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Guest post in Honor of Purim: Was Mordechai a Zionist?

March 7, 2012


purported tombs of Mordechai and Esther in Iran

I am pleased to present this essay by my good friend, a gentleman and a scholar: Suleiman Shriki of New York. I hope this will be the first of many of his posts on this blog.

The narrative of The Book of Esther revolves around the lives of its protagonists, Mordecai and Esther, Judeans exiles living in Susa, possibly during the reign of either Xerxes I (“Ḫshayārshāh” in Persian–which simply sounds more authentic, as it ends with “Shah”, and “Aḥashwērosh” in Hebrew). In the Midrashic and Talmudic traditions, Mordecai and Esther often become larger than life figures, prophets even. There is a tradition that Mordecai not only served on (the equivalent of) the Syhedrion in Jerusalem not only before he came to Susa, but even after. Though there is no evidence in the scriptures to support this theory. Any critical inquiry into the personage of Mordecai must be done using only the scriptures and external information we have regarding the time and place in which he may have lived.

It’s clear that in order to pinpoint Mordecai’s life using scriptural evidence, we must find other instances where Aḥashwērosh or Susa are mentioned. Thus we find that Aḥashwērosh is mentioned only one other time in Tanakh by that name, in The Book of Ezra (4:6), there we find only a passing mention of Aḥashwērosh as being one of the Emperor’s of Persia to whom the Samaritans wrote ill-reports regarding the Jews, and having lived after Korēsh (Cyrus, 550-530) and Dāryāvesh (Darius, 521-486), yet before Artaḥshāshta (Artaxerxes I presumably), and who seems to have listened to the reports. Which would make Aḥashwērosh Xerxes I (in this analysis). If we examine the reign of Xerxes I, we find that he ruled only twenty years (485-465), that he was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis, that he built a place at Susa, and that he was later assassinated.

The events described in The Book of Esther then, are coming to elaborate on this passing description in the Book of Ezra of the short reign of Xerxes I, and upon his apparent willingness of his opinion to be swayed by the Samaritans to take a harsh stance towards returned exiles of Judea, and the Temple, which had been rebuilt under the reigns of Cyrus and Darius (completed by 516).

The city of Susa, as it happens, is also mentioned in The Book of Daniel and The Book of Nehemiah, as the city in which they both served as government officials. It was a capital city under the Neo-Babylonians when the Judeans came there during the Babylonian Exile, and switched hands peacefully to the Persians when they entered the city at night in 540 BC. The Judeans also served high positions under Persian government. Daniel had been brought to Babylon as a youth, yet appears to have lived until the reign of Cyrus. Both Ezra and Nehemiah lived and served mainly during the reign of ArtaxerxesI, after Xerxes.

We see therefore that although Judeans such as Mordecai had not wandered far off from the capitals to which they were exiled, they also lived respectable lives in Exile while the Temple had already been rebuilt decades earlier. The Book of Esther itself makes no mention of neither Jerusalem, nor the Temple, and nor do Mordecai or Esther. The narrative ends with Mordecai leveling taxes and having his great deeds recorded in the Persian chronicles. And yet he is the one sending out letters commanding the Judeans throughout the world to celebrate the new feast of Purim, which was adopted and celebrated by the new community in Judea. It is this lukewarm approach to the Return to Zion of the originator of the feast which may have been the reason the Midrashic tradition was forced to have him returning to Jerusalem and serving in the Synhedrion.

Unlike The Book of Esther, we find that The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal solely with the question of the Return to Zion. Yet still, it would be hasty of us to brand Mordecai a non-Zionist and them as Zionist activists. Upon further inspection, we find that Nehemiah would not have thought much about the plight of the new community in Jerusalem had he not met an emissary from there, who seems to have inspired him to visit himself. Even Ezra, “the great Zionist leader”, was a scribe in Babylon (under Artaxerxes) until he was given permission and even told to travel to Jerusalem.

It’s clear therefore that while Mordecai had little interest in returning to Zion, the same could also be said of Ezra and Nehemiah, had they not been moved by external influences to the plight of Judea.

  1. Why do you assume that the Second Holy Temple had been built decades before the story of Purim?? It might have begun being built by then and its construction was halted until the reign of King Darius II (son of Esther).

    According to Rabbinic literature, Mordecai actually a very prominent figure in the Return to Zion. One passage (Megillah 15a) identifies Mordecai with Malachi. Another passage (Yalqut Shimoni Ester #1053) tells that Mordecai was exiled to Babylon along with King Jeconiah in the first wave of exiles and he returned to Jerusalem only to be exiled years later again by Nebuhadnezzar.Mordecai is described in the Talmud teaching the laws of Pesah and of the Qorban Minha. Which show his loyalty to the Temple. The Mishnah (Sheqalim 6:1) tells that Mordecai served in the Temple under the name Pethahyahu.

