What is in a Name? (And a Title)
A persons name is of great significance, especially in Tanakh. We are given names by our parents, names of hope, ideology, and commemoration. The meaning of the name is known as Midrash Shem (Midrash of a name.) In Tanakh we are familiar with Midrash Shem that is spelled out at the time of the giving of the name, such as Jacob (יעקב heel holder) who receives his name for being born holding his brothers heel (עקב Aqev.) His brother, Esau, will later create another Midrash Shem ‘ויעקבני זה פעמים’ he has sneaked against me twice (Gen 27:36) based on Jacobs life and actions.
However, even in places where Tanakh suggests a Midrash Shem, and definitely where there is none, it is often the reader who is left to use this literary tool to enrich and deepen the understanding of the text. Considering its extensive use in Tanakh and in rabbinic literature, we can assume that we are not only allowed to use this tool, but are fully expected to.
What does אחשורוש (Ahasuerus) mean?
This is obviously a Persian name, or a mutation of one. So how is one to explain the name? Midrash Shem does not require grammar. It is frequently based on sound. (So make sure to read it out loud. Most people did not have the text in front of them, they hear the text read.) For example: Hannah names her son שמואל Samuel “כי מה’ שאלתיו” for I requested him from Hashem/The Lord The name שאול- Saul would have been a closer match to her Midrash Shem, but she liked the name Samuel. (I am sure that all of us can think of modern day cases of Midrash Shem that are far from being straight forward.) So what can you make of אחשורוש?
Here is what the Midrash had to say about him:
אסתר רבה (וילנא) פרשה א ד”ה ג אחשורוש ר’
ג אחשורוש – ר’ לוי ורבנן: ר’ לוי אמר: אחשורוש הוא ארתחששתא. ורבנן אמרי: אחשורוש – שכל מי שזוכרו, חושש את ראשו. למה קראו הכתוב ‘ארתחששתא’? שהיה מרתיח ותש.
Esther Rabba section 1:3
Ahasuerus Rabbi Levi and The Rabbis: R. Levi said: Ahasuerus he is Atraxerxes. But The Rabbis said: Ahasuerus that any who remember him [OR: any whom he remembers] fears for his head. Why did the text call him Atraxeres? For he would martiah va-tash boil/rage and peter out.
Are R. Levi and The Rabbis answering the same question?
While both are recognizing the possibility of identifying Ahasuerus with a real historical figure, their interests are different. R. Levy seems to try to make some order in the known Persian kings (and the relevant Jewish history and biblical books that go with that.) This is quite a modern approach. The Rabbis are much more interested in the personality of this king, as it appears in the Megilla.
As for historic validity, Ahasuerus is nowadays usually identified as Xerxes. However, Atraxerxes appears in the book of Ezra (chapters 4 and 6,) and so was known to the rabbis. Midrash will often try to unite characters if one or both are not well known, or might have something incommon.
Are the Rabbis Midrashei Shemot for Ahasuerus appropriate, based on your knowledge of the Megillah?
Consider his temperament and his impulsive behavior, the potential risk of getting in his way. What episodes might they be referring to by suggesting that one fears for his head in he remembers him, or that he boils and peters out?
And finally, a curious comment about Ahasuerus title in the book of Esther:
אסתר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ג ד”ה י עשתה משתה
ר’ יודן ור’ לוי בשם ר’ יוחנן: כל מקום שנאמר במגלה זו למלך אחשורוש, במלך אחשורוש הכתוב מדבר. וכל מקום שנאמרלמלך סתם, משמש קדש וחול.
Esther Rabba section 3:10
R. Yudan and R. Levi [said] in the name of R. Yohanan: Every place where it says in this Megilla to king Ahasuerus, it is referring to king Ahasuerus. And every place where it says to the king simply, it is used both as holy and profane.
What is the Midrash saying?
What other king could we possibly be referring to? While I do not think that the idea of this Midrash holds up in all cases, sometimes it is almost jumping out of the text. Take 6:1: That night the kings sleep wandered ‘בלילה ההוא נדדה שנת המלך’ It was Ahasuerus inability to sleep that turns the story around. (Sepharadi Jews read this verse out loud in addition to the other 4 verses in the Megilla that are supposed to point to redemption.)
This reading is already found in the Gemara and in Midrashim:
בלילה ההוא נדדה שנת המלך – אמר רבי תנחום: נדדה שנת מלכו של עולם
(מגילה דף טו עמוד ב)
That night the kings sleep wandered said R. Tanhum: The sleep of the King of the Universe wandered. (Talmud Bavli Megilla 15b)
What do you think?
What question is the Midrash trying to solve?
There is a problem hovering over the text of the Megilla: This book is part of the canon, but it is lacking God. If we had any doubt about this problem, we need only look at the ancient translations of the book. They add God and prayers into the text (or translate a different version that included this.)
Summary Video of Ahasuerus