Using Memory, Megillat Esther Confronts the Jewish People with their Past
The Two-Part Structure of Megillat Esther
The composition history of the book of Esther, known in Jewish circles as the megillah (the scroll), is a matter of scholarly debate. Some scholars believe that the book of Esther combines two sources: a liturgical text about Esther aimed at describing the Jewish attitude to non-Jews and explaining the origin of Purim, and a historical text concerning the palace intrigues of Mordecai and the persecution of the Jews in Shushan.
Other scholars view Esther as a unified literary work with a concentric structure: the first part of the work (ch. 1–5), in which Haman gains ascendency and the Jews are in danger, is undone by the second, inverse, part of the work, in which the Jewish heroes, Esther and Mordechai, prevail (ch. 6–10).
However it was composed, the book of Esther as we have it now has a clear point of transition: chapter 6, in which the fate of the Jews begins to change.
Memory in the Megillah’s Pivotal Scene
Chapter 6 describes the night when King Ahasuerus was sleepless, and requested that the “סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרֹנוֹת דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים” (book of remembrances, annals), be read to him. This book is called by this name only here; in chapter 2 verse 23, it is called “the book of annals” (בְּסֵפֶר דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים). Nor is “סֵפֶר הַזִּכְרֹנוֹת דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים” (book of remembrances, annals) used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
Why is this unusual term, “book of remembrances,” used here? Moreover, how might bringing in the book of remembrances alleviate the king’s sleeplessness?
Other Uses of Memory in the Megillah
The root ז.כ.ר appears in the Book of Esther in two other verses, one towards the beginning of the book and one towards the end.
The King Remembers Vashti
In chapter 2, after Vashti is banished from the king’s presence and demoted from her position as queen:
אסתר ב:א אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה
כְּשֹׁ֕ךְ חֲמַ֖ת הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ
וְאֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־נִגְזַ֖ר עָלֶֽיהָ׃
Esth 2:1 Some time afterward,
when the anger of King Ahasuerus subsided,
and what she had done,
and what had been decreed against her.
Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, discerns in this verse a sophisticated structure, with the king remembering three different things, each introduced by the Hebrew word ʾet, in ascending order of length: first one word, then two words, and finally three.
This structure, Beal suggests, emphasizes that Ahasuerus remembers and that Vashti does not allow herself to be forgotten. The king is burdened by his memories, and those around him try to find a solution. Memory is here oppressive, and the rememberer is to trying to blur and obviate the painful memory.
Remembering the Events of Purim
The root ז.כ.ר appears toward the end of Esther as well, concerning the Jewish people’s establishment of the festivities of Purim:
אסתר ט:כח וְהַיָּמִ֣ים הָ֠אֵ֠לֶּה נִזְכָּרִ֨ים וְנַעֲשִׂ֜ים בְּכׇל־דּ֣וֹר וָד֗וֹר מִשְׁפָּחָה֙ וּמִשְׁפָּחָ֔ה מְדִינָ֥ה וּמְדִינָ֖ה וְעִ֣יר וָעִ֑יר וִימֵ֞י הַפּוּרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה לֹ֤א יַֽעַבְרוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים וְזִכְרָ֖םלֹא־יָס֥וּף מִזַּרְעָֽם:
Esth 9:28 Consequently, these days are remembered and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city. And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants.
This is a dramatic moment that culminates a tortuous process in which Mordechai and Esther attempt to ensconce the holiday in the Jewish memory.
The Narrative Arc of Memory
The theme of memory thus spans the megillah. In its first appearance, it is King Ahasuerus who remembers, though he wishes to forget, and his advisors invest effort to help him drown his loneliness in the search for a new queen.
At the heart of the megillah, in chapter 6, the king awakens (in two senses) and understands that memory is vital for his continued existence.
