Party Lights
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Party Lights*

The sages of the Talmud and Midrash had ambivalent attitudes toward the lengthy feast that opens the book of Esther—180 days of festivities for the aristocracy, followed by a week-long event for the folks in the capital. In the context of the plot, the banquet functions principally as a means to set the stage for Queen Vashti’s disobedience, and hence for Esther’s crucial installation into the royal court. It also introduces Ahasuerus as a “party animal,” a trait that will have relevance for subsequent developments in the story.

Several statements by the talmudic rabbis present the feasting in a negative—even sinister—light. One tradition claimed that feast was convened in order to celebrate the finality of Jerusalem’s destruction. Ahasuerus calculated that seventy years had elapsed since the beginning of the Babylonian exile, and the fact that the Temple had not yet been rebuilt assured him that there was no reason to be concerned about Jeremiah’s prophecies about an imminent restoration.

The rabbis understood that the magnificent garments and dishes that graced the banquet were actually the sacred vessels of the Jewish sanctuary and that the heathen emperor blasphemously adorned himself with the robes of the high priest (in a passage that I find reminiscent of the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” where the Nazi Belloq dons the priestly robes to open the Ark of the Covenant). Indeed, the Jews of Shushan could not resist the temptation to attend the lavish affair, an indiscretion that, in the view of some rabbis, was grave enough to make them deserving of Haman’s murderous threats—at least enough to to throw a good scare into them.

On the other hand, some midrashic embellishments to the biblical story attest that the rabbis were caught up by the magnificence of the occasion, as they admiringly elaborated and exaggerated the exquisite decorations and glittering finery. They analyzed the seating arrangements to show how wisely the monarch had placed the guests so as to avoid potential political slights or security lapses. It was not just a matter of skilful party planning, but seemed to reflect profound philosophical ideals of harmonious aesthetics.

Thus, the Bible’s incidental mention of “beds of gold and silver” led Rabbi Judah to suggest that the beds were assigned according to the guests’ social rankings. This provoked his colleague Rabbi Nehemiah to object that “if that were so, then you are casting envy into the feast.”

This concern for avoiding divisive envy is singled out a praiseworthy virtue elsewhere in rabbinic literature. For example, the Mishnah orders the dismissal of a prayer leader who inserts the phrase “Your mercies extend even unto a bird’s nest,” referring to the Torah’s command not to remove chicks or eggs from a nest before chasing away their mother, a law that was perceived to arise out of compassionate sensitivity for her maternal suffering. In attempting to explain why the innocent-sounding phrase was considered objectionable, a rabbi in the Talmud suggests that, by singling out one particular species as the beneficiary of divine solicitude, we would be provoking the envy of other species.

That harmonious paradigm was consistent with the social and religious ideals that were promoted in Persian festivals that would have been familiar to Babylonian Jews; and it is quite natural that they would project them onto their portrayals of Ahasuerus’s banquet.

In describing the exotic decorations of Ahasuerus’s banquet, scripture employs rare and difficult words that were sometimes unclear to the rabbinic interpreters. For example, some of the pavings were made of “ dar” and “ soḥaret,” neither of which word was familiar to the commentators, though most lexicographers identify dar as pearl (or mother-of-pearl) .

One particularly intriguing explanation was proposed by the third-century Babylonian sage Samuel: “There is a precious stone in the maritime cities, and its name is ‘dura. He set it down in the middle of the feast and it provided them with light as at mid-day [ṣahorayim].”

Samuel seems to be saying that this particular jewel had a wondrous ability to illuminate the hall with non-re­flected light. Indeed, traditions about self-illuminating gems appear elsewhere in rabbinic texts, as well as in unexpected corners of ancient literature. A similar tradition is related concerning Noah’s ark. The Torah says that Noah was instructed to furnish the craft with a ṣohar, usually understood to refer to some kind of a window. However, Rabbi Levi in the Midrash interprets it as a pearl [Hebrew “margalit” = Latin “margarita”].

Indeed, this was no ordinary gem. As the rabbi goes on to relate: “For the full twelve months that Noah spent in the ark, he did not require the light of the sun by day, nor the light of the moon by night. Instead, he had a jewel which he suspended there. Whenever it became dim he knew that it was day-time, and when it gleamed he knew that it was night-time.”

