1. And it was in the third day, and Esther dressed in royalty. And she stood in the courtyard of the inner house of the king, facing the house of the king. And the king was sitting on the seat of his royalty in the house of royalty facing the opening of the house.
M’nos HaLevi writes that Esther usually avoided wearing royal garb. From her humility and modesty, she did not want to wear any clothing that would demonstrate her accepting her role as queen. The Talmud (Megillah 15a) points out that the verse seems to be missing the word, “clothing.” Accordingly, Esther wore “royalty” not in the physical sense, but in the sense of her enveloping herself in the Holy Spirit – Ruach HaKodesh.
Iyun Yaakov wonders why this would occur now. After all, Esther is a prophetess, and one would imagine she was constantly connected to H-Shem’s Messages. He answers that this was a time of great hester Panim, of H-Shem hiding His Face, as it were. In response to the Talmud’s famous attempt to find the story of Esther alluded to in the Torah, the Talmud (Chulin 139b) quotes the verse “v’Anochi hastir astir Panai bayom hahu” (“And I will surely hide My Face from them on that day”) (Devarim 31:18). Since this was a time of great Divine concealment, and there was great doubt in the world, the Jews attempted to change things by fasting for three days, and praying to H-Shem, and managed to merit their prophetess receiving the Divine Presence.
The Vilna Gaon adds that there is a concept that the Divine Spirit only rests upon a person whose body is “broken down.” This means someone who wants spiritual growth needs to realize that one’s soul is more important than one’s body.
The Midrash (Bireishis Rabbah 56:1) writes that the royalty referred to here is the royalty of Esther’s father’s house, being descendant from King Shaul. Preparing for her disobeying a royal edict to meet the king, she took with her the dignity and air of monarchy she inherited from her ancestry. This idea certainly supports the contention of the Malbim and M’nos HaLevi that Esther’s wearing “royalty” simply meant that she seemed regal to casual observers.
R’ Shlomo Kluger in Ma’amar Mordechai, says that Esther had been forced to be the queen, and at this point, she owned up to that responsibility. He points out that, from this verse and onwards, Esther is consistently called Queen Esther by the authors of Megillas Esther.
Pachad Yitzchak notes that this verse indicates that Esther became the queen of the Jewish people. Interestingly, the Jews can only fulfill the command to eradicate Amalek when they have a sovereign ruler (Talmud, Sanhedrin 20a), and Esther took on that role to enable this.
Rabbi Eliezer Ginzburg asks how she was given authority to be the queen. The Shem M’Shmuel (on Devarim 33:19) writes that the main function of a Jewish king or queen is to unite the Jewish people. Therefore, by enveloping herself in an intense love for the Jews, she took on the role of royalty, becoming what a royal is supposed to be.
Rav Ginzburg also quotes the Nefesh HaChaim (3:12) that even if there are other spiritual forces in the world, they will have no affect on a person who totally submits oneself to H-Shem’s sovereignty. There are numerous stories concerning the Rav of Brisk, Rav Yitzchak Soloveitchik, whose concentrating on this idea of “ein od milVado” (“there is nothing beside Him”) from the Nefesh HaChaim at different times rescued him from Russian conscription and Nazi persecution. Accordingly, this is the idea of royalty with which Esther adorned herself, making her impervious to any harm.
The Pachad Yitzchak notes that this is a rare example of Jewish royalty wearing non-Jewish garments, and this may be yet another reason for the custom of wearing masks and disguises on Purim.
The reason Esther’s servants had to tell her anything at all instead of Esther merely seeing for herself, the Maharal writes, is that Esther’s high level of tznius, modesty, prevented her from even glancing out of windows.
Rav Galico adds that Esther’s extreme privacy allowed her to stay aloof of goings-on outside the palace.
Yosef Lekach points out that, despite her modesty and privacy, the entire palace knew about Esther’s and Mordechai’s concern for each other, but they did not know the reason for this.
20. And Esther did not reveal her lineage and her nation as Mordechai commanded her, and the instruction of Mordechai Esther did just as she did in being raised by him.
Eitz Yosef writes that, earlier (2:10), before Esther was introduced to Achashverosh, Mordechai did not want the knowledge of Esther’s royal lineage to encourage the king to choose her (as we’ve said before). Now that she was already chosen, she no longer had this reason, and she refused to identify her royal stock out of modest humility.
The Malbim writes that, despite the fact that she was no longer under Mordechai’s direct influence, and despite the many tactics of the king, she still refused to identify her people. The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:12) comments that Esther’s silence was an innate, genetic family trait learned from Rachel, her ancestor. Rachel famously stayed silent in the face of her sister marrying her beloved Yaakov (see Bireishis 29:25 and Rashi there). Decades later, Rachel’s son, Benyamin, stayed silent about the sale of Yosef, despite mourning for his brother to the point of naming all of his ten sons after him (see Bireishis 46:21 and Rashi there). King Shaul, Rachel’s descendant, too, was silent (Shmuel 1 10:16) about being made king by the prophet Shmuel. The Midrash is teaching, therefore, that it was due to Esther’s lineage – her ancestral ability to stay silent in the face of adversity – that allowed her to stay silent now.
