite – who had been exiled from Jerusalem in the group that was carried into exile along with King Jeconiah of Judah, which had been driven into exile by King Neuechadnezzar of Babylon.

We know that the exile of Jeconiah of Judah happened around 597 BCE.  But which person in the verse here was exiled?  Was it Mordechai himself, so the Book of Esther was soon after? Or was it his great grandfather Kish, meaning Mordechai lived closer to the year 500 BCE?

The ‘kingdom of Persia’ at the time was the Archaemid Empire, which at its height ranged from modern Pakistan to the Crimea, Greece and Egypt. We know that in 539 BCE Cyrus the Great conquered Babylonia and permitted the Jews to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but no mention of that event is in the Book of Esther.  Why?

In Esther 1:19, during the search for a new queen, we read If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Achashverosh. Since Babylonia is not named, and Media is to its east, one opinion would say that Esther had to live before Cyrus conquered Babylonia (539 BCE) and it was Mordechai himself who was exiled. Therefore, return to Israel was not possible and they were trapped in exile.  This opinion, however, is hard to accept.

The city of Shusha began as the regional capital of Elam, which was also conquered by Cyrus the Great, in 539 BCE.  It was hardly a “great city” at that time. Yet it was expanded greatly by Cyrus’ son, Darius the Great (522-486 BCE), who is known in our books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, Haggai and Zechariah. But none of our other books mention a Jewish Queen at Darius’ side, nor a great leader and advisor - Mordechai.  Would they all omit a known event of such importance? No. So, for “Shushan HaBira” to be the “capital Shusha,” it would seem that  Esther and Mordecai would have lived later in Darius’ life.

The rabbinic tradition collapses ancient history into a relatively brief period of time, placing Mordechai as a member of the Great Assembly Ezra and Nehemia established under Cyrus and Darius.   According to the Talmud, Bava Batra 15a, it was “The Men of the Great Assembly” who wrote the book of Esther. 

Yet many scholars identify Achashverosh as a Jewish name for Darius’ successor, Xerxes I, which in turn places the whole story at the height of the Achaemenid Empire. In fact, Xerxes I subdued a Babylonian rebellion in 482 BCE, after which he refused to be named as “King of Persia and Babylonia,” but merely “King of Persia and Media.” The quote from Esther 1:19 suddenly makes sense in this new context. His rule ended in 465 BCE, so we can date the Book of Esther to somewhere between 482-465 BCE. And it must be Mordechai’s Great-Grandfather Kish who was exiled from Jerusalem with king Jeconiah in 597 BCE. All of the pieces of the puzzle have now fallen in place.

So, Purim occurs 55-70 years after Cyrus the Great permitted Jews to return to the land of Israel.  The second temple is built, and the return is possible.  But no mention of that fact is made in the Book of Esther. To me, this is the sad but important lesson of the book. Israel was weak, and irrelevant to the lives of the Jews of the great empire. Israel could not help, and was not involved in the threat posed by Haman.  And a mass aliyah from Shushan and the empire to Israel was clearly unthinkable.  In our day, we must ensure that no community is so abandoned again.