- In the Talmud’s lengthy exposition on this verse (Megillah 12b-13a), the Rabbis note that the verse seemingly mentions these ancestors of Mordechai out of order, skipping around generations. For example, Shimi was a distant descendant of Kish (Targum Sheini to Esther 2:5), not his son. The Rabbis therefore expound on these names as indicating Mordechai’s characteristics. He was the “son of Yair” in that he brightened (“hey’ir”) the eyes of the Jews to prayer; he was the “son of Shimi” in that his prayers were listened to (“shema”) by H-Shem; he was the “son of Kish” in that he knocked (“hikish”) at the Gates of Mercy. The Ohel Moshe asks the question: should not the fact that his prayers were listened to be more important – thus listed before – than his act of “brightening the eyes” of others to pray? After all, his prayers being answered saved the Jews! He answers that, indeed, as powerful as Mordechai’s prayers were, the combined power of the Jews he roused with his “great cry” (Esther 4:1) led to an unprecedented era of teshuva, return, whose cornerstone is prayer.
- But like every great man, he was not without his detractors and controversy. Another opinion in the Talmud there (Rava) states that the tribes would deflect from themselves responsibility for Mordechai’s seemingly causing Jewish existence to be threatened in the Purim story, as we will discuss (iy”H) when we get to it (in Esther 3:6). The Jews blamed Yehudah for King David’s (a member of Yehudah) not killing Shimi ben Geira (Shmuel 2 16:7-13 and Melachim 1 2:9), and they blamed Benyamin for King Shaul’s (a member of Benyamin) not killing Agag, ancestor of Haman. Interestingly, Rav Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz notes that Shaul is noticeably missing in this list of ancestors (see Shmuel 1 9:1). Possibly, this could be a way to avoid embarrassing Mordechai for this relation, especially in light of Shaul’s embarrassing failure to wipe out Amalek leading to the Purim story. Otherwise, Rav Alkabetz ventures to opine that Mordechai could be a “gilgul,” (“reincarnation”) of King Shaul.
Maharal points out that the verse says Mordechai was in Shushan even before the story of the Jews’ being threatened with extinction even begins. The reason for this, he continues, was that H-Shem always prepares the cure before the advent of the ailment (Talmud, Megillah 13b). Therefore, H-Shem placed Mordechai in Shushan to prepare for the saving of the Jews before it was even necessary.
- The Talmud (Megillah 12b) states that Mordechai’s mother was from the tribe of Yehudah, while his father was from Benyamin. Although the tribal ancestry was paternal, members of the two tribes would later vie over his heritage to take credit for Mordechai’s greatness. The Alshich teaches that the verse is stressing that his mother was from the royal house of Yehudah. Rav Yehonasan Eibshutz says there is a mystical reason for this. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a), Haman’s female ancestor, Timna (see Bireishis 36:12 and Divrei HaYamim 1 1:36), also came from royal blood. Since, as Rav Elie Munk writes most cogently in Ascent to Harmony, “the division into masculine and feminine principles provides the pattern for all of creation” (80), the feminine aspect of Mordechai had to match the feminine aspect of Haman in order to defeat it. Therefore, Mordechai’s mother had to come from royalty to counter Haman.
- R’ Yochanan’s opinion in the Talmud (Megillah 12b) is that Mordechai actually was from Benyamin, but was called a Yehudi because he fought against idol worship. According to Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky (in Emes L’Yaakov), the name “Yehuda” is especially apt for someone who stands against idolatry because the first three letters of the name (yud, hey, and vuv) are letters that spell the Name of H-Shem that represents His mastery over all, and is thus a rejection of pagan beliefs. The Chida adds that the gematria of Mordechai HaYehudi (40+200+4+20+10+5+10+5+6+4+10=314) is the same as Sha-d-ai (300+4+10=314), the name of H-Shem that connotes His ability to keep things from growing out of control, as in “He who said “dai!” (“enough!”)” while creating the borders of the world (Talmud, Chagigah 12a). Therefore, He controls everything, and can turn everything around, as He does through Mordechai and Esther in the Purim story.
- The Sfas Emes gives three reasons for Mordechai’s being called “Yehudi,” all three relating the word in its guttural etymology to the word “echad,” (“one”). First, Mordechai was a “yachid,” (“a unique individual”) in that he saved an entire generation (see Midrash, Esther Rabbah 6:2). Second, he unified the Jewish people to counter Haman’s criticism that they were splintered in disunion (Esther 3:8). Finally, Mordechai sacrificed everything for H-Shem who is One, Echad (Devarim 6:4).
ה אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן–שִׁמְעִי בֶּן–קִישׁ אִישׁ יְמִינִי
5. A Yehudi man was in Shushan the capitol, and his name was Mordechai son of Yair son of Shimi son of Kish, a Yimini man,
Since it would seem redundant to call Mordechai a man, the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:2) learns that the verse calls him an “ish” to relate Mordechai to Moshe Rabbeinu because he, too, was called “ish” in the Torah (Bamidbar 12:3). Both were great leaders of the Jews who save their generation, and represent the Oral Tradition that helps guide us through the Written Law. His being called an “ish” was thus a term of respect.
