The Story of Purim Through a Constructive Mahloket (Disagreement) Lens

Many students never question why Mordechai wouldn’t bow to Haman, but according to halakha there isn’t a prohibition against bowing to a fellow human being, as a social custom or sign of respect. So why didn’t Mordechai bow to Haman? This activity is designed to help students approach texts with an openness to exploring the varying perspectives of all characters involved, an openness which they can then apply to their own lives.

This session was created by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth, the Director Emeritus of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution and an adjunct faculty member. He taught at Pardes for over twenty years and initiated Pardes's Mahloket Matters: How to Disagree Constructively and the 9Adar Project: Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict. He holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University’s Conflict Resolution Program, MA in Talmud from Hebrew University, B.Ed in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Herzog Teachers’ College, and studied for eight years in Yeshivat Har-Etzion during which time he received rabbinic ordination.

This lesson is part of the broader Pardes Rodef Shalom Schools curriculum for middle school students. For more information about the Rodef Shalom Schools program, contact Sefi Kraut at [email protected]"


  • Teacher guide and lesson goals
  • Class introduction
  • Core texts to study
  • Closing activity

Opening note to teacher:

  • This Purim lesson encourages students to use a "biblical mahloket lens" when reading selected biblical passages. This entails approaching the text with openness to exploring the perspective of all the characters involved. We want students to improve their skills in identifying multiple perspectives in a text. This, in turn, will help further develop their empathy and critical reading.

  • The texts in this lesson explore Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman (Esther chapter 3). It is important to make clear to students that from the perspective of halacha (Jewish law) there is no prohibition against bowing to a human to show them respect (there are several instances of Biblical characters bowing to each other, for example in Genesis 33:7 Yaakov bows to Esav). It is only forbidden to bow to idols. Without clarity on this point, the question ‘why does Mordechai refuse to bow?’ is not salient.

  • The last source (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15a-15b - Mss. British Museum 400) is found in a manuscript version of the Babylonian Talmud, but is not included in the printed Vilna version of the Talmud that most people study. This seemingly strange midrash is riffing on the dynamic of Yaakov and Esav – Esav sold his birthright for soup and bread. In our text, Haman plays the role of Esav, who trades his honor and status ‘for bread.’

Lesson Goals:

Students will...

  • Improve their skills at seeing the multiple sides to any particular story.

  • Have the opportunity to explore the multiple possible motivations of characters in the Purim story (Haman and Mordechai) and appreciate that perhaps the characters are not as black and white as we tend to assume.

  • Realize that ambiguities in the text provide us with opportunities for exploring multiple perspectives on conflicts between biblical characters.

Today’s Questions (recommended for the board):

  • Is it possible that Haman was not as bad as we thought?

  • Is it possible that one of our heroes from Megilat Esther, Mordechai, didn’t always act honorably?

Optional Starter Activity:
Have a class discussion or ask students to journal in response to the following prompts:

  • Have you ever assumed that someone did something wrong or not nice, only to learn after the fact that you had made an incorrect assumption about what they did or why they did it?

  • Have you ever gotten frustrated because someone got unnecessarily mad at you for something because they did not try to understand your perspective?

    OR Discuss the old/young lady image (see the Havruta Handout) and the lessons students think that the artist was trying to teach.

Students engage in text study:
At this point, students can engage with the provided texts in whatever way or combination of ways that is most appropriate based on the timing of the lesson, level of the students and nature of the content. Students can study independently, in pairs, small groups, or as a class. The teacher might consider giving the students a choice of their preferred method and can break up the text study by inserting questions or activities of his/her own design throughout.

Big ideas that should emerge from students’ text study:
While the texts included in this lesson are rich and can be interpreted and utilized in a variety of ways, here are some of the big ideas/answers that we hope would emerge from students’ study and discussion (in addition, of course, to other ideas that you and your students might generate):

  • Our tradition sees Biblical texts as ambiguous by design. This means that character motivation, emotion and thoughts are often left to the reader’s discernment. This invites readers to see the texts and characters from multiple perspectives. There is a long Jewish tradition of biblical commentaries discussing the different possible motivations and thoughts of biblical characters.

