Haman's Antisemitism: What Did He Not Like About the Jews?
Antisemitism: Not a Common Biblical Motif
Modern Jews often claim that antisemitism is as old as the Jewish nation. In 2006, the Israeli journalist and author, Amos Elon, wrote that in Israel, “the Holocaust was long seen as simply the culmination of a long unbroken line of anti-Semitism, from pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar to Hitler and Arafat.” Although it is difficult to say anything about a “biblical attitude” when the books of the Hebrew Bible were written by many authors over many centuries, in fact, the Bible rarely depicts gentile hatred of or animus toward Jews simply because they were Jews. Pharaoh certainly discriminated against foreigners, but the Bible never attributes antisemitic thinking to him. (In fact, it would be hard to imagine what would have constituted antisemitism or “Israelite hatred” at a time when Jewish/Israelite identity hardly existed.)
Similarly, the Bible never portrays Nebuchadnezzar as an antisemite. He is merely God’s instrument. Jeremiah teaches that it was God, not Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple and Judea, quoting God as saying (Jer. 27:5-6):
אָנֹכִ֞י עָשִׂ֣יתִי אֶת הָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת הָאָדָ֤ם וְאֶת הַבְּהֵמָה֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ עַלפְּנֵ֣י הָאָ֔רֶץ בְּכֹחִי֙ הַגָּד֔וֹל וּבִזְרוֹעִ֖י הַנְּטוּיָ֑ה וּנְתַתִּ֕יהָ לַאֲשֶׁ֖ר יָשַׁ֥ר בְּעֵינָֽי: וְעַתָּ֗ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ נָתַ֙תִּי֙ אֶת כָּל הָאֲרָצ֣וֹת הָאֵ֔לֶּה בְּיַ֛ד נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּ֥ר מֶֽלֶךְבָּבֶ֖ל עַבְדִּ֑י
“It is I who made the earth, and the men and beasts who are on the earth, by My great might and My outstretched arm; and I give it to whomever I deem proper. I herewith deliver all these lands to My servant, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.”
Haman Affronted by Mordecai’s Jewish-Based Refusal to Bow
Only in one of the latest books of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Esther, do we find what we think of today as antisemitism. When Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman (Esth. 3:2-6), he explains to his colleagues that he is a Jew, implying that his refusal was for Jewish reasons. His colleagues inform on him (Esth. 3:4):
אסתר ג:ד …וַיַּגִּ֣ידוּ לְהָמָ֗ן לִרְאוֹת֙ הֲיַֽעַמְדוּ֙ דִּבְרֵ֣י מָרְדֳּכַ֔י כִּֽי־הִגִּ֥יד לָהֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא יְהוּדִֽי:
Esth. 3:4 …They told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew.
Haman decides to take revenge not on Mordecai the individual but on the entire Jewish people:
אסתר ג:ו וַיִּ֣בֶז בְּעֵינָ֗יו לִשְׁלֹ֤חַ יָד֙ בְּמָרְדֳּכַ֣י לְבַדּ֔וֹ כִּֽי־הִגִּ֥ידוּ ל֖וֹ אֶת־עַ֣ם מָרְדֳּכָ֑י וַיְבַקֵּ֣שׁ הָמָ֗ן לְהַשְׁמִ֧יד אֶת־ כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֛ר בְּכָל־מַלְכ֥וּת אֲחַשְׁוֵר֖וֹשׁ עַ֥ם מָרְדֳּכָֽי:
Esth. 3:6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordecai alone; having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordecai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
A slight from one Jew leads Haman to plot against all Jews. To accomplish this, Haman tells the king:
אסתר ג:ח יֶשְׁנ֣וֹ עַם אֶחָ֗ד מְפֻזָּ֤ר וּמְפֹרָד֙ בֵּ֣ין הָֽעַמִּ֔ים בְּכֹ֖ל מְדִינ֣וֹת מַלְכוּתֶ֑ךָ וְדָתֵיהֶ֞ם שֹׁנ֣וֹת מִכָּל עָ֗ם וְאֶת דָּתֵ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ אֵינָ֣ם עֹשִׂ֔ים וְלַמֶּ֥לֶךְ אֵין שֹׁוֶ֖ה לְהַנִּיחָֽם: ג:טאִם עַל הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ ט֔וֹב יִכָּתֵ֖ב לְאַבְּדָ֑ם…
Esth 3:8 There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. 3:9 If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction…
On the political level, Haman may have been the first to articulate the “dual loyalty” argument, arguing that the Jews’ allegiance to their own laws causes them to be disloyal to the laws of the state.
