This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Remembering Harbona: for Good or for Bad?*

At the conclusion of the Megillah reading, it is customary to read a Hebrew poem that celebrates the victory of the Jews over their adversaries. Following this, several benedictions and brickbats are musically distributed to the heroes and villains of the story: Blessings are heaped upon Mordecai and Esther, while Haman and his wife Zeresh are singled out for malediction.

And as an anticlimax, the song concludes: "And Harbona too should be remembered for good."

Now, Harbona was hardly the most memorable figure in the Megillah. Altogether, he makes two brief walk-on appearances. The first time, he is mentioned as one of the seven chamberlains who advised Ahasuerus to exhibit Vashti before the guests at the royal banquet. Then, after Esther has pointed the accusing finger at Haman, it is Harbona who volunteers the information about the incriminating gallows that the villain has erected in his house; laying the groundwork for Haman to be hoisted on his own petard.

Considering how minor a character he is, it is quite surprising that he is given star billing in the closing credits, right up there beside Esther and Mordecai.

What is even more surprising is that the Babylonian Talmud had some very derogatory things to say about Harbona's apparent support for the good guys. According to Rabbi Hama bar Hanina, Harbona was initially a wicked collaborator in Haman's conspiracy. and only switched sides at the very last minute, when it was already evident that their plot was doomed to failure. His decision to turn Crown Witness was, according to Rabbi Hama, nothing more than the desperate act of an opportunist, and not an expression of sympathy for the persecuted Jews.

Some of the traditional commentators were troubled by Rabbi Hama's readiness to cast aspersions on Harbona's character, seeing that the Bible itself offers no indication that the chamberlain was motivated by anything other than virtue and honesty. They scoured the text of the Megillah for clues that might point to his nefarious intentions.

Rabbi Samuel Eidels (the Maharsha) found just such a clue in the way that Harbona is identified as a servant of the king when he makes his first appearance, but not later on in the story. Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Eidels, this indicates that Harbona had shifted his allegiance in the interval from the king to Haman.

In a similar vain, Rabbi Josiah Pinto pointed out that the biblical text is very careful to state that Harbona made his accusation of Haman "before the king" --as if to imply that prior to that point his words had not been addressed to the king, but to Haman.

Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz draws our attention to a tiny inconsistency in the way Harbona's name is spelled in the two places where it is mentioned. The first time, it ends with an alef and the second time with a he. This, he concludes, must have been the author's subtle way of teaching us that Harbona had undergone a change of heart during the course of the narrative.

These negative evaluations of Harbona's character and motives do not help to explain why our traditional liturgy is so willing to bestow blessings upon him.

It would appear that not all the ancient Jewish sages were in agreement with Rabbi Hama bar Hanina's disparaging view of Harbona. Our current practice follows the ruling of a certain Rabbi Pinhas in the Jerusalem Talmud who stated "one must say: Harbona of blessed memory."

Rabbi Pinhas's statement appears in several midrashic and halakhic works that were composed in the Land of Israel, and seems to reflect the prevailing view there, As was the case with many ancient Israeli customs, this one too became the normative practice among the Jews of medieval France and Germany.

According to one midrashic tradition, the person who told Ahasuerus about Haman's gallows was actually Elijah the prophet, who had impersonated Harbona for the occasion! This audacious interpretation may have been suggested by Rabbi Pinhas's use of the expression "of blessed memory" [zakhur le-tov], which is frequently reserved for Elijah.

Even so, when we compare the texts of old prayer-books and halakhic compendia, we come to appreciate that they are divided on the question of whether or not to include the blessing for Harbona at the end of the Megillah reading.

In spite of all the ingenious textual tricks that the commentators were able to utilize in support of the midrashic interpretations, my personal suspicion is that Rabbis Hama and Pinhas might have been reading Harbona's personality in the light of their own experiences and values. For reasons that were rooted in his previous encounters with the gentile world, Rabbi Hama may have developed a strong scepticism when it came to friendly gestures by pagans, which led him to denigrate Harbona's contributions to the Jewish cause.

An opinion in the Talmud expresses a similar assessment of another ostensible act of kindness by a non-Jew, in the episode when the insomniac Ahasuerus asks his servants whether Mordecai was ever rewarded for his service to the king. The servants are quick to point out that Mordecai never received a proper token of royal appreciation.

In connection with this detail, the Talmud quips "It was not that they loved Mordecai, but rather because they despised Haman." Here too, the commentators scurried to find textual clues that would justify such a negative assessment of ostensibly altruistic behaviour. Most of these attempts, like Rabbi Alkabetz's declaration that "it is the normal practice of the righteous to judge the wicked unfavourably," are not quite convincing. Here too, rather than responding to some textual stimulus in the biblical story, it seems more likely that the sages in question were expressing their personal cynicism about the benevolence of heathens.

On the other hand, Rabbi Pinhas appears to have taken a more pragmatic approach to such situations. In his view, one should never be overly dismissive of one's allies, even in cases when their motives are not entirely pure and their support of your cause springs from ulterior considerations. In the end, it is better to have such people in your camp than on the opposite side.

From this perspective, even an opportunistic Harbona should be remembered for good.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressFebruary 7 2002, pp. 10-11.
  • Bibliography:
    • Ginzberg, Louis, 1967, The Legends of the Jews, translated by H. Szold, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America
    • Grossfeld, Bernard, ed. 1991, The Two Targums of Esther, edited by M. M. e. al., The Aramaic Bible: The Targums, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press
    • Jacobson, B. S., 1973, Netiv Binah: Pirqé Mavo, Perushim ve-'Iyunim ba-"Sidur", Tel-Aviv: Sinai
    • Segal, Eliezer, 1994, The Babylonian Esther Midrash: A Critical Commentary, 3 vols, Brown Judaic Studies, Atlanta: Scholars Press