Encyclopedia Judaica 2nd Edition (Ship in USA) An
essential source of information on Jewish life, culture, history, and religion.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica has been the leading source for information on the Jewish people, the Jewish faith and the state of Israel - how they have shaped and been influenced by our world. As the result of a U.S.-Israeli publishing partnership, the second edition of this important reference is now available for a new generation.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Great Synagogue

The Great Synagogue By : Wilhelm Bacher


  • Included the Last Prophets.
  • Their Number.
  • The Generation of Ezra.
  • Position in Tannaitic Chronology.
  • Institutions and Rulings.
  • Other Activity.

Included the Last Prophets.

The members of the Great Synagogue, or the Great Assembly, are designated in the Mishnah (Ab. i. 1) as those representatives of the Law who occupied a place in the chain of tradition between the Prophets and the earliest scholars known by name. "The Prophets transmitted the Torah to the men of the Great Synagogue. . . . Simon the Just was one of those who survived the Great Synagogue, and Antigonus of Soko received the Torah from him" (Ab. i. 1 et seq.). The first part of this statement is paraphrased as follows in Ab. R. N. i.; "Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi received from the Prophets; and the men of the Great Synagogue received from Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi." This is the reading of the first version; the second version (ed. Schechter, p. 2) reads: "The Prophets to Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi; and these to the men of the Great Synagogue." In this paraphrase the three post-exilic prophets are separated from the other prophets, for it was the task of the former to transmit the Law to the members of the Great Synagogue. It must even be assumed that these three prophets were themselves included in those members, for it is evident from the statements referring to the institution of the prayers and benedictions that the Great Synagogue included prophets.

According to R. Johanan, who wrote in the third century, "the men of the Great Synagogue instituted for Israel the benedictions and the prayers, as well as the benedictions for kiddush and habdalah" (Ber. 33a). This agrees with the sentence of R. Jeremiah (4th cent.), who states (Yer. Ber. 4d), in reference to the "Shemoneh 'Esreh," that "onehundred and twenty elders, including about eighty prophets, have instituted these prayers." These one hundred and twenty elders are undoubtedly identical with the men of the Great Synagogue. The number given of the prophets must, however, be corrected according to Meg. 17b, where the source of R. Jeremiah's statement is found: "R. Johanan said that, according to some, a baraita taught that one hundred and twenty elders, including some prophets, instituted the 'Shemoneh 'Esreh.'" Hence the prophets were in a minority in the Great Synagogue. Another statement regarding the activity of this institution alludes to the establishment of the Feast of Purim according to Esth. ix. 27 et seq., while the Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 2a) states, as a matter requiring no discussion, that the celebration of the Feast of Purim on the days mentioned in Meg. i. 1 was instituted by the men of the Great Synagogue. But in the Palestinian Talmud R. Johanan (Meg. 70d; Ruth R. ii. 4) speaks of "eighty-five elders, among them about thirty prophets."

Their Number.

These divergent statements may easily be reconciled (see Krochmal, "Moreh Nebuke ha-Zeman," p. 97) by reading, in the one passage, "beside them" () instead of "among them" (); and in the other passage, "thirty" instead of "eighty." The number eighty-five is taken from Neh. x. 2-29; but the origin of the entire number (120) is not known. It was undoubtedly assumed that the company of those mentioned in Neh. x. was increased to one hundred and twenty by the prophets who took part in the sealing of the covenant, this view, which is confirmed by Neh. vi. 7, 14, being based on the hypothesis that other prophets besides Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were then preaching in Israel. These passages indicate that this assembly was believed to be the one described in Neh. ix.-x., and other statements regarding it prove that the Amoraim accepted this identification as a matter of course. According to Abba b. Kahana, the well-known haggadist of the latter half of the third century (Shem-Ṭob on Ps. xxxvi., end), "Two generations used the 'Shem ha-Meforesh,' the men of the Great Synagogue and the generation of the 'shemad'" (the persecution of Hadrian and the Bar Kokba war). This reference is explained in a statement by Giddel, a pupil of Rab (Yer. Meg. iii., end; Yoma 69b): "The word in Neh. viii. 6 indicates that Ezra uttered the great Tetragram in his praise of God."

The Generation of Ezra.