Jews, Judaism and Anti-Jewish Sentiment in Persia
In Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther), the term יהודי (Yehudi) reflects a religious affiliation (Jew) and not a political one (Judean). Thus Mordecai, although from the tribe of Benjamin, is described as a Jew (2:5) and thinks of himself as a Jew (3:4). In fact, the epithet היהודי (“the Jew”) appears in the Bible only in Megillat Esther, and only in the phrase Mordecai the Jew, which is found six times (5:13, 6:10, 8:7, 9:29, 9:31, 10:3). Similarly, when it becomes clear that the king backs the Jews, many Persians convert out of fear or pretend to be Jews; the word used is “become Jewish” (מתיהדים; 8:17) which may mean joining the religious (or ethnic) group. It does not mean “becoming Judeans.”
As a corollary to this, Haman’s plan is to destroy Jews, not the polity of Judea. This is clear from Haman’s description of Jews as being spread throughout the empire, even at a time when Judea exists as the province of Yehud. Moreover, those who join with Haman to kill Jews are described not merely as Haman’s followers or seekers of easy plunder, but as “enemies” (אויבים) or even “haters” (שונאים) of Jews (8:13, 9:1, 5, 16). Thus, it seems clear that the megillah is describing antisemitism.
Nevertheless, the biblical narrator does not explain Haman’s accusations against the Jews in much detail. We also have no evidence that hatred of Jews was a widespread phenomenon in the Persian Empire.
Over the centuries, Jewish Bible commentators filled in the gap, expanding on Haman’s accusations. Their various expansions reveal a great deal about what each of them saw as the root of antisemitism.
Greek Esther: Barrier to Peace in the Kingdom
The Septuagint translation of Esther into Greek, written around 100 BCE, contains “additions” to the book of Esther,including the following restatement by the king of Haman’s allegations about the Jews:
…[A]mong all the nations in the world there is scattered a certain hostile people, who have laws contrary to those of every nation and continually disregard the ordinances of the kings, so that the unifying of the kingdom which we honorably intend cannot be brought about. We understand that this people, and it alone, stands constantly in opposition to all men, perversely following a strange manner of life and laws, and is ill-disposed to our government, doing all the harm they can so that our kingdom may not attain stability.
The central accusation here is that the Jews undermine the political stability of the country, and make it impossible for the king to make his “kingdom peaceable and open to travel throughout all its extent, to re-establish the peace which all men desire.” The scholar of early Judaism Peter Schäfer offers a different understanding of the text, seeing in the Greek a claim that the Jews are “the only people who are in the state of military alertness always and against everyone.”
Josephus: Reaction to Jewish Hatred of Gentiles
Schäfer also examines the comments of Josephus Flavius, approximately two centuries later, who sees the cause of (at least Haman’s) antisemitism in the alleged fundamental hostility of Jews toward gentiles. According to Josephus, Haman told the king:
[T]hat there was a certain wicked nation scattered throughout the habitable land ruled by him, which was unfriendly and unsocial [emphasis added] and neither had the same religion nor practiced the same laws as others, “but both by its customs and practices it is the enemy of your people and of all mankind.”
Schäfer concludes that some Jewish authors understood that the essence of antisemitism in the Greco-Roman world was “the allegation of amixia, ‘unsociability,’ and of a [Jewish] way of life that is hostile to and, therefore, dangerous to all humankind.” According to Schäfer, Greek texts confirm that these Jewish authors correctly understood the thoughts of many of their gentile neighbors.
Talmud and Midrash: Religiously Antisocial
The rabbis view antisemitism as a direct and even understandable result of the Jews observing Jewish law. This is especially evident in two passages, one from the Talmud and the other from Lamentations Rabbah. The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 13b) reconstructs a conversation between Haman and Ahasuerus, based on ostensible hints from Esther 3:8.