  • Within the Jewish tradition, there is more than one way of understanding the dynamic between Mordechai and Haman. While it is easier to imagine Haman as pure evil and Mordechai as the one who stands up for goodness, we are asked to consider a different dynamic between the characters – one in which it was Mordechai’s pride and stubbornness that triggered Haman’s anger and resentment.

  • Seeing the two sides of the Mordechai/Haman dynamic in this one short scene encourages students to think about other scenes from the megilah, other texts and life which might be read with a Biblical mediation lens.


Credit: Anonymous illustrator in late 19th century Germany. William Ely Hill (1887 - 1962), a British cartoonist, produced a later, well-known version. A link to image can found here and is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Discussion Questions

  1. What lesson do you think the artist was trying to teach us, by creating an image that can be seen in two different ways?
  2. Can you think of other another example of something that can be seen, heard or understood in two (or more) totally different ways?

Text Study

(א) אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה גִּדַּל֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֜וֹשׁ אֶת־הָמָ֧ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֛תָא הָאֲגָגִ֖י וַֽיְנַשְּׂאֵ֑הוּ וַיָּ֙שֶׂם֙ אֶת־כִּסְא֔וֹ מֵעַ֕ל כָּל־הַשָּׂרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּֽוֹ׃ (ב) וְכָל־עַבְדֵ֨י הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ כֹּרְעִ֤ים וּמִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִים֙ לְהָמָ֔ן כִּי־כֵ֖ן צִוָּה־ל֣וֹ הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וּמָ֨רְדֳּכַ֔י לֹ֥א יִכְרַ֖ע וְלֹ֥א יִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶֽה׃ (ג) וַיֹּ֨אמְר֜וּ עַבְדֵ֥י הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־בְּשַׁ֥עַר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ לְמָרְדֳּכָ֑י מַדּ֙וּעַ֙ אַתָּ֣ה עוֹבֵ֔ר אֵ֖ת מִצְוַ֥ת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ (ד) וַיְהִ֗י באמרם [כְּאָמְרָ֤ם] אֵלָיו֙ י֣וֹם וָי֔וֹם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיַּגִּ֣ידוּ לְהָמָ֗ן לִרְאוֹת֙ הֲיַֽעַמְדוּ֙ דִּבְרֵ֣י מָרְדֳּכַ֔י כִּֽי־הִגִּ֥יד לָהֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא יְהוּדִֽי׃ (ה) וַיַּ֣רְא הָמָ֔ן כִּי־אֵ֣ין מָרְדֳּכַ֔י כֹּרֵ֥עַ וּמִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה ל֑וֹ וַיִּמָּלֵ֥א הָמָ֖ן חֵמָֽה׃ (ו) וַיִּ֣בֶז בְּעֵינָ֗יו לִשְׁלֹ֤ח יָד֙ בְּמָרְדֳּכַ֣י לְבַדּ֔וֹ כִּֽי־הִגִּ֥ידוּ ל֖וֹ אֶת־עַ֣ם מָרְדֳּכָ֑י וַיְבַקֵּ֣שׁ הָמָ֗ן לְהַשְׁמִ֧יד אֶת־כָּל־הַיְּהוּדִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֛ר בְּכָל־מַלְכ֥וּת אֲחַשְׁוֵר֖וֹשׁ עַ֥ם מָרְדֳּכָֽי׃
(1) Some time afterward, King Ahasuerus promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials. (2) All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low. (3) Then the king’s courtiers who were in the palace gate said to Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s order?” (4) When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordecai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew. (5) When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel or bow low to him, Haman was filled with rage. (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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Haman expect people to bow to him?
  2. Does the text indicate why Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman?
  3. Why do you think Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman?
  4. Was Mordechai’s decision a sign of good leadership or not (think of what happens next in the story)?

...אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה גִּדַּל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ אֶת הָמָן בֶּן הַמְדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי וַיְנַשְֹּׂאֵהוּ, וְצִוָּה הַמֶּלֶךְ שֶׁיְהוּ כּוֹרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לוֹ, מֶה עָשָׂה הָמָן, עָשָׂה לוֹ צֶלֶם מְרֻקָּם עַל בְּגָדָיו וְעַל לִבּוֹ, וְכָל מִי שֶׁהָיָה מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְהָמָן הָיָה מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לַעֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים.

