This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Passing Through Shushan*

It is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic and tension-filled moments in the Book of Esther.

While the lives of Persia's Jews hang in the balance, Mordecai has persuaded Esther to risk her life by approaching the king, uninvited, to plead her people's cause. Esther has in turn beseeched her fellow Jews to fast and pray for three days for the successful outcome of her mission.

At this point, the story introduces an apparently superfluous detail into the sequence of events: "So Mordecai passed on, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him" (Esther 4:17).

What is the meaning of "passed on" here, and of what relevance is this item of information to the unfolding of the story?

Not surprisingly, the rabbis of the Talmud attempted to provide various explanations and translations for the obscure expression. Some read it in the sense of "transgressed," as an indication that Mordecai fasted on that day even though it was (according to their calculations) Passover, though such an activity would have been forbidden on a festival for anything less than a grave national emergency.

Among the suggestions mentioned in the Talmud is one by the third-century Babylonian sage Samuel: "He crossed over a stream of water."

Now this comment hardly helps to clarify the issue. Quite the contrary, Samuel has apparently introduced yet another irrelevant detail into the narrative. Although Rashi's remark that Mordecai was on his way to assemble the Jews to pray for Esther fits the context, it does not provide a satisfactory reason for mentioning the crossing of the stream.

Some of the most intriguing solutions to this puzzle do not come from the pens of scholars or exegetes, but from the chronicles of medieval Jewish travelers. Probably the most celebrated of that breed was the twelfth-century Spanish globetrotter Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela whose detailed record of his voyages among the Jewish communities of his day is one of our crucial sources of historical and demographic information about that era.

In his account of his visit to Shushan, the scene of the events related in Esther, Rabbi Benjamin remarks that "the River Tigris divides the city, and the bridge connects the two parts. On one side, where the Jews dwell, is the sepulchre of Daniel" (Daniel was of course an esteemed favourite son of the Persian Jews).

From this account we learn that the river separated Shushan's Jewish quarter, with its reported 7000 inhabitants, from the royal palace, at least in Benjamin's days. A similar description is given by another celebrated medieval Jewish tourist, Petahiah of Regensburg, who visited Shushan at around the same time.

The fact that the palace, or Acropolis, of Shushan was separated from the city by a River is in fact known from ancient sources, including the geographer Strabo.

All this would indeed furnish corroboration for Rashi's version of the story, of how Mordecai had to traverse the water in order to rally the Jewish community to its fasts and supplications.

This reconstruction of the local geography finds additional support from the commentary of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra's focus was not Mordecai's "passing on," but an apparent confusion in the terminology employed by the narrator in referring at times to Shushan, and at times to "the palace of Shushan." This leads him to conclude that there were in reality two separate locations: the walled sector that contained the royal palace; and the unwalled city that housed, among other things, the city's Jewish quarter.

As usual, Ibn Ezra's interpretation is based on thorough textual and linguistic analysis of the biblical evidence (though he does not connect it to our problem about Mordecai's "passing on"). However it is also conceivable that his depiction of the ancient Persian capital reflected his experiences in Muslim Spain, where the caliphs were accustomed to constructing their magnificent palaces at a distance from the cities.

For all the attractiveness of the theory about Mordecai crossing a river to reach the Jewish neighbourhood, it involves several difficulties.

For one thing, it supposes that the layout of the city's neighbourhoods remained substantially intact from the fifth century B.C.E. until the twelfth century C.E. While this is not entirely inconceivable in the slow-moving societies of pre-modern times, in this particular instance we have good reason to question the premise. References to a Jewish community in Shushan are entirely absent from Talmudic sources, and a Persian document tells of the city's being completely rebuilt in the early fourth century C.E. by King Yezdegerd I--albeit at the request of his appropriately named Jewish queen Shoshan-dukht, daughter of the reigning Exilarch!

Furthermore, we must recall that the entire interpretation hinges on Samuel's comment about Mordecai crossing a "stream" of water. Now, the Aramaic word that is used by Samuel to denote the body of water (`urkama) is one that appears in several passages in the Babylonian Talmud. If one compares how the word is used elsewhere, we find that the `urkama seems to refer to a mere puddle, or the temporary overflow from a river, rather than to the full-scale river that would be required by the aforementioned explanations.

When all is said and done, we still do not have a convincing solution to our original puzzle about Mordecai's movements in ancient Shushan. However, as is often the case, the search itself has been an educational experience all its own, allowing us to make the acquaintance of a diverse company of Jewish commentators, travelers, and even some royalty for good measure.

Exactly the sort of scholarly fare that is ideal for Purim.

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 Press, March 12, 1998, pp. 6,7.

  • Bibliography:
    • Adler, Marcus Nathan, ed. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. London: Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, Amen Corner, E. C., 1907.
    • Eshel, Ben-Zion. Jewish Settlements in Babylonia During Talmudic Times. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1979.
    • Gafni, Isaiah M. The Jews in Babylonia in the Talmudic Era: A Social and Cultural History. Monographs in Jewish History, ed. A. Grossman et al. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 1990.
    • Hakham, Amos. "Esther." In Hamesh megillot, Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1973.
    • Krauss, S. Qadmoniyyot ha-talmud. Berlin, Vienna, Tel-Aviv: 1924-45.
    • Moore, Carey A., ed. Esther. The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971.
    • Moore, C. A., ed. Studies in the Book of Esther. The Library of Biblical Studies. New York: Ktav, 1982.
    • Paton, L. B. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Esther. Inernational Critical Commentary, ed. S. R. Driver, A. Plummer, and C. A. Briggs. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1964.
    • Segal, Eliezer. The Babylonian Esther Midrash: A Critical Commentary. Brown Judaic Studies, ed. Ernest Frerichs, Shaye J. D. Cohen, and Calvin Goldscheider. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.
    • Walfish, Bary Dov. Esther in Medieval Garb: Jewish Interpretation of the Book of Esther in the Middle Ages. SUNY Studies in Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion, ed. Michael Fishbane, Robert Goldenberg, and Arthur Green. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.