ודתיהם שנות מכל עם – דלא אכלי מינן, ולא נסבי מינן, ולא מנסבי לן.
“Their laws are different from those of any other people” – They won’t eat from our food, won’t marry our women and won’t allow their women to marry us.
ואת דתי המלך אינם עשים – דמפקי לכולא שתא בשה”י פה”י.
“They do not obey the king’s laws” – They spend all their time [shirking responsibilities and making excuses like] “today is the Sabbath” or “today is Passover.”
ולמלך אין שוה להניחם – דאכלו ושתו ומבזו ליה למלכות. ואפילו נופל זבוב בכוסו של אחד מהן – זורקו ושותהו. ואם אדוני המלך נוגע בכוסו של אחד מהן – חובטו בקרקע ואינו שותהו.
“It is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” – They eat and drink and revile the king. If a fly were to fall into the wine cup of any one of them, they would throw away the fly and drink the wine. But if Your Majesty were to touch the wine cup of one of them, they would throw it onto the ground and would not drink from it.
Another rabbinic text (Lam. Rab. 1:21) expressively makes a similar point by having the Jews accuse God of forcing them to act antisocially by legislating mitzvot that others find offensive:
א”ר לוי משל למטרונא שאמר לה [המלך] אל תשאלי כלום לשכינותיך, ואל תשאלי מהם כלום, פעם אחת כעס עליה המלך טרדה חוץ לפלטין, חזרה על כל שכינותיה ולא קבלוה, אמרה לו אתה הוא שעשית שאמרת אל תשאלי לשכינותיך ואל תשאלי מהם כלום…
Rabbi Levi said: This can be compared [to a king who was married] to a woman. He told her: “Don’t lend anything to your [female] neighbors and don’t borrow from them.” Once, the king became angry at her and threw her out of the palace. She went to all her neighbors and they wouldn’t let her in. [Later, after they were reconciled,] she said to him [the king]: It’s your fault since you told me not to lend to or borrow from my neighbors…
אמרו ישראל לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ולא אתה עשית שאמרת לנו לא תתחתן בם בתך לא תתן לבנו ובתו לא תקח לבנך, אילו הוינן מנסבין בנתין לבניהון, או נסבין מבנתהון לבנין, הוין מנהון מחמי ברתא או חד מינן מחמי ברתן גביה, ולא הוה מקביל ליה, הוי כי אתה עשית.
So also Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Aren’t you responsible [for the dislike of Jews]? You told us “You shall not intermarry with them; do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons” (Deut 7:3). Had we given our daughters to their sons or taken their daughters for our sons, then some of them would have seen their daughters among us or we would have seen our daughters among them. Then would they not have taken him in [in a friendly way]? That is the meaning of the verse (Lam 1:21) “[All of my foes heard of my plight and exulted,] for it is Your doing.” 
In these particularly unvarnished midrashim, the rabbis shockingly blame gentile animosity to Judaism on the observance of mitzvot (commandments), the very essence of their Judaism.
Medieval Understanding of Antisemitism
After the biblical and rabbinic periods, Jews in medieval times began to see antisemitism as a pervasive, universal and inevitable phenomenon. They interpreted Haman’s words in a way appropriate to the world in which they lived.
Targum Sheni (Esth. 3:8), a midrashic “translation” and expansion of the book of Esther into Aramaic, probably dating from the 8th or 9th century, provides a window into what some medieval Jews thought that gentiles were saying about them, by creating one of the longest and most interesting Jewish expansions of Haman’s antisemitic allegations:
כד חזיין לנא רקיקין בארעא וחשבין לנא כמדעם מסאבה….
Whenever they [the Jews] see us [gentiles], they spit on the ground; they think of us as something disgusting….
מן בנתיהון לית אנחנא נסבין ומן בנתנא לא נסבין להון….
We don’t marry their daughters and they do not marry ours….
ויומא דאינון צבייא למזבן מננא אמרין לנא יומא שריא הוא ויומא די אנחנא צביין למזבן מנהון אמרין יומא אסירא הוא עלן ואסרין שוקין….