Another rabbinic legend spoke of a similar luminous jewel that provided light for the prophet Jonah while he was enclosed in the belly of the fish.

Legends about luminous gems circulated widely in antiquity. A fifth-century Chinese account about the eastern Roman empire told of the “moonshine pearl” that was capable of emitting light by night. That report was confirmed by other Chinese writers in the eighth cen­tury. These exotic sources dovetail with a motif that is found in early Roman writers. The first-century C.E. naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about a colourless stone that housed at its core a brightly shining star like the full moon. In the second century, the satirist and rhetor Lucian of Samosata reported that the statue of Venus in Hierapolis, Phrygia, carried on her head a stone that shone brightly in the night to illuminate the entire temple in which it was housed; whereas by day it glowed dimly, but had a fiery tinge. Aelian, an ancient collector of exotic nature lore, also wrote about a jewel that glows nocturnally.

While all the Greek and Latin sources make ref­erence to an assortment of luminous jewels, it is only in the rab­binic traditions that the gem in question is identified as the pearl (durra). Nevertheless it is the pearl that is singled out in the Chinese ver­sions of the story.

This would support the premise that the traditions regarding nocturnally glistening stones traveled across a remarkable trajectory through the ancient world. They first became known in the Roman realms during the first centuries C.E. in the eastern sector of the empire, in localities extending from Italy (as attested by Pliny and Aelian) to Syria and the banks of the Euphrates (Lucian). During that period knowledge of this legend reached the Jews, in both their western habitation in the land of Israel and in the eastern diaspora of Babylonia (where Samuel lived). Reports about these glimmering pearls were transmitted by merchants—presumably from eastern Persia—to China at the end of the fifth century. It was these re­ports which gave rise to the Chinese tradition that in Ta-t’sin (the old Chinese designation for the Roman empire) are found pearls—”chu”—which sparkle and glimmer in the darkness of the night.

The school of Rabbi Ishmael proposed yet another explanation based on a word-play with the terms “dar” and “soḥaret,” which they connected to “d’ror”—freedom—and “saḥar”—commerce; that is, the king used the gala feast as the occasion for issuing an executive order removing tariffs and instituting a general free-trade pact.

Perhaps the new regulations were also applied to the exchange of incandescent pearls—legendary or otherwise—with the Far East.

This article and many others are now included in the book

The Times of Our Life
The Times of Our Life: Some Brief Histories of Jewish Time

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, February 24, 2017, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Berlin, Adele, ed. Esther: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation . The JPS Commentary. Philadephia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001.
    • Boyce, Mary. “Iranian Festivals.” In The Cambridge History of Iran: Seleucid Parthian , edited by E. Yarshater, 2nd ed., 3:792–816. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
    • Clines, David J. A. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther . New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids : London: Eerdmans ; Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1984.
    • Fox, Michael V. Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther . 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews . Translated by Henrietta Szold. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 2003.
    • Laniak, Timothy S. Shame and Honor in the Book of Esther . Dissertation Series / Society of Biblical Literature 165. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.
    • Moore, Carey A., ed. Esther . 1st ed. The Anchor Bible 7B. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1971.
    • ———, ed. Studies in the Book of Esther . The Library of Biblical Studies. New York: Ktav, 1981.
    • Segal, Eliezer. “Justice, Mercy and a Bird’s Nest.” Journal of Jewish Studies 42, no. 2 (1991): 176–95.
    • ———. The Babylonian Esther Midrash: A Critical Commentary . Brown Judaic Studies, no. 291-293. Atlanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1994.
    • Sperber, Daniel. “Gilgulei avanim.” In Studies in Rabbinic Literature, Bible and Jewish History , edited by Y. D. Gilat, Ch. Levine, and Z. M. Rabinowitz, 261–67. Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1982. [Hebrew]
    • Spoelstra, Joshua Joel. “The Function of the משׁתה יין in the Book of Esther.” Old Testament Essays 27, no. 1 (2014): 285–301.