The combination of these two passages, which evidently have the same basis, offers another instance of the general assumption that all the members of this body were regarded as belonging to one generation, which included Ezra, while Joshua b. Levi, one of the earliest amoraim, even derived the term "Great Synagogue" from Neh. ix. 32. The authors of the prayers restored the triad of the divine attributes introduced by Moses (Deut. x. 17), although Jeremiah (xxxii. 18) and Daniel (x. 17, Hebr.) had each omitted one of the three attributes from their prayers. "The Great Assembly was so called because it gave the divine attributes their ancient 'greatness' and dignity" (Yoma 69b [with other authorities]; Yer. Ber. 11c and Meg. 74c; Shem-Ṭob on Ps. xix.; see also Ber. 33b); although this is merely a haggadic explanation of the old term, it indicates that the Amoraim did not think the Great Synagogue could be any other assembly or council than the one mentioned as the source of the prayers in Neh. ix.; and there are other examples in traditional literature evidencing this view. In Yer. Ber. 3a (Gen. R. xlvi., lxxviii.) this objection is raised in regard to a thesis of R. Levi based on Gen. xvii. 5 and referring to Neh. ix. 7: "Did not the men of the Great Synagogue call Abraham by his former name, Abram?" In the name of the men of the Great Synagogue, R. Abbahu (Gen. R. vi.) quotes the words "The heaven of heavens, with all their host" (Neh. ix. 6) as an explanation of Gen. i. 17; and the same authority is invoked in a haggadic passage by Abin (Tan., Shemot, i.) in reference to Neh. ix. 5 (ib. 2, anonymous), as well as in one by Samuel b. Naḥman (Ex. R. xli., beginning; Tan., Ki Tissa, 14) alluding to Neh. ix. 18.

R. Johanan connected the following story with Neh. x. 1-2 (Ruth R. ii. 4): "The men of the Great Synagogue wrote a document in which they voluntarily agreed to pay heave-offerings and tithes. This document they displayed in the hall of the Temple; the following morning they found the divine confirmation inscribed upon it." Since Nehemiah himself was a member, Samuel b. Marta, a pupil of Rab, quoted a phrase used by Nehemiah in his prayer (i. 7) as originating with his colleagues (Ex. R. li.; Tan., Pekude, beginning). Ezra was, of course, one of the members, and, according to Neh. viii., he was even regarded as the leader. In one of the two versions of the interpretation of Cant. vii. 14 (Lev. R. ii. 11), therefore, Ezra and his companions ("'Ezra wa-ḥaburato") are mentioned, while the other version (Cant. R. ad loc.) speaks merely of the "men of the Great Synagogue" (compare the statements made above regarding the pronunciation of the Tetragram). In the targum to Cant. vii. 3, in addition to "Ezra the priest" the men mentioned in Ezra ii. 2 as the leaders of the people returning from the Exile—Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Mordecai, and Bilshan—are designated as "men of the Great Synagogue." In the same targum (to vi. 4) the leaders of the exiles are called the "sages of the Great Synagogue."

It appears from all these passages in traditional literature that the idea of the Great Assembly was based on the narrative in Neh. viii.-x., and that, furthermore, its members were regarded as the leaders of Israel who had returned from exile and laid the foundations of the new polity connected with the Second Temple. All these men were regarded in the tannaitic chronology as belonging to one generation; for this reason the "generation of the men of the Great Synagogue" is mentioned in one of the passages already cited, this denoting, according to the chronological canon of Jose b. Ḥalafta (Seder 'Olam Rabbah xxx. [ed. Ratner, p. 141); 'Ab. Zarah 86), the generation of thirty-four years during which the Persian rule lasted, at the beginning of the period of the Second Temple. As the last prophets were still preaching during this time, they also were included. That prophecy began only at the end ofthis period, when the reign of Alexander the Great commenced, was likewise a thesis of the tannaitic chronology, which, like the canon of the thirty-four years, was adopted by the later Jewish chronologists (Seder 'Olam Rabbah l.c.; comp. Sanh. 11a), although the view occurs as early as Josephus ("Contra Ap." i., § 8).

Position in Tannaitic Chronology.

In view of these facts, it was natural that the Great Synagogue should be regarded as the connecting-link in the chain of tradition between the Prophets and the scholars. It may easily be seen, therefore, why Simon the Just should be termed a survivor of this body, for, according to the tradition current in the circle of Palestinian scholars, it was this high priest, and not his grandfather Jaddua, who met Alexander the Great, and received from him much honor (see Yoma 69a; Meg. Ta'an. for the 21st of Kislew; comp. Alexander the Great).

It is thus evident that, according to the only authority extant in regard to the subject, the tradition of the Tannaim and the Amoraim, the activity of this assembly was confined to the period of the Persian rule, and thus to the first thirty-four years of the Second Temple, and that afterward, when Simon the Just was its only survivor, there was no other fixed institution which could be regarded as a precursor of the academies. This statement does not imply, however, that such a body did not exist in the first centuries of the Second Temple, for it must be assumed that some governing council existed in those centuries as well, although the statements regarding the Great Synagogue refer exclusively to the first period. The term primarily denoted the assembly described in Neh. ix.-x., which convened principally for religious purposes—fasting, reading of the Torah, confession of sins, and prayer (Neh. ix. 1 et seq.). Since every gathering convened for religious purposes was called "keneset" (hence "bet ha-keneset" = "the synagogue"; comp. the verb "kenos," Esth. iv. 16), this term was applied also to the assembly in question; but as it was an assembly of special importance it was designated more specifically as the "great assembly" (comp. Neh. v. 7, "kehillah gedolah").

