This midrash is connected to a verse from Daniel where a minister refers to Jews as those who do not worship the Babylonian king’s god or bow down to his idols. This is also an apt description of Mordecai who refuses to bow down to Ahashverosh. From here R. Yohanan learns that anyone who denies idolatry is called a Jew. There may be some broader implications of this statement. R. Yohanan may be saying, in a sense, that all those who deny idolatry in his day are actually Jews. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he does not require conversion, he may be saying that when it comes to being inside the Jewish people, one way to be “in” is simply to deny idolatry.
Shimon b. Pazi offers a derashah here explaining some of the strange names used in the book of Chronicles. This derashah is brought here because it too cites the notion that anyone who rejects idol worship is called a Jew.
A verse above refers to Caleb (the famous spy) and then a later verse refers to his Jewish wife, daughter of Pharaoh. But how could Pharaoh’s daughter be called a Jew? The answer is that she too rejected idol worship. R. Yohanan interpreted her going down to the Nile to bathe as an act of repudiating her father’s idols.
Pharaoh’s daughter did not really give birth to Moses, she only brought him up. From here we learn a message that is so important for all adoptive parents. Anyone who raises an orphan is treated as he bore him.
The verse in its totality reads: “18 And his Judean wife bore Yered father of Gedor, Heber father of Soco, and Yekutiel father of Zanoah.” The midrash reads each of these as another name for Moses, based on a pun for Moses’s qualities. In addition the words “father of” are not to be understood literally. Rather “father of” hints at Moses’s quality as “father of” Israel in Torah, wisdom and prophecy.
This verse refers to Bitya as Mered’s wife whereas above she was called Caleb’s wife. To resolve the problem we get another pun—Caleb rebelled against the bad advice of the spies and Bitya rebelled against her father’s idols. A match made in heaven.
The Talmud continues to give midrashic explanations of the Megillah.
According to Rava Mordecai went into exile on his own accord—he was not forced into exile like the others sent into exile with Yechoniah who are described in this verse.
Esther seems to have a second name—Hadassah. The rabbis in this baraita discuss the meanings of these two names, and which one was her “real” name and which was a nickname based on one of her qualities. I will go through these one at a time.
A hadas is a myrtle. This connects the midrash to a verse from Zechariah where the prophet sees an angel standing among the myrtle trees. Esther is righteous like a myrtle.
Judah plays on a pun between “Esther” and “masteret”—to hide. Esther received her nickname by hiding her origins from Ahashverosh.
Nehemiah notes that the name Esther is like the word “Istahar.” According to Rashi this relates to the moon, which in Aramaic is called “sahar.” She was as beautiful as the moon.
Ben Azzai says she was of average height, like a myrtle.
Joshua b. Korha says she was green! Like a myrtle. But he also works in a pun that she had “hesed,” kindness, which is a pun on the myrtle.
The Megillah twice notes that Esther’s mother and father had died—why the repetition? R. Aha answers that Esther was a sort of “super-orphan,” her father having died when her mother became pregnant and her mother dying right after giving birth.
The rabbis read Mordecai as marrying Esther, not adopting her. We should note that the rabbis encouraged niece marriage and were not at all repulsed by it. The idea that Mordecai married Esther is based on a pun, an intentional re-reading of a word. In Hebrew and Aramaic the word for “house”—bayit, can also mean “wife.” This sounds like the word for daughter “bat” which allows the rabbis to read the Megillah as saying that Mordecai married Esther, rather than adopting her as a daughter. The same word “le-bat” is used in II Samuel when Nathan the prophet rebukes David for taking Batsheva, Uriah’s “little lamb.”
Esther was given seven servant girls so she could count the week by them. I wonder if she named them, Sunday, Monday…. Most importantly, she could use the girls to know when it was Shabbat. Rava is in essence saying that although she was in the king’s house, she still preserved Shabbat.
The rabbis read the verse as if it states that Hagai, the head of Ahashverosh’s harem, treated Esther better than the other maidens. But the rabbis ask how so. Rav says that he gave her kosher food. This is somewhat remarkable considering that he did not yet know that she was a Jew. Shmuel says he gave her fatty pieces of pork, which was considered a special treat. Rashi says that she ate the pork while other commentators say that she did not. R. Yohanan says he gave them legumes, the same food that was given to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah in Belshazzar’s court. This refers to a story where these Jews refuse to eat the kings non-kosher food. The steward fears that they will get sick from not eating well. Daniel says that all they needed was legumes. After eating only legumes for ten days, they looked better and healthier than all of the youth that ate the king’s food. Just goes to show you, “Beans are good for your heart.”
This section identifies the oil of myrrh that the girls in Ahashverosh’s harem used for a whole six months. There are various interpretations of what “stakat” is. Jastrow says cinnamon. Rashi says persimmon. In any case, I’m sure it smelled very good.
Huna interprets it as oil from unripened olives, which evidently can also be used for depilatory cream.
From the disgrace of that wicked man we can learn something to his credit, that he did not have sexual relations by day.
I find this to be a very interesting remark. “To find favor” with other people means that you look like them. I’m not sure this is always true, but to a certain extent it usually seems to me that it is. People like it when other people look like them. Strange exotic looks may be interesting for a magazine, but how many people end up marrying someone who looks just like them? Esther, as we shall increasingly see, is a master of disguise, blending in with any crowd.
Tevet is the dead of winter. It’s the month when people want to snuggle in bed just to warm up next to each other.
Esther was “above all the women” and “above all the virgins.” Rav reads this as alluding to Esther’s sexual allure. She could provide Ahashverosh with the experience of being with a virgin and she could also provide him with the experience of being with the married woman. Again, she can also be whomever someone else wants her to be.
Esther was adamant about not revealing her birthplace. This is a major theme in the book of Esther and the rabbis emphasize it here. Only later on, at the feast she throws to save the Jews, will she dramatically tell the king who she is. Here Ahashverosh is portrayed as making all sorts of efforts to convince her tell him where she’s from. Interestingly, this also connects with what was stated before. Esther looked like a person from anywhere. She could be a virgin or a married woman. She had no identity. She blended in perfectly well, but this just made the king more curious as to who she really is. Full of intrigue, Esther held back this information from the king and from everyone else. It was this guile that eventually saved the Jewish people.