By inviting Ahasuerus to a banquet with Haman, and then, instead of saying what was on her mind, inviting him with Haman to a second banquet, Esther succeeds in arousing the king’s curiosity, concern, and suspicion. This sequence of events leaves Ahasuerus feeling threatened, uncertain, and anxious about the developments around him and the stability of his reign. In his anxiety, the king turns to his book of remembrances to better understand his present situation.
Indeed, the opening of the book of remembrances symbolizes the turning point, where reality is shaken, and the course of events is turned in the opposite direction. The king consults his book of remembrances to draw strength and inspiration, realizing that the past is the key to deciphering the present.
At the conclusion of the megillah, it is the Jews who remember and will commemorate the events of Purim. Having barely defeated their foes, the heroes of the book understand the danger that what they accomplished may be forgotten, so they establish Purim and its practices.
The Absence of Jewish Memory in the Megillah
The important place memory takes in the story contrasts with the book’s lack of any sign of Jewish culture or behavior other than Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman is “because he is a Jew” (Esth 3:4). In all other ways, however, the Jewishness of the protagonists is invisible.
Names—The heroes of the story, Mordechai and Esther, are known by Babylonian names. Although Esther also has a Hebrew name, Hadassah, no one outside the family seems to know it or use it.
Food—Although Esther lives in the palace and is given “her rations” (מָנוֹתֶהָ), no mention is made of whether the food she eats is kosher. This is starkly different than what we see in the book of Daniel, in which the opening chapter is all about how Daniel and his friends refuse to eat non-kosher food:
דניאל א:ח וַיָּשֶׂם דָּנִיֵּאל עַל לִבּוֹ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִתְגָּאַל בְּפַתְבַּג הַמֶּלֶךְ וּבְיֵין מִשְׁתָּיו וַיְבַקֵּשׁ מִשַּׂר הַסָּרִיסִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִתְגָּאָל… א:טזוַיְהִי הַמֶּלְצַר נֹשֵׂא אֶת פַּתְבָּגָם וְיֵין מִשְׁתֵּיהֶם וְנֹתֵן לָהֶם זֵרְעֹנִים.
Dan 1:8 Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food or the wine he drank, so he sought permission of the chief officer not to defile himself… 1:16 So the guard kept on removing their food, and the wine they were supposed to drink, and gave them legumes.
Since Esther told no one she was a Jew (2:10) she was not fed special food, and the Hebrew text never hints that this was a problem. The Greek text has Esther claim that she has never “eaten at Haman’s table…, honored the king’s banquet, nor drunk the wine of libations” (C28).
Marriage—The Jewish heroine, Esther, is married to a non-Jew. Of course, she had no choice in the matter, but the Hebrew text nowhere intimates that this was problematic. The Greek text has Esther say to God “you know that I abhor the bed of the uncircumcised one” (C26), while the rabbis try to alleviate this problem by suggesting that she stayed motionless when in bed. These imaginative solutions only make the absence of any reflection on this in the Hebrew Esther more apparent.
God—The name of the God of Israel is never mentioned in the Hebrew text of the megillah. Traditional and modern commentators have explained this absence in many different ways, but it fits well with the lack of other Jewish identity markers to the book’s Jewish protagonists.
Prayer—Even when Esther calls for a fast, no mention is made of the need for prayer, which is surprising since in a religious view of the world, fasting without prayer is meaningless. Contrast the megillah’s description with that of Joel:
יואל א:יד קַדְּשׁוּ צוֹם קִרְאוּ עֲצָרָה אִסְפוּ זְקֵנִים כֹּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ בֵּית יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶםוְזַעֲקוּ אֶל יְ־הֹוָה.
Joel 1:14 Solemnize a fast, proclaim an assembly; gather the elders—all the inhabitants of the land—in the house of YHWH your God, and cry out to YHWH.
Similarly, the Hellenistic period book of Judith takes for granted that the two activities go hand in hand:
And every man of Israel cried out to God with great fervor, and they humbled themselves with much fasting” (Judith 4:9, NRSV).
Not surprisingly, the Greek book of Esther “fixes” this problem by adding prayer into the scene (C).