If it’s a day that they want to buy something from us, they say “today is a permitted day.” But when we want to buy something from them, they say, “Today is a forbidden day and the market is closed.”….
ונידתהון לשבעא יומין נפקיין בפלגות ליליא נשיהון ומסאבן ית מיא….
As to their menstruant women, after seven days the women go out in the middle of the night and pollute the water….
ולתמניא ימין גזרין ערלת בניהון ולא חייסין עליהון ואמרין דנהוי שניין מבני עממיא….
On the eighth day they cut off their sons’ foreskins and have no mercy on them; they say that they want to be different from us….
חד לשבעה יומין עבדין שבא עלין לבי כנישתהון קרין בספריהון מתרגמין בנביאהון ולייטין למלכננא….
Every seventh day they observe a Sabbath. They go to their synagogues, read their books, translate their prophets and curse our kings….
בחמישה עשר ביה [בתשרי] ומצלין וחדיין והדרין בהושענא ושוורין ומרקדין היך גדיין ולא ידיעינן אי מילט לייטין לנא ואם מברכא מברכין לנא….
On the fifteenth [of Tishrei; Sukkot] they pray and rejoice and they go in circles [saying] Hoshana and they jump and dance like goats and we don’t know whether they are cursing us or blessing us….
כל דמזבנין מזבנין בעושקא ולא זבנין בשויאו.
Whenever they sell to us, they cheat us and they do not give the full price when they buy.
As we can see, many later antisemitic stereotypes were already known to or imagined by the author of Targum Sheni.
In sum, since the book of Esther is the only biblical book that directly addresses antisemitic thinking, it is not surprising that the midrash and commentary traditions use this book as a platform to expand on the subject.
Megillat Esther and Modern Antisemitism
In the last few centuries, ironically, the book of Esther became associated with antisemitism in a new way. A number of non-Jewish writers used commentaries on Esther as a springboard for venting their own antisemitic thoughts. Martin Luther once wrote: “I am so hostile to this book that I wish that it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much, and has too much heathen naughtiness.”
In Reckless Rites, the Jewish historian Elliott Horowitz gathers together an impressive array of nineteenth and twentieth century non-Jewish writers whose nasty comments about the book of Esther show that they, like Haman, found Jews, particularly successful Jews who defeated their enemies, off-putting. The border between biblical scholarship and antisemitism was often blurred, for example in this 1908 summary of the moral teaching of the book by Lewis Bayles Patton, professor of Bible at Hartford Theological Seminary, published in the International Critical Commentary, the major English commentary series of this era:
There is not one noble character in this book… Esther, for the chance of winning wealth and power, takes her place in the herd of maidens who become concubines of the King… She conceals her origin, is relentless toward a fallen enemy… Mordechai sacrifices his cousin to advance his interests, advises her to conceal her religion, displays wanton insolence in his refusal to bow down to Haman… All this the author narrates with interest and approval. Morally Esther falls below the general level of the OT [Old Testament], and even of the Apocrypha…. It is never quoted by Christ, nor any of the NT [New Testament] writers. The early Christian Church made no use of it…. In significant contrast… stands the high esteem of the book in later Judaism.
For Patton, only wantonly insolent Jews would find the (alleged) Jewish chutzpah in the book of Esther attractive. Moral people [i.e. Christians], he feels certain, would shun the book.
In the same decade, John Edgar McFayden, professor of Bible at Knox College (affiliated with the University of Toronto) wrote in his Introduction to the Old Testament that the book of Esther was characterized by “aggressive fanaticism and fierce hatred of all that lay outside Judaism,” and opined that the book’s popularity was due primarily “to the power with which it expresses some of the most characteristic, if almost odious, traits of Judaism.”
Esther as a Window into Anti-Jewish Sentiment
Studying the history of interpretation of the book of Esther provides a good window for the study of antisemitism. We see how some Jewish commentators grappled with understanding the phenomenon, and how some non-Jewish commentators used their commentaries on Esther to give vent to their own anti-Jewish animus.
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March 8, 2017
January 16, 2021
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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