    Regarding Ezra, the Talmud mentions that he punished those Levites who did not wish to return to Zion by taking away their rights to the First Tithe, instead decreeing that Kohanim should receive the Tithe. Furthermore, the Talmud mentions that the reason why Ezra delayed returning to Jerusalem was only because his teacher, Baruch the Scribe, was too old to make the journey and Ezra did not wish to leave his teacher’s presence. Only once Barukh had died did Ezra return to Jerusalem. (And, by the way, some sources identify Ezra with Malachi as well).

    Nehemiah is identified as Zerubbabel, the leader of the post-Exile Jewish community.

  2. “Why do you assume that the Second Holy Temple had been built decades before the story of Purim?”- So, sorry I wasn’t so clear, but the common understanding of the verses in Ezra and Nehemiah is that after the “Cyrus Declaration” in 538 it started being built, that work was shortly halted under Cambyses (530-523), resumed under Darius I, and completed in 516. To say that the Darius in Ezra/Nehemiah is talking about Daruis II is a very big stretch. Even Jewish tradition doesn’t have it being built so late…

    So again, the Book of Esther could not have taken place under Cyrus, or under Cambyses, or under Darius. Xerxes I is actually making it very early, and is highly disputed. Most scholars feel he lived not even during the reign of Artaxerxes I, but Artaxerxes II! Which would mean that he was in Persia for over a century after the Temple was built. So, if anything, the Xerxes I theory is much kinder to him.

    “According to Rabbinic literature, Mordecai actually a very prominent figure in the Return to Zion”- Right, so those who assume he was apathetic feel that these Midrashim were written to defend Mordecai, as it’s “unimaginable” that he never returned to Israel.

    “Another passage (Yalqut Shimoni Ester #1053) tells that Mordecai was exiled to Babylon along with King Jeconiah”- Though even believing that it’s Mordecai himself who was exiled and not Kish, would mean he would have had to leave at least over a century for the Purim story to happen in his lifetime. And two centuries according to your count…

    “the Talmud mentions that the reason why Ezra delayed returning to Jerusalem was only because his teacher, Baruch the Scribe”- ok, I admit the Ezra thing is a bit of a stretch. He seems to have been interested in returning for a long time.

    “Nehemiah is identified as Zerubbabel”- But…wasn’t Zerubavel there a very very long time before Nehemiah arrived?

  3. Either way, I think an underlying point here is that some people feel there to be a MiSvah to believe every Midrash, and to believe that Mordekhai was a Sadiq, and to believe that it’s representing entirely historical events, and to believe that it wasn’t later edited etc. I disagree with all of that. I think that, beyond the essentials, there’s no “MiSvah” to believe anything. All we must believe is that humans are fallible, and not to worship them. In terms of dating the books of the Tanakh and their authorship, we see the authors of the Talmud struggled with this as well. And in terms of Mordekhai, we find in Yerushalmi Megillah chapter 2 halakhah 5, a tradition that the Sages in Jerusalem had little sympathy for the suggestion of Mordekhai to institute the holiday of Purim…

  4. What about Nehemiah 7:7?

  5. > Even Jewish tradition doesn’t have it being built so late…
    Jewish tradition actually has it built even later in 351 BC in the jewish year 3410

  6. lol, I’m no scholar. Again, I think “a gentleman and a scholar” is simply a phrase, and doesn’t necessarily mean the person is an actual scholar on the subject. In general I think Davidi would enjoy guest-posts, even if they are of dubious scholarship. In my defense though, I wrote this quickly and editing it is impossible once it’s up. Still, these are far from new ideas. I’m stating them in a slightly different way, but this approach to it is actually quite popular, even in some (less fundamentalist) religious circles…

    • Anonymous permalink

      I won’t stop to critique your editing; this is, after all, only a blog! Your writing skills are plainly strong, though.

      But what does deserve critical attention is your conclusion that an idea can be considered potentially valid merely because of its age or popularity. If that were true, then, drawing on your reference to religious circles, Christianity’s claim that Jesus was “fully god and fully man” would warrant serious consideration by Jews despite G-d’s explicit message to the Jews in Numbers 23:19 that “G-d is not a man”, simply because there are 2 billion Christians today who popularly conclude G-d is in some way, shape, form or proportion, a man. In the final analysis, a conclusion has merit because of the strength of the reasons behind it rather than the strength of the numbers of its advocates. The truthfulness of an historical account does not fluctuate with the polling of later generations; rather, it is anchored to the strongest available evidence, which, thankfully, is enduring.

  7. Solomon, keep on doing what you’re doing. Your scholarship is excellent and mind-stimulating ואל יבוש מפני המלעיגים

  8. Anonymous, I had been wondering where you had gone. Remember, OnAnymous, I once told you that you should stop spilling your SEMA all over my “bog.” Having said that, Hahistorian, in which way was Anon being “ad hominem?”

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