This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Mad about Mordecai *

At the conclusion of the Scroll of Esther, we hear about the glory and success that were bestowed upon the hero of the story: “Mordecai the Jew was next to king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brothers.”

In later dialects of Hebrew, the word that is rendered here as “multitude”—rov—acquired the sense of “majority.” Some of the ancient sages saw this as a pointed criticism of Mordecai. For all his virtues, he nonetheless had flaws that alienated him from some of his fellow Jews and precipitated a drop in his popularity polls. As one source concluded, some of Mordecai’s colleagues (“brothers”) in the Sanhedrin distanced themselves from him after he was elevated to a high office in the Persian court.

This might be no more than a sardonic reflection on the unavoidable price that must be paid when national heroes take on political and communal responsibilities that divert their energies from loftier pursuits. However, many of the interpreters understood it as a disparagement of Mordecai’s role in the Purim story.

The eleventh century French exegete Rabbi Joseph Kara proposed the following explanation for Mordecai’s fall from popular favour. Even after the Jews had been rescued from the danger that threatened them, they could not forget that he was the one who had originally set in motion the chain of events that put them in grave peril. “They murmured against him saying: Look what Mordecai has done to us! He was the one who provoked Haman, and on his account we were sold to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish.” Only through divine intervention were the Jews eventually rescued from the predicament that had been initiated by Mordecai.

Haman’s wrath against the Jews was sparked by Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to the vizier, and the biblical narrative does not supply a reason for Mordecai’s disobedience. There would normally be no inherent religious objection to a display of respect to a powerful dignitary, as when Abraham prostrated himself before the Hittites, or Jacob humbly bowed before his brother Esau. Indeed, several commentators contrasted Mordecai’s staunch refusal to show obeisance to Haman with the conduct of Abraham, who had politely bowed down to his three angelic visitors even when, according to the midrashic reading, he assumed that they were heathen Arabs. At least one author suggested that Mordecai was following the precedent set by his archetypal ancestor Benjamin, the only one of Jacob’s sons who (because of his youth at the time) did not demean himself by bowing before Esau.

Rabbi Moses Alashkar devoted an elaborate responsum to resolving the apparent discrepancies between these the cases of Abraham and Mordecai. Citing pertinent talmudic passages, he posited a fundamental distinction between the two different situations. He concluded that although Jewish law forbids performing any worshipful act before an actual idol, there is no prohibition against bowing before idol-worshippers as Abraham had done with the Hittites. Rabbi Alashkar even went so far as to assert that it is permissible to bow to persons who have idolatrous images displayed on their garments, since it will be obvious to any observers that the Jew is acting out of respect (or fear) for the person and not out of reverence for the image.

Ancient Jewish interpreters, for the most part, preferred to understand that Haman had set himself up as a deity to be worshipped, so that Mordecai’s refusal to bow down was an assertion of his monotheistic faith and not motivated by some personal grudge against Haman. Under other circumstances, however, religious duty would not have demanded that Mordecai provoke an open confrontation with Haman.

Rabbi Alashkar suggested that the Torah would forbid bowing only in situations where two conditions converge (as was the case with Haman): the person must both (a) be claiming divine status, as well as (b) wearing visible religious symbols.

In this connection, Rabbi Alashkar cited a responsum by Rabbi Isaac of Oppenheim who made use of these halakhic distinctions to resolve an actual question. Rabbi Isaac had been consulted regarding the proper etiquette when meeting Christian clergy. Is it permissible to offer gestures of respect, such as standing up, bowing or removing one’s hat, when the person opposite you is wearing a crucifix or other objectionable religious symbol? Rabbi Isaac ruled permissively on this question, basing himself on the talmudic stipulation that a prohibition would only apply to someone who is “worshipped like Haman,” but not to a Christian priest who is clearly not presenting himself as an object of worship. Nonetheless, he did recommend tightly shutting one’s eyes, where possible, during such encounters.

The Aramaic expansion of Esther known as the Targum Sheni includes a dramatic elaboration of the fateful sleepless night when Ahasuerus called for the royal chronicles to be read to him. In the Targum Sheni all the main characters were stricken with insomnia that night for a variety of different reasons. In Mordecai’s case, it was because the “house of Israel” assembled itself before him and accused him of being responsible for their predicament. They charged that if he had but shown due deference to Haman, then all the ensuing troubles could have been avoided.

For Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, even if Haman was laying claim to divine status, this was not necessarily a sufficient justification for Mordecai’s inflammatory behaviour. After all, the Jewish courtier could have tried to absent himself from the palace gates when Haman was passing by. In not doing so, he was recklessly endangering himself and the lives of the entire nation. Therefore Ibn Ezra was forced to introduce an elaborate new detail into the story: the king had explicitly commanded Mordecai to be stationed at the palace gate, leaving him with no alternative but to obey the royal decree.

Rabbi David ibn Abi Zimra, known as the “Radbaz,” found Ibn Ezra’s solution unconvincing. It would certainly have been possible for Mordecai to apply to the king for permission to go somewhere else (analogous to taking a “personal day”). Radbaz therefore suggested a different rationale for Mordecai’s imprudent conduct: it simply never occurred to him that Haman would react so furiously to such a trivial provocation by targeting the entire Jewish nation in response to a perceived slight by one individual. Mordecai may have been perfectly ready to martyr himself for his principles in the manner of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah who refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, but he would not knowingly have acted in a manner that imperilled all of Israel.

Radbaz found support for his interpretation in the fact that it is only after Haman has put his genocidal plot into motion that the Megillah informs us “Mordecai perceived all that was done”—implying that prior to this point Mordecai had not envisaged the full consequences of his actions.

As an alternative hypothesis, Radbaz speculated that Mordecai was endowed with the gift of prophetic foresight, so that he actually knew from the outset that the initial adversity would ultimately be resolved in a way that would bring about an improvement in the status of the empire’s Jews.

As to why Mordecai seemed so seriously worried until the villain’s downfall if he had already read the last chapter of the Megillah, Radbaz retorted that there is always good reason to fear that some sin might still overturn the divine plan for Israel’s salvation.

All this exegetical wrangling should give us some appreciation of how difficult it is for even the most admired and righteous individuals to maintain their popularity if they elect to enter the hazardous arenas of politics or communal leadership.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, February 15, 2013, p. 14.
  • For further reading:
    • The Life and Times of Rabbi David Ibn Abi Zimra: a Social, Economic and Cultural Study of Jewish Life in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th Centuries as Reflected in the Responsa of the RDBZ. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1970.
    • Grossfeld, Bernard. The Targum Sheni to the Book of Esther: A Critical Edition Based on MS. Sassoon 282 with Critical Apparatus. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1994.
    • ———. The Two Targums of Esther. The Aramaic Bible v. 18. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1991.
    • Horowitz, Elliott S. Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
    • Pelles, Yisrael Mordecai. “Responsa and Rulings of Rabbi Yitzhak Oppenheim.” Tzfunot—Tora Quarterly 16 (1992): 9–13.
    • Segal, Eliezer. The Babylonian Esther Midrash: A Critical Commentary. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Brown Judaic Studies no. 291-293. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.
    • Walfish, Barry. Esther in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages. SUNY Series in Judaica. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.