In addition to fixing the ritual observances for the first two quarters of the day (Neh. ix. 3), the Great Synagogue engaged in legislative proceedings, making laws as summarized in Neh. x. 30 et seq. Tradition therefore ascribed to it the character of a chief magistracy, and its members, or rather its leaders, including the prophets of that time, were regarded as the authors of other obligatory rules. These leaders of post-exilic Israel in the Persian period were called the "men of the Great Synagogue" because it was generally assumed that all those who then acted as leaders had been members of the memorable gathering held on the 24th of Tishri, 444 B.C. Although the assembly itself convened only on a single day, its leaders were designated in tradition as regular members of the Great Synagogue. This explains the fact that the references speak almost exclusively of the members of the Great Synagogue, the allusions to the body itself being very rare, and based in part on error, as, for example, the quotation from Ab. i. 2 which occurs in Eccl. R. xii. 11.

As certain institutions supposed to have been established in the first period of the Second Temple were ascribed to Ezra, so others of them were ascribed to the men of the Great Synagogue. There is, in fact, no difference between the two classes of institutions so far as origin is concerned. In some cases Ezra, the great scribe and the leader of the Great Synagogue, is mentioned as the author, in others the entire body is so mentioned; in all cases the body with Ezra at its head must be thought of as the real authors. In traditional literature, however, a distinction was generally drawn between the institutions of Ezra and those of the men of the Great Synagogue, so that they figured separately; but it is not surprising, after what has been said above, that in Tan., Beshallaḥ, 16, on Ex. xv. 7, the "Tikkune Soferim," called also ("Okhla we-Okhla," No. 168) "Tikkune 'Ezra" (emendations of the text of the Bible by the Soferim, or by Ezra; and according to the tannaitic source [see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." ii. 205], originally textual euphemisms), should be ascribed to the men of the Great Synagogue, since the author of the passage in question identified the Soferim (i.e., Ezra and his successors) with them.

Institutions and Rulings.

The following rulings were ascribed to the men of the Great Synagogue:

(1) They included the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, and the Twelve Minor Prophets in the Biblical canon; this is the only possible explanation of the baraita (B. B. 15a) that they "wrote" those books. The first three books, which were composed outside Palestine, had to be accepted by the men of the Great Synagogue before they could be regarded as worthy of inclusion, while the division of the Minor Prophets was completed by the works of the three post-exilic prophets, who were themselves members of that council. The same activity in regard to these books is ascribed to the men of the Great Synagogue as had been attributed to King Hezekiah and his council, including the prophet Isaiah, with regard to the three books ascribed to Solomon (see also Ab. R. N. i.) and the Book of Isaiah. It should be noted that in this baraita, as well as in the gloss upon it, Ezra and Nehemiah, "men of the Great Synagogue," are mentioned as the last Biblical writers; while according to the introduction to the Second Book of the Maccabees (ii. 13) Nehemiah also collected a number of the books of the Bible.

(2) They introduced the triple classification of the oral law, dividing the study of the Mishnah (in the larger sense) into the three branches of midrash, halakot, and haggadot, although this view, which is anonymous, conflicted with that of R. Jonah, a Palestinian amora of the fourth century, who declared that the founder of this threefold division of traditional science (see Jew. Encyc. iii. 163, s.v. Bible Exegesis) was R. Akiba (Yer. Shek. v., beginning). This view is noteworthy as showing that the later representatives of tradition traced the origin of their science to the earliest authorities, the immediate successors of the Prophets. The men of the Great Synagogue, therefore, not only completedthe canon, but introduced the scientific treatment of tradition.

(3) They introduced the Feast of Purim and determined the days on which it should be celebrated (see above).

(4) They instituted the "Shemoneh 'Esreh," as well as the benedictions and other prayers, as already noted. The tradition in regard to this point expresses the view that the synagogal prayers as well as the entire ritual were put into definite shape by the men of the Great Synagogue.

Other Activity.