Passover—The megillah makes no mention of Passover, even when important events, such as Esther’s fast, happen on that day. The rabbis were keenly aware of this problem, and they insert Passover customs into the megillah:
b. Megillah 15a
“ויעבור מרדכי” – אמר רב: שהעביר יום ראשון של פסח בתענית.
“Mordecai passed along (vaya’avor)”—Rav said: “He spent (he’evir) the first day of Passover fasting.”
Ecclesiastes Rabbah, 8 (Vilna ed.)
“שומר מצוה לא ידע דבר רע,” זו אסתר שהיתה עסוקה במצות ביעור חמץ
“One who observes a commandment will encounter no bad thing” (Eccl. 8:5)—This refers to Esther, who [was ignorant of Haman’s decree because she] was busy with the commandment to do away with leaven.
Yehud (Judea)—The megillah describes Jews as people living throughout Ahasuerus’ 127 land. For example, when Haman gets angry with Mordechai, “Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus” (וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הָמָן לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ; Esth 3:6). When Haman wishes to convince Ahasuerus to let him kill all the Jews, he says,
אסתר ג:ח יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם וְאֶת דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים.
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.
Once Esther has secured permission for the Jews to defend themselves, Mordechai writes letters informing the satraps that “The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives” (אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל עִיר וָעִיר; Esth 8:11). The Jews, of course, are ecstatic:
אסתר ח:יז וּבְכָל מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וּבְכָל עִיר וָעִיר מְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ מַגִּיעַ שִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂוֹן לַיְּהוּדִים מִשְׁתֶּה וְיוֹם טוֹב.
Esth 8:17 And in every province and in every city, when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday.
Yehud (the Persian province name of Judah) was one of those 127 lands under Ahasuerus’ rule, yet not once does the text stop to reflect about the unique position of Jews who already returned from exile and were even then living in Jerusalem.
The absence of Yehud in Megillat Esther contrasts sharply with the biblical book of Ezra-Nehemiah, which is focused entirely on the fate of Jews in Yehud. Moreover, the one time Ahasuerus is referenced in this book, it is to note something specific to Jews living in Judea:
עזרא ד:ו וּבְמַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ בִּתְחִלַּת מַלְכוּתוֹ כָּתְבוּ שִׂטְנָה עַל יֹשְׁבֵי יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם.
Ezra 4:6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, at the start of his reign, they drew up an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther has been widely identified as Xšayāršā, i.e., Xerxes, who reigned during the years 465–486 B.C.E., some 60 years after the Edict of Cyrus, the return of part of the nation to its land, and the dedication of the Second Temple in 516 B.C.E. Consequently, the disregard of the Jewish community in Yehud is especially perplexing.
Intertextual References to Biblical Passages
Although memory of Jewish traditions is absent on the surface of Esther, a hidden layer of memory percolates beneath the surface. In fact, the literary presentation of the megillaharouses many memories in the reader familiar with the Bible. Literary connections have been found between:
- Esther and Sarah Abducted—The abduction of Esther among the virgins collected for the palace (Esth 2) and the stories about Sarah’s abduction by foreign kings (Gen 12, 20).
- Mordechai and Esau’s Bitter Weeping—Mordechai’s bitter weeping over the king’s decree (Esth 4:1) and Esau’s bitter weeping over losing the blessing (Gen 27:34).
- Mordechai and Joseph—Both Mordechai and Joseph refuse daily cajoling to violate their principles (Gen 39:10, Esth 3:4), and both end up as viziers in a foreign court.
- Vashti and Joseph “refuse”—Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king’s drunken guests (Esth 1:12) and Joseph’s refusal to sleep with his master’s wife (Gen 39:8).
- Esther and Jacob’s Submission to Fate—Esther’s accepting the necessity of risking death by appearing before the king unbidden (Esth 4:16) and Jacob’s accepting the necessity of risking Benjamin’s death by sending him down to Egypt (Gen 23:14).