The Ohel Moshe points out that silence is not always good. Although the Mishnah praises silence (Avos 1:17) as the best thing “for a body,” this seems to contradict the verse in Koheles (3:7) which states that “there is a time to be silent, and a time to speak.” The Alshich and Maharal both point out that the Mishnah specifically says silence is good for the body, meaning that silence is always good for the physical body, but silence is not always ideal for the soul. The Ohel Moshe concludes from this that all of Esther’s relatives praised in the Midrash for being silent were pure enough to know when to speak, and when to be silent.
14. In the evening she would come, and in the morning she would return to the second house of women by the hand of Sha-ashgaz, eunuch of the king, guard of the concubines. [She] would not come again to the king unless she was desired by the king and he called her by name.
In this verse, one gets a glimpse into the pure evil that is Achashverosh. What we had been calling a beauty contest turns out to have been infinitely more immoral. Not only were these women gathered against their will, but after having relations with the king, one at a time, they were taken to the harem to be available – along with all of the other gathered beauties – whenever the king requested them.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) teaches that, evil as he was, one characteristic of Achashverosh which is worthy of praise is his decision to at least not have relations in the daytime. There is a Halacha (Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’Ezer 25:5 and Orach Chaim 240:11) that a couple should ideally have intimate relations at night. This is the tznius to which the Maharal refers in regard to Achashverosh (as we said earlier).
On a more mystical level, the Zohar says that this verse is discussing how H-Shem operates in this world. Half of the elements of life refer to the Midas HaChesed, the Attribute of Kindness, and the other half refer to the Midas HaDin, the Attribute of Strict Judgment. The Midas HaDin comes before H-Shem every night requesting His judgment. It complains about all of the evil committed during the course of the past day saying, “Enough already! Punish these people already!”
The Rema contends that, since it speaks about going from evening to morning, this verse is the source of the idea of “gilgul” (“reincarnation”). Although not all Jewish authorities believe in this idea (see Saadya Gaon), those authorities that contend that it is a Jewish idea (see Ramban to Iyov 33:30) that souls may be sent back to this world to complete a task they had previously left unfinished. In “the evening” of one’s life, a person dies, and “in the morning” of the next life that person may go to the second house. He adds that if a person chooses material pleasures in life, then that person would have to redo life. In the end, the Rema’s contention is far from tenuous when one considers that the months preparing (Esther 2:12), the myrrh (ibid.), the items the girls requested (ibid. 13) – they all add up to a vapid, materialistic existence. And a material focus in life will force the soul to return after death to focus on spirituality.
On the practical side, the M’nos HaLevi writes that one reason for Achashverosh to wait twelve months to have relations with the young women he had collected was to make sure first that they had no STDs or other illnesses. He needed twelve months for this, writes the Malbim, because there are some health conditions that are only apparent in certain seasons. After twelve months, they could be observed in all four seasons, and would thus be checked out and ready for the king.
Although we rightfully think of Achashverosh as an evil man, the Maharal notes that this verse demonstrates his self-control. Even a wicked man can have positive attributes. That, writes Maharal, is a kind of tznius, which is usually defined as modesty. Tznius is really a form of discipline, or self-control. In “A Canopy of Brocha,” a series of recorded lectures in which Rav Avraham Chaim Feuer discusses the Halacha of married women covering their hair, he points out that Hebrew word for “hair” (“se’ar”) is the same word as “storm.” In other words, reigning in and controlling hair is the real reason for covering it. This tznius, according to the Maharal, is the reason Achashverosh loved Esther (see 2:15 below). People love in another what they see in themselves. Even regarding the idea of “opposites attract,” the two parties involved like each other because they compliment each other.
Mystically, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi notes that these twelve months can be divided in two: one half for myrrh, and the other for spices. That being the case, he writes that the first half represent the half of our time on this world that we use meditating on the bitterness (“mar” means “bitter” in Hebrew) of life, and the other on the feeling of G-dliness (“bisamim” represent uplifting spices). It is indeed a constant battle to reach a middle ground between these two extremes. Our souls yearn for the spiritual world while our bodies are contented with the physical.
The Vilna Gaon proposes that this verse alludes to the idea that many things are allowed for a half and forbidden for a half a year, like intimate relations.
The Rema reads this verse as a reference to the fate of wicked people in Gehinom. There, the first six months are a time of extreme suffering, and the last six months are a time of easing up of that pain.
