Esther 4:1, Question 3. Why does Mordechai dress in sack and ashes?

  • According to Rav Dovid Feinstein, Mordechai dressed in sack and ashes because the Talmud (Moed Katan 26a) writes that one should tear one’s clothing when one hears bad tidings.
  • Yosef Lekach adds that Mordechai’s sensitive emotions allowed him to feel the pain of the potential threat of genocide, that he mourned as if people had already died.
  • Seeing as nobody was allowed to enter the king’s gate dressed in such a manner (see Esther 4:2 below), the P’dus Yaakov writes that, by doing so, Mordechai was indicating that his rightful place was with the people rather than with the king.
  • In Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer, Mordechai is compared to the king of Ninveh (Yona 3:6), who is praised for immediately donning sack and ash upon hearing that H-Shem planned to destroy his city for their erstwhile evil behavior.
  • It is possible that, by using ash, Mordechai was invoking the merits of the Jewish forefathers. R’ Elazar of Germiza writes that Mordechai chose ash to recall before H-Shem the merit of our forefather, Avraham. After all, Avraham risked his life to prove the truth of monotheism by being thrown into a flaming furnace. In recognizing H-Shem’s Mercy in saving his life, he later called himself no more than “dust and ash” (Bereishis 18:27). According to the Targum, Mordechai was invoking the merit of another forefather, Yitzchak. Because he laid himself down on an altar dutifully prepared to be slaughtered like a sacrifice by his father (ibid. 22:9), H-Shem credits him with remaining as ash on the sacrificial altar. Finally, Mordechai invoked the merit of Yaakov, who wore sack after the sale of Yosef (ibid. 37:34). The Maharal notes that the verse in Tehillim (20:2) invokes “the G-d of Yaakov” in that fervent prayer for salvation because Yaakov was the forefather whose difficult life deserved more of H-Shem’s Mercy.
  • R’ Elazar Shach points out that the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:19) teaches that the Jews of Egypt wore sack before their miraculous redemption. By tapping into this ancient tradition, Mordechai was showing his faith in H-Shem and the Torah.
  • On a more mystical note, R’ Raphael Moshe Luria writes that Adam and Chava before the sin wore “ohr” (light, spelled aleph-vuv-reish), but were demoted to the status of needing to wear “ohr” (skin, spelled ayin-vuv-reish) as a result of the sin. Based on R’ Moshe Cordevero, Rav Luria continues with the idea that garments of light help one to serve H-Shem, and this is why one was not allowed to enter the “king’s” gate when not properly dressed. Doctors must shed their suits to don scrubs, rubber gloves, and bouffant caps for surgery. The soul, too, must shed the Divine light in which she is dressed to don the hazmat suit that is the earthly body to utilize the physical world in a continued effort to fulfill H-Shem’s Will. In our analogy, the difference between the soul and the doctor is that the soul’s skin automatically turns into light with the achieving of a spiritual goal.
  • The Ginzei HaMelech brings down from the AriZal that the gematria of “sak” (sack, 300+100=400) is an allusion to the four hundred officers whom Esav commands in his meeting with Yaakov (Bereishis 33:1). Kabbalistically, these themselves represent the four hundred powers of tuma, or manners in which impurity can enter our lives. He brings from the Imrei David that wearing sackcloth [perhaps through its ability to instill humility] gives one the ability to fend off impurity.

Esther 1:16, Question 1. Why is Memuchan the first (and only) adviser to speak if he was mentioned last?

טז וַיאמֶר מְומֻכָן [מְמוּכָן] לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַשָּׂרִים לֹא עַלהַמֶּלֶךְ לְבַדּוֹ עָוְתָה וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה כִּי עַלכָּלהַשָּׂרִים וְעַלכָּלהָעַמִּים אַשֶׁר בְּכָלמְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

16. And Memuchan said before the king and the ministers, “Not the king alone has Vashti the Queen wronged. Rather, all of the ministers and all the peoples in the states of Achashverosh.”

  • The Talmud (Megillah 12b) interprets Memuchan’s jumping ahead of the other advisers as a display of his insolence. A wiser man would have waited to give his advice after greater people had spoken.
  • The Talmud goes on there to identify Memuchan as Haman. As such, Rashi there interprets his name to mean “prepared” – prepared for the death of Vashti and himself. The Ben Ish Chai notes that a hint to this idea is the fact that the gematria of “Memuchan” is equal to that of “eitz” (160), the tree on which Haman was hanged1. A “tree” may also refer to the Talmudic statement (Chulin 139b): Where is there an allusion to Haman in the Torah? In the verse (Bereishis 3:11) “did you eat from the tree?,” wherein the word “hamin” (“from the”) is spelled with the same letters as “Haman.” This occurred in the story of Adam and Chava’s temptation to eat the fruit in Gan Eden, and since (as we shall see be”H in our last blog on this verse next week) the Vilna Gaon believes Haman to be representative of the Evil Inclination, it is a fitting allusion.
  • The Midrash (Esther Rabba 4:6) asks why Memuchan was so eager to have Vashti killed, and offers three reasons: she slapped him in the face, Memuchan’s wife was not invited to the party, and because Memuchan wanted his daughter to be able to marry the king. All three reasons are really one, with each moving further from practical predictability; he wanted more influence over the king. Memuchan wanted to yield his own influence, his wife’s influence through the queen, and (more indirectly) the theoretical influence of his daughter as a queen.
  • We must however, contend with another Talmudic opinion regarding the identity of Memuchan. The Yerushalmi quotes the Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer as saying that Memuchan was the prophet, Daniel. On the one hand, Memuchan’s advice is evil and murderous. On the other hand, it is ridding the world of the evil Vashti2, a sworn enemy of the Jews. Therefore, it is “Haman-advice” in its evil means and “Daniel-advice” in its simultaneous beneficial ends.
  • In Ohr Chadash, the Maharal writes that there are seven advisers present before Achashverosh at this point. There are similarly seven major constellations (as they were understood then), the seventh being me’adim (Mars), which represents bloodshed and has a numerical value of 95. This is the same gematria as Haman and Daniel.
  • The Maharsha adds that the unscrambled, initial letters in the words in Tehillim 22:21, which are interpreted as Esther’s prayer for rescue from the Jews’ fate at the hands of Haman (see our tenth blog), “mey’cherev nafshi mi’yad kelev yichidasi” form the name, Memuchan.

1Memuchan would have to be spelled with a “yud” in the place of a “vuv” (which is acceptable on the level of remez) for ממיכןto be equal to עץ.

2Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss points out that Vashti is the only woman in TaNaCh with that unfortunate appellation.