- Esther and Moses—Both Esther and Moses were adopted, they were both brought into the household of a foreign king, both of them save the Israelites from an existential crisis, both of their stories end with immense victories on their side and a yearly festival commemorating them.
- Rest from Enemies in Joshua—The Jews rest from their enemies in the megillah (Esth 9:16) and the Israelites rest from their enemies in Joshua (Josh 23:1).
- Saul and Vashti Replaced with Someone Better—Ahasuerus’ promise to replace Vashti (Esth 1:19) echoes God’s promise to replace Saul (1 Sam 15:28).
- Replaying Saul’s Destruction of Amalek—Themegillah’s killing of Haman the Agagite while not taking from the booty (9:10, 15–16, 24–25) parallels the story of Saul’s taking booty from Amalek and sparing their king, Agag (1 Sam 15).
- Esther and Abigail/Haman and Nabal—The success of Esther and the fall of Haman parallels the success of Abigail and the fall of Nabal (1 Sam 25).
- Haman and Solomon’s Dedication of the Temple—When Haman leaves Esther’s first party he is “שׂמֵחַ וְטוֹב לֵב” (happy and light-hearted; Esth 5:9), which is how the Israelites are described, “שְׂמֵחִים וְטוֹבֵי לֵב” (See 1 Kgs 8:66, also 2 Chr 7:10), when they leave the celebration of the Temple’s dedication.
- Esther and Abishag—The story at the beginning of 1 Kings about Abishag parallels Bathsheba and Nathan’s audience with the king.
- Naboth’s Vineyard—The story of Naboth’s vineyard echoes the question of the king’s responsibility.
The book of Esther supplies the reader with a deluge of references to scriptural stories, much in keeping with the style of the hyperbolic descriptions throughout the book. The proficient and attentive reader can try to tie these earlier events into the megillah’s story to enrich its meaning.
Esther as a Book of Remembrances
Intertextuality in scripture and inner-biblical exegesis are certainly not unique to the megillah. Nevertheless, this large and varied collection of allusions—situated in a composition about a community of Jews who have been exiled from their land and severed from all trappings of Jewishness, no less—makes Esther a unique book.
Thus, the book of Esther is a “book of remembrances”—not just because it tells the story of Purim but because it contains so many allusions to other events in Jewish history as recorded in the Bible. These allusions contrast sharply with the content of the megillah, where all but the sparsest allusions to Jewish values and practices are entirely absent.
What is the megillah’s goal in offering its readers such a dissonant presentation, focusing on memory at three strategic points, filling the text with innerbiblical references, while at the same time implying that the main characters are oblivious to virtually every Jewish practice and mark of identity?
Memory and Action
To answer this question, we should first return to the three explicit treatments of memory and commemoration. In each of the three verses where the root ז.כ.ר appears in the megillah, it is juxtaposed to the root ע.ש.ה. Here too there is a progression and an important process.
In the first instance, the king remembers what Vashti did. At the same time, no reference is made to what he did, only “what was decreed about her,” as if this all happened without his doing.
The second instance begins with utter passivity on the part of the king—sleep deserts the king; the book is read, as it were, of its own accord; the events are found to be written. Yet, this shifts once the king hear the story of Mordechai saving him:
אסתר ו:ג וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ מַה נַּעֲשָׂה יְקָר וּגְדוּלָּה לְמָרְדֳּכַי עַל זֶה וַיֹּאמְרוּ נַעֲרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ מְשָׁרְתָיו לֹא נַעֲשָׂה עִמּוֹ דָּבָר.
Esth 6:3 The king said: “What honor or advancement has been done for Mordecai for this? Nothing at all has been done for him,” replied the king’s servants who were in attendance on him.
The king understands that something is to be done with memory, and begins to act accordingly.
In the third instance, the juxtaposition is more pronounced, because Scripture emphasizes that the days of Purim “are remembered and done” (נִזְכָּרִים וְנַעֲשִׂים)! This is one lesson of the book: Memory must come with action, with involvement, with presence in reality, with practical consequences for the memories that are to be instilled.