“Some time afterward, King Achashverosh promoted Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite; he advanced him and seated him higher than any of his fellow officials. All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordecai would not kneel or bow low.” (Esther 3:1-2) What had Haman done? He attached an embroidered [idolatrous] image to his garment upon his breast, and everyone who bowed down to Haman bowed down to the idolatrous image.

Discussion Questions

  1. What answer does this midrash provide to the question, ‘Why did Mordechai refuse to bow to Haman’?
  2. Is there textual evidence in the story in the megilah for this explanation? Do you find it convincing?
  3. What do you think motivated the writer of this midrash to read the scene this way?

בבלי מסכת מגילה טו ע''א - טו ע''ב (כ"י ספרייה בריטית (044) 0045 .LRAH, אשכנזי)

פעם אחת נתן להם המלך ממון ושיגרו ראשי גייסות לכבוש את המדינה. נטל המן חציו של ממון ואכלו ולא נשתייר הימנו כלום וכשבא להוציא על בעלי המלחמה לא היה בידו כלום. בא אצל מרדכי שכל הממון שלם בידו כשם שנתנו לו המלך. אמ' לו המן למרדכי הלויני מן ממון זה שיש בידך. אמ' לו איני מלווך אלא אם כן תמכור לי נפשך לעבד קיבל על נפשו והלווהו כתב ליה הכי בשטרא המן עבדא דמרדכי זבין נפשיה למרדכי בטולמא דנהמא והינו דקאמ' ליה מרדכי להמן עבדא דקני ניכסי עבדא דמן ניכסי דמן.

Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15a-15b - Mss. British Museum 400

Once King Achashverosh issued money to his heads of armies and dispatched them to conquer the province. Haman took his portion of the money [he received from the king] and spent it, and there did not remain anything, so when he came to spend it on the soldiers he did not have anything left. He approached Mordechai because (Mordechai was a possessor of money, and) the money was in Mordechai’s hand just as the king had issued it to him. Haman said to Mordechai: “Lend me from this money which is in your hand.” Mordechai said to him: “I will not lend to you unless you sell yourself to me as a slave.” Haman accepted this upon himself and Mordechai made him the loan, and he wrote a contract as follows: ‘Haman, the slave of Mordechai, has sold himself to Mordechai for a loaf of bread.’ And this is what Mordechai says to Haman [when Haman expects Mordechai to bow to him]: When a slave acquires property - to whom does the slave belong? Therefore, to whom does the property belong? [Therefore, Mordechai refused to bow to Haman, because Mordechai thought it inappropriate to bow to his own slave.]

Discussion Questions

  1. What answer does this Talmudic story provide to the question, ‘Why did Mordechai refuse to bow to Haman’?
  2. Is there textual evidence in the story in the megilah for this explanation? Do you find it convincing?
  3. What do you think motivated the writer of this midrash to read the scene this way?

For further discussion:

  1. Why do you think there are two Rabbinic texts, each which portrays Mordechai and Haman very differently?

  2. Which version of the story do you like better? Why?

  3. Can you create your own midrash on the text answering the question, ‘Why did Mordechai refuse to bow to Haman’?

Suggested Activities and/or Assessments for the close of the lesson:

  • Have students write a blog-post, tweet, Facebook post, op-ed piece either from the perspective of Haman, Mordechai or one of their friends in the aftermath of the ‘refusal to bow’ scene.

  • Students write their own midrash explaining the motivations of the characters in this scene.

  • Have students choose a story from the news/current events (or the teacher can provide a story) for students to read with a ‘mahloket lens’ to draw out the perspective or motivation of the different parties involved. Why would someone act that way? How are both sides feeling?

  • Have students choose either interpretation of the story presented in the texts (or create their own) and write a dialogue between Haman and Mordechai. Could the attempted slaughter of the Jews been prevented if Mordechai and Haman tried harder to understand each other’s perspective?

  • Students can choose another scene in the Megilah with at least two characters, identify a question or ambiguity about the characters’ motivations or feelings and then portray the two sides of the same story.