ד וְהַנַּעֲרָה אֲשֶׁר תִּיטַב בְּעֵינֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ תִּמְלֹךְ תַּחַת וַשְׁתִּי וַיִּיטַב הַדָּבָר בְּעֵינֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן
4. “And the young woman who is good in the king’s eyes will rule under/ instead of Vashti.” And the matter was good in the eyes of the king, and he did so.
- According to Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, the advisers stress that the new queen would be lesser in stature from Vashti. This would benefit the king, as he may have felt somewhat inferior to Vashti, having come into royalty from common stock (as we said in previous blogs), whereas Vashti was born into royalty (as we also said in previous blogs).
- Indeed, as the Yalkut Shimoni (Esther 2) points out, Achashverosh found a woman who was indeed “good in the king’s eyes,” – Esther being good in the eyes of the King of Kings.
- The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 5:3) relates that the advisers told Achashverosh to utilize Heigeh for the position of harem guard because he was a eunuch, with no desire for the women gathered.
- According to Rashi, these ointments removed hair and softened skin.
- The Alshich adds that if the women used their own such remedies, how would the king know if the women were naturally beautiful, or just had better cosmetics or skillful use of them? Therefore, the women were only allowed the cosmetics provided by the palace.
- The Maharal notes that it is truly a miracle that the girls were “gathered,” and brought in this way. Otherwise, Esther, hidden deep in the confines of Mordechai’s home (as we shall see in future blogs), could never have been in position to save the Jews as she does.
- The Rabbis of the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 5:3) care enough about justice and the plight of women to ask for what terrible deed this cruel denigration of Persian women could be a just punishment. They answer that Persian women at that time harassed Jewish women, calling them ugly and unable to win beauty contests. They were punished “mida kineged mida,” measure for measure, having to endure life-long rejection only to see a Jewess win the contest and rule over them.
ג וְיַפְקֵד הַמֶּלֶךְ פְּקִידִים בְּכָל–מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתוֹ וְיִקְבְּצוּ אֶת–כָּל–נַעֲרָה–בְתוּלָה טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה אֶל–שׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה אֶל–בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים אֶל–יַד הֵגֶא סְרִיס הַמֶּלֶךְ שֹׁמֵר הַנָּשִׁים וְנָתוֹן תַּמְרוּקֵיהֶן
3. “And the king should appoint appointed ones in all the states of his kingdom and they should gather all of the young virgins who look good to Shushan the capital to the house of women, through Heigeh, eunuch of the king who guards the women and gives them their ointments.
- This beauty contest extended over a large area. The final verses in Iyov (42:15) attest to the fact that “nowhere could more beautiful daughters [than Iyov’s daughters] be found.” The Talmud (Baba Basra 15b) notes that Iyov must have been a contemporary of Achashverosh’s, or else how could one know that there was nobody more beautiful? There must have been a beauty contest in which they were involved, and Achashverosh’s was the only one recorded. Since it would seem impossible to transport (and fit into the king’s harem) all of the beautiful women from the 127 states, the advisers told Achashverosh to appoint administrators in each state to choose the best to then send to the central competition in Shushan. This is much like beauty pageants and sports competitions in America today. They first choose the “best” of each state, and only then have them compete for the top prize in the nation. In Achashverosh’s individual states, administrators were appointed whose thorough knowledge of the local populace would seemingly better equip them to judge the qualities of the local contestants.
- The Baal HaTurim writes in his commentary on Mikeitz (Bireishis 41:34) that the phrase, “appoint appointed ones,” is used only twice in TaNaCh. There, Pharaoh has Yosef collect grain, and his prudent behavior leads to his wealth and power. Here, Achashverosh collects women as trophies for his harem, and his over-indulgence and dehumanizing disrespect precipitates his eventual ruin.1 There is a fascinating book entitled Tzafnas Mordechai (and published as Links Beyond Time in English) that discusses numerous similar parallels between this story and that of Yosef.
- According to the Vilna Gaon, the advisers suggested finding “young” women rather than old ones and “virgins” rather than experienced women. Seemingly concerned with their own job security, their advice would either help garnish a gentler, more naïve queen, or perhaps they were appealing to the king’s baser nature to assure their popularity with him.
- The Me’am Lo’ez notes that the advisers considered it beneath the dignity of the king to marry a woman who had been with another man, and may end up comparing the king to him.
The advisers realized that they needed to replace Vashti. Her royal lineage was irreplaceable, but they still hoped to find someone who could replace her physical beauty. Malbim adds that these advisers were saying that Achashverosh did not even need a woman of lineage – he was great enough on his own without that!