This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Esther the Marrano*

The book of Esther does not explain why Mordecai insisted that Esther conceal her Jewishness from Ahasuerus. The traditional commentaries suggest a variety of reasons for this tactic. After surveying several of these explanations, the 12th-century commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra offers his own theory:

"Mordecai acted in this way so as to allow Esther to observe the Torah in secret, and not have to partake of non-kosher food. This would also enable her to keep the Sabbath without the servants noticing. For if her Jewishness were to become known, then the king might compel her to violate her religious traditions or have her put to death."

As some scholars have observed, the vivid picture of Jews covertly practicing their religion, in constant fear of being unmasked by domestic servants, might very well reflect conditions during Ibn Ezra's lifetime. At around the middle of the twelfth century, Spain and North Africa came to be ruled by a dynasty of fanatical Muslim fundamentalists known as the "Mu'ah\adin" who forced many Jews to convert to Islam. It was this development that forced Maimonides' family to flee from Spain to Egypt, and Maimonides himself devoted a special letter to guide and encourage the Jews in the face of this crisis.

From Ibn Ezra's description of Esther's plight, we see that already under this early persecution, long before the rise of the Christian Inquisition, Spanish Jews had learned to evade the threat of forced conversion by publicly professing the legal religion, while doing their best to observe their Judaism in secrecy.

From the perspective of the halakhah, the phenomenon of "Marranism" or crypto-Judaism is difficult to justify, yet it was especially prevalent among Jews in Islamic countries. Under equivalent circumstances, German and French Jews were more likely to submit to martyrdom for their faith.

Some historians have suggested that the roots of this attitude should be sought in the mind-set of Islam, which permitted religious dissembling in order to save the lives of oppressed Muslims. It is likely that the Jewish response to such situations was influenced by the religious attitudes that were prevalent in the Islamic environment.

Whatever our views on the above question, there is no denying that the figure of Esther, covertly practicing her Judaism in a hostile foreign world, bears a strong resemblance to the situation of the Spanish and Portuguese conversos of later generations. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that the story of Esther became a favourite source of inspiration to those Jews in their time of peril.

Significantly, the Inquisitional guidelines single out the observance of the "Fast of Esther"--even more than that of Purim itself--as a well-known indication of "Judaizing" activity. Because the Hebrew lunar calendar was not accessible to most Jews, the date of the fast--like those of all Jewish holy days--was calculated according to dates in the Christian calendar, and was to be observed on the full moon of February.

Because the fast could be kept through inaction rather than through any identifiable rituals, it became one of the most widely observed Marrano holidays, a substitute for Purim itself, whose observances were too visible to be safe. Furthermore, after generations of living as Christians, the Jews often perceived their Judaism in terms of Christian concepts; and since fasting was a favourite practice among pious Catholics, the Jews applied it wherever possible to Jewish contexts.

The Megillah of the Marranos was significantly different from our Hebrew text. The possession of Jewish religious books was of course prohibited by the Inquisition, and the Marranos obtained most of their limited knowledge of their tradition and history from reading the "Old Testament" of the Christian Bibles. The Catholic "Vulgate" text of the Bible derives from the ancient Greek versions which contained extensive additions to the Hebrew text. (Ironically, several of these additions also appear in the prohibited Jewish Midrashim.)

One of these "Catholic additions" to the Megillah was a moving prayer that Esther uttered before approaching the presence of Ahasuerus. In her entreaty she beseeched the Lord to deliver the Jews from the hands of the blasphemous oppressor into whose power his people had been given as a punishment for their sins. Esther herself proclaimed her disdain for the life she had been living among the heathens, compelled to eat at their tables and drink the wine of their offerings.

This version of the Book of Esther, which expressed so poignantly the feelings of the crypto-Jews of Spain, became one of their most beloved texts, and it was reported that at least one Jewish woman who was condemned by the Inquisition in Mexico (Women were prominent among the spiritual leaders and heroes of the Marranos) knew how to recite it both forwards and backwards!

Through such tragic associations Jewish history has provided continual fulfillment of the Megillah's declaration that the days of Purim "should be remembered and kept throughout every generation...and these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed."


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1] First Publication: Jewish Free Press, March 2 1995.

Bibliography:

  • H. Lazarus-Yafeh, "Queen Esther--One of the Marranos?" Tarbiz 57:1 (1987), 12--2.

  • Cecil Roth, A History of the Marranos, New York, 1966.