The Rabbis of the Talmud (Megillah 13a) heavily debate whether the title character’s real name was Hadassah or Esther. One opinion (R’ Meir) was that her name was Esther, but she was righteous, and the righteous are compared to myrtles (“hadas”) in beauty based on a verse in Zecharya (1:8). Why is the myrtle an appropriate plant to which to compare a tzaddik? Alshich says a myrtle is as successful in the summer as it is in winter. A Tzaddik is righteous all the time, consistently, and not different at home than outside. Avraham who was 75 when he left Haran (Bireishis 12:4). The Midrash (Bireishis Rabbah 39:13) says H-Shem told Avraham that in the merit of his leaving everything he knows and loves at the age of 75, the rescuer of the Jews (presumably in the Purim story) will also be 75 years old. Hadassah (5+4+60+5) is the gematria of 74, and with the principle of im hakollel, the numbers can be equal. Rabbi Shaul of Amsterdam points out another proof to Hadassah’s age being 75. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) calls her one of the seven prophetesses of Israel. According to the Talmud (Moed Katan 25a), prophecy can only occur in Israel (which is the reason Yonah tried to flee). Esther was then born in Israel, which occurred at least seventy years before, since that was when the Temple was destroyed and Mordechai was exiled, and she would have needed to be at least at an age of some consciousness (presumably, 5) to experience prophecy.
The second opinion in the Talmud (R’ Yehudah) is that her name was Hadassah, but she kept the secret (“hester”) of her nationality. Maharal points out that this secrecy is also indicative of tznius, modesty, the stamp of a Jewess. The idea of modesty is not the hiding of something evil, but rather the protecting of that thing to keep it special. It is the defining characteristic of a Jew, contrasting sharply against the characteristic of Eisav and his spiritual/ philosophical descendants. This is seen in the verse (Bireishis 27:22) “the voice is the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Eisav.” In other words, the primary actions of the spiritual Jew is non-physical, represented by the invisible, ephemeral voice. The primary world-view of Eisav’s heirs is rooted in the visible, represented by the creative, physical hand. Rav Hutner similarly adds that Purim is an example of H-Shem’s modesty in that the miracles in Megillas Esther, as we have seen, are hidden behind the political, natural events of the written story. According to the Zohar (Devarim 226a), H-Shem kept Hadassah hidden by allowing her to utilize mystical powers to create a “sheid,” or demon, to get out of having relations with Achashverosh.
A third Talmudic opinion (R’ Nechemya) states that her name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther because the nations of the world call her Sahara, which means moon in Aramaic. The moon represents beauty as in Shir HaShirim 6:10), and the nations of the world thus compliment Hadassah’s appearance. Another possibility is that the nations of the world call her Ashtahar, which Yalkut Shimoni informs us is Estera, the Greek name for the planet Venus. Class participant CL informs us that this is the brightest planet from Earth’s perspective.
A fourth opinion in the Talmud (Ben Azzai) says that she was called Esther because she was neither tall nor short, but medium height. In Chana’s prayer for a child, she asks for “zerah anashim” (“male seed”) (Shmuel 1 1:11). Rav Dimi’s interpretation of this phrase (Talmud, Brachos 31b) is that she wants a son “like other men,” of average height, so that he would not stand out. In Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, we find a model of the tallest person and the shortest person, but no average-est. Being “normal” according to the standards of the time and location is what makes people attractive, but one should not use that line on a first date!
A final opinion (Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha) says her name was Esther, but she was called Hadassah because she was as green as a myrtle. This either means that she was beautiful, with an olive-green complexion popular in the Middle East and elsewhere. Otherwise, it is indeed not easy being green, and this pale, unseemly color made her ordinarily unattractive. She thus had to attract the king miraculously through a “string of kindness,” as we shall see, with H-Shem’s help when we study 5:2 below. Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg teaches that Esther smelled as sweet as hadassim, and notes an interesting point regarding the custom to use myrtles for Havdalah. The sweet smell of myrtles, he says, is only harvested when the myrtles are crushed. So, too, Esther’s greatness became manifest through her difficult life. Taken together in the final analysis, this debate in the Talmud whether Esther/Hadassah was righteous, secret, beautiful, average, or green indicates an amazing idea – our title character is so hidden, we do not even know her name!
Although it would ordinarily seem that a women-only party would be more conducive to certain standards of modesty, the Talmud on the bottom of Megillah 12a makes clear that Vashti wanted to tempt the men to sin just as her husband intended (as mentioned in a previous post). As the Maharsha points out in his commentary to the Talmud, had Vashti wanted real privacy in accordance with moral standards of the day, she would have held her party in the women’s palace. However, Vashti’s party was neighboring the men’s party. Rabbi Dovid Feinstein points out that her party was separate in accordance with the laws of modesty. However, there is an added sensual pleasure in a sin’s being almost within the law. The moral code regarding what was forbidden them was slowly being eroded.