This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Aquarian Esther*

Of all the possible names that might have been selected for the holiday commemorating the Jews' deliverance from Haman's decree, Purim, "lots," has never struck me as the most obvious choice. It refers to a relatively incidental feature of the story, when Haman used a lottery in order to select the appropriate date on which to execute his plot. It is not immediately obvious why this particular detail was considered significant enough to lend its name to the entire festival.

The Rabbis of the Midrash tried to reconstruct the process by which Haman went about choosing the suitable date. In one version he is depicted as consulting the astrological symbolism that attached to each month of the year, rejecting them one at a time because their Zodiac signs held favourable associations for the Jews. At length he was left with Adar, governed by Pisces. Against Haman's reading that this was an omen of Israel's being swallowed up like so many fish, the Almighty retorted that fish can be predators as well as prey.

In the eyes of many medievals, astrology was accepted as irrefutable science, and several Jewish commentators were proud to discern allusions to that discipline in the pages of the Hebrew scriptures. Probably the most notorious of this group was the twelfth-century exegete Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra who never passed up an opportunity to reveal the astrological roots of biblical stories and laws. True to form, in his commentary to Esther he amplified the midrashic tradition about Haman's consideration of the Zodiacal associations. He observed that the preference for Adar as a time for massacring Jews lay in the fact that Capricorn was aligned with Aquarius, Israel's sign. Several other commentators underscored that the inauspicious character of the day was governed by the convergence of celestial forces.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Bahya ben Asher envisaged the Purim story as a cosmic battle between heavenly powers: The beneficent influences of Venus and Mars were embodied in the persons of Mordecai and Esther, which were arrayed against Ahasuerus and Haman who served as agents of the malevolent Saturn and Mars. The peril that threatened the Jews was thus of cosmic proportions. All this invites the objection: If the influences of the stars are truly decisive in determining the destinies of mortals, than how did it happen in the end that Haman's plot failed?

According to several authorities, this is precisely the key to correctly understanding the miracle of Purim, for a divine decree in defiance of a horoscope is as much a marvel as the suspension of any other law of nature. Most Jewish exegetes drew attention to the fact that divine interference was necessary to counteract the supernatural threat.

While some commentators were content to see the Almighty prevail against the forces of stellar destiny, others took the theme much farther, discerning in the Purim story an outright rejection of the efficacy of astrology. The fifteenth-century Spanish Rabbi Abraham Shalom believed that this was the main issue in the struggle between Mordecai and Haman. The latter, as the descendant of Israel's primordial foe the Amalek, held a consistently mechanistic view of a universe governed by the unchangeable course of the stars. Mordecai's refusal to do obeisance to Haman followed from his commitment to the Jewish idea of a God who transcends nature, and who has bestowed upon humans the ability to make free moral choices.

Thus, although we might initially seem far removed from a "primitive" world in which supposedly intelligent people believe in horoscopes, there is nevertheless a decidedly contemporary ring to the medieval debate. If for "astrology" we were to substitute "physics" or "genetics," then we would find ourselves in the midst of a thoroughly modern argument about how far scientific method can be applied to matters of human values and spirituality.

Then as now, the question elicited a broad range of responses. At the extremes, there were fanatical rationalists (especially among the Jewish followers of the Arabic philosopher Ibn Rushd) who sought to provide scientific explanations for the miracle tales of the Bible; as well as pious fundamentalist who tried to isolate themselves entirely from the heresies of scientific progress.

It would appear however that most Jewish thinkers tried to steer a delicate middle course in which scientific integrity did not demand the abandonment of religious values. It was this ideal that was epitomized in their assertion that Haman's astrological prognostications stopped short of determining the destiny of the Jewish people.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

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

[1]

  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, March 20 1997, pp. 8, 11.
  • Bibliography:
    • B. D. Walfish, Esther in Medieval Garb, Albany 1993.