Learning the Importance of Memory
Once the Jewish heroes of the book, Esther and Mordechai, realize that remembering the events of Purim is crucial, they legislate this by writing them down in a “book of remembrances” and creating a two-day festival to be celebrated each year on the anniversary of the events.
These characters, who seem otherwise uninterested in Jewish memory earlier in the book, come to understand the importance of memory only through a long and painful process, which the reader undergoes together with them. Nevertheless, the megillah hints at this importance throughout its telling of the story.
Thus, the tension between the content of the megillah and the literary style of the megillah, contributes to the drama of the story, foreshadowing for the readers the direction the message of the book will take. But what exactly is the megillah’s message about memory?
Using the Past to Understand the Present and Mold the Future
Megillat Esther cries out that forgetting is impossible. Even if we exert the effort needed to submerge ourselves into the present only, the megillah reminds us that we will be compelled to confront our past in one way or another. Our memories will pursue us. It is better, implies the megillah, to act with wisdom and creativity informed by the past and to turn that past into an integral part of the present and future in such a way as to enrich our existence—for it is fruitless to ignore the past.
The megillah expertly captures the complexity with which the past faces us. Remembering the past is both obligatory and vital. Yet memory calls for action and dynamism, for repeated remingling of the past in present existence and future challenges. Just as the bygone stories of Scripture cannot be simply copied into the megillah, bygone events cannot be simply copied as they are into present reality. Nor can they be ignored or forgotten. They must be remembered, but transformed. This is the difficult balance the megillah tackles by highlighting both manifest forgetfulness and subtle memory.
Our Two Powers
Berl Katznelson (1887–1944), one of the intellectual founders of Labor Zionism, aptly described this internal oscillation between memory and forgetfulness:
שני כוחות ניתנו לנו: זיכרון ושכחה. אי אפשר לנו בלעדי שניהם. אילו לא היה לעולם אלא זיכרון, מה היה גורלנו? היינו כורעים תחת משא הזכרונות. היינו נעשים עבדים לזכרוננו, לאבות-אבותינו. קלסתר-פנינו לא היה אז אלא העתק של דורות עברו. ואילו היתה השכחה משתלטת בנו כליל – כלום היה עוד מקום לתרבות, למדע, להכרה עצמית, לחיי נפש?
We were given two powers: remembrance and forgetfulness. We cannot endure without them both. If the world had naught but remembrance, what would our lot be? We would kneel under the burden of the memories. We would become slaves to our memory, to our fathers’ fathers. Our visage then would be naught but a facsimile of generations past. And if forgetfulness were to totally dominate us, would there be left any place for culture, science, self-recognition, and transcendental life?
השמרנות האפלה רוצה ליטול מאתנו את כוח השכחה, והפסידו-מהפכניות רואה בכל זכירת עבר את “האויב”. אך לולא נשתמרו בזכרון האנושות דברים יקרי-ערך, מגמות נעלות, זכר תקופות פריחה ומאמצי חירות וגבורה, לא היתה אפשרית כל תנועה מהפכנית; היינו נמקים בדלותנו ובבערותנו, עבדי עולם.”
Dark conservatism wants to take from us the power of forgetfulness, and pseudo-revolutionism regards any remembrance of the past as “the enemy.” Yet if things of great value, exalted bearings, the remembrance of eras of florescence, and feats of freedom and valor were not preserved in the memory of humankind, no revolutionary movement would be possible; we would waste away in our penury and ignorance, slaves evermore.
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March 20, 2019
January 2, 2021
Dr. Orit Avnery is a lecturer in Bible at Shalem College and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Kogod Research Center. She holds a Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University and an M.A. (cum laude) from the Hebrew University. She is the author of Liminal Women: Belonging and Otherness in the Books of Ruth and Esther (Keter and SHI, 2015 [Hebrew]).
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