What Was Esther's Relationship to Mordechai?
What was the biological relationship between Esther and Mordechai? Were they cousins or uncle and niece? And was Mordechai Esther’s adoptive father or even her husband?
The Biblical Evidence: Cousins and Adoptive Father
The biblical text is straightforward (Esth 2:7):
אסתר ב:ז וַיְהִ֨י אֹמֵ֜ן אֶת־הֲדַסָּ֗ה הִ֤יא אֶסְתֵּר֙ בַּת־דֹּד֔וֹ כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין לָ֖הּ אָ֣ב וָאֵ֑ם וְהַנַּעֲרָ֤ה יְפַת־תֹּ֙אַר֙ וְטוֹבַ֣ת מַרְאֶ֔ה וּבְמ֤וֹת אָבִ֙יהָ֙ וְאִמָּ֔הּ לְקָחָ֧הּ מָרְדֳּכַ֛י ל֖וֹ לְבַֽת:
Esther 2:7 He (=Mordechai) was foster father to Hadassah—that is, Esther—his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordechai adopted her as his own daughter.
According to the Megillah, Esther is the daughter of Mordechai’s uncle, and thus, Esther and Mordechai are first cousins. When she was orphaned, Mordechai adopted her. Ostensibly, that should close the matter, but as almost anyone who has visited a school at Purim time (or has discussed the matter with his children or grandchildren) knows, it is not that simple.
Mordechai as Esther’s Husband
תנא משום רבי מאיר: אל תקרי לבת אלא לבית.
A Tanna taught in the name of R. Meir: “Read not ‘for a daughter’ [le-bat], but ‘for a house’ [le-bayit].”
וכן הוא אומר ולרש אין כל כי אם כבשה אחת קטנה אשר קנה ויחיה ותגדל עמו ועם בניו יחדו מפתו תאכל ומכסו תשתה ובחיקו תשכב ותהי לו כבת.
Similarly, it says: But the poor man had nothing save one little ewe lamb, which he had brought up and reared; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own morsel, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.
משום דבחיקו תשכב הוות ליה (לבת) [כבת]? אלא (לבית) [כבית] – הכי נמי לבית.
Because it lay in his bosom, was it like a daughter to him? Rather what it means is like a wife; so here, it means a wife.
The Talmud presents a two-step argument.
A. The term bat is understood as bayyit, which often carries the meaning “wife” in rabbinic exegesis. In fact, a common word for “wife” in the Talmud’s Aramaic is “דביתהו,” meaning “of his house.” The second generation Amora Yossi ben Chalafta, actually sites this as “good practice” (Ruth Rabba, parasha 2):
א”ר יוסי בן חלפתא מימי לא קריתי לאשתי אשתי ולביתי ביתי אלא לאשתי ביתי ולביתי אשתי
R. Yossi ben Chalfta said: “Never in my life have I referred to my wife as ‘my wife’ or my house as ‘my house.’ Rather, [I always refer to] my wife as ‘my house’ and my house as ‘my wife.’”
B. To support this reading, the Talmud sites Nathan’s parable of the poor man with his pet sheep, which he allowed to sleep in his “bosom” and treated like a “daughter.” The Talmud says that this must be a euphemism, since wives, not daughters, sleep in men’s “bosoms.” Hence we see that the word בת can refer to a wife.
A Linguistic Buttressing of the Midrash
Rabbi Meir presents us with an al tiqre-style midrash, which substitutes one word for a similar-sounding biblical one. True, the words bat and bayyit don’t sound all that alike, but it may be that a phonetic variant is at work undergirding this midrash. Specifically, certain pieces of evidence point us to the probability that in many dialects of Hebrew (and Aramaic) the yod was actually pronounced more like the glottal stop (a slight throat click) of an aleph than as an English Y.
- Biblical proper names beginning with the letter yod were often rendered in other languages as if they began withaleph, suggesting that that is how they were actually pronounced. A good example is Yisra’el, transcribed asIsra’el in Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and other languages.
- Ancient Samarian ostraca spell “wine” as ין, not יין, though the Greek cognate oinos may be evidence of the yod’s presence.
- In various targumim we also find third-person imperfect verb forms that are spelled with initial aleph, not the expected yod.
- Mishnah Baba Qama 1:1 states כל שחבתי בשמירתו… as opposed to כל שחייבתי. The Talmud (b. BQ 6a) suggests that the tanna was a Jerusalemite and therefore spoke with a clipped yod.
Thus, bat and bayyit may have been phonetically equivalent to the authors of the midrash, perhaps even sounding identical. Thus, to a listener, Mordechai taking Esther le-bat could have carried either or both of these meanings.
Mordechai as Esther’s Uncle
No traditional rabbinic text claims that Mordechai was Esther’s uncle, but the idea has both popular currency and support in early texts. The earliest source for this may be Josephus, who writes:
Now among the many who were gathered together, there was found in Babylon a girl who had lost both parents and was being brought up in the home of her uncle (θεῖος), his name being Mordechai (Antiquities of the Jews, 9:198).
The same interpretation appears in Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate), which says that Esther was the daughter of Mordechai’s brother (filiae fratris) in 2:7 and similarly refers to Avichayil, Esther’s father, as Mordechai’s brother (Abiahil fratris Mardochei). The Vulgate is the standard biblical text used by Catholics, and thus in the Catholic tradition Esther is described as Mordechai’s niece. As Josephus has not had the same effect on popular culture as the Vulgate, it seems likely that the Jewish sources that describe Mordechai as Esther’s uncle may have been influenced by the Catholic version of the biblical text, though they are probably not aware of this.
Conclusion: Influence of Outside Sources
If in the case of Esther and Mordechai, the use of the Vulgate is unintentional (i.e., picked up unconsciously from the surrounding culture, perhaps as a consequence of the age disparity between them). Nevertheless, when we comb through rabbinic texts, we can see that many medieval rabbis (even some Ashkenazim) made use of “non-traditional” sources,including the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Apocrypha, and, yes, even the Vulgate.
Solving the Problem of רצוי לרב אחיו
In the spirit of using outside sources, allow me to share achiddush of my own. Esther 10:3 describes Mordechai as ratzui le-rov ehav, understood classically to mean that he was preferred or liked by the majority of his people. Why, at this time of success, he should not have earned everyone’s respect bothered many commentators, and numerous explanations have been offered.
I suggest that the phrase has been misunderstood. When we look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, early texts from approximately the same time as the writing of the Megillah, we see the term rovused as “the community,” not “the majority.” Perhaps, then, the meaning of the phrase is actually “liked by the community of his people.”
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March 22, 2016
April 7, 2020
Dr. Barry Levy is Professor of Jewish and Biblical Studies at McGill University in Montreal. He regularly teaches Bible, the History of Jewish Interpretation of the Bible, and a course on Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures and their interpretations.
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