The list of Biblical personages who have no part in the future world (Sanh. x. 1) was made, according to Rab, by the men of the Great Synagogue (Sanh. 104b), and a haggadic ruling on Biblical stories beginning with the phrase "Wa-yehi bayamim" (And it came to pass in those days) is designated by Johanan, or his pupil Levi, as a "tradition of the men of the Great Synagogue" (Meg. 10b). This is merely another way of saying, as is stated elsewhere (Lev. R. xi.) in reference to the same ruling, that it had been brought as a tradition from the Babylonian exile. There are references also to other haggadic traditions of this kind (see Bacher, "Ag. Tan." 2d ed., i. 192; idem, "Die Aelteste Terminologie," p. 107). Joshua b. Levi ascribes in an original way to the men of the Great Synagogue the merit of having provided for all time for the making of copies of the Bible, tefillin, and mezuzot, stating that they instituted twenty-four fasts to insure that wealth would not be acquired by copyists, who would cease to copy if they became rich (Pes. 50b). A haggadic passage by Jose b. Ḥanina refers to the names of the returning exiles mentioned in Ezra ii. 51 et seq. (Gen. R. lxxi. et passim), one version reading "the men of the Great Synagogue" instead of "sons of the Exile," or "those that returned from the Exile" ("'ole goleh"). This shows that the men of the Great Synagogue included the first generation of the Second Temple. In Esth. R. iii. 7 the congregation of the tribes mentioned in Judges xx. 1 is apparently termed "men of the Great Synagogue." This is due, however, to a corruption of the text, for, according to Luria's skilful emendation, this phrase must be read with the preceding words "Ezra and the men of the Great Synagogue"; so that the phrase corresponds to the "bene ha-golah" of Ezra x. 16.

There is, finally, a passage of three clauses, which the Mishnah (Ab. i. 12) ascribes to the men of the Great Synagogue as stated above, and which reads as follows: "Be heedful in pronouncing sentence; have many pupils; put a fence about the Torah." This aphorism, ascribed to an entire body of men, can only be interpreted as expressing their spirit and tendency, yet it must have been formulated by some individual, probably one of their number. At all events, it may be regarded as a historical and authentic statement of the dominating thought of those early leaders of post-exilic Israel who were designated in the tradition of the Palestinian schools as the men of the Great Synagogue. It must also be noted that this passage, like the majority of those given in the first chapter of Abot, is addressed to the teachers and spiritual leaders rather than to the people. These three clauses indicate the program of the scholars of the Persian period, who were regarded as one generation, and evidence their harmony with the spirit of Ezra's teaching. Their program was carried out by the Pharisees: caution in pronouncing legal sentences; watchfulness over the schools and the training of pupils; assurance of the observance of the Law by the enforcement of protective measures and rulings.

An attempt has thus been made to assign correct positions to the texts in which the men of the Great Synagogue are mentioned, and to present the views on which they are based, although no discussions can be broached regarding the views of the chroniclers and historians, or the different hypotheses and conclusions drawn from these texts concerning the history of the period of the Second Temple. For this a reference to the articles cited in the bibliography must suffice. Kuenen especially presents a good summary of the more recent theories, while L. Löw (who is not mentioned by Kuenen) expresses views totally divergent from those generally held with regard to the Great Synagogue; this body he takes to be the assembly described in I Macc. xiv. 25-26, which made Simeon the Hasmonean a hereditary prince (18th of Elul, 140 B.C.E.).

Aharon's Jewish Books and Judaica
600 South Holly Street Suite 103
Denver, Colorado 80246


ESTHER By : Emil G. Hirsch John Dyneley Prince Solomon Schechter


—Biblical Data:
  • Haman and Mordecai.
—In Rabbinical Literature:
  • The Rabbinic Account.
  • Mordecai and Esther.
  • Esther Before Ahasuerus.
—Critical View:
  • Improbabilities of the Story.
  • Probable Date.

Name of the chief character in the Book of Esther, derived, according to some authorities, from the Persian "stara" (star); but regarded by others as a modification of "Ishtar," the name of the Babylonian goddess (see below).

—Biblical Data:

The story of Esther, as given in the book bearing her name, is as follows: The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, had deposed his queen Vashti because she refused, during a festival, toshow at his command her charms before the assembled princes of the realm (i. 10). Many beautiful maidens were then brought before the king in order that he might choose a successor to the unruly Vashti. He selected Esther as by far the most comely. The heroine is represented as an orphan daughter of the tribe of Benjamin, who had spent her life among the Jewish exiles in Persia (ii. 5), where she lived under the protection of her cousin Mordecai. The grand vizier, Haman the Agagite, commanded Mordecai to do obeisance to him. Upon Mordecai's refusal to prostrate himself, Haman informed the king that the Jews were a useless and turbulent people and inclined to disloyalty, and he promised to pay 10,000 silver talents into the royal treasury for the permission to pillage and exterminate this alien race. The king then issued a proclamation ordering the confiscation of Jewish property and a general extermination of all the Jews within the empire. Haman set by lot the day for this outrage (iii. 6), but Mordecai persuaded Esther to undertake the deliverance of her compatriots.

Haman and Mordecai.

After a three days' fast observed by the entire Jewish community, the queen, at great personal risk, decided to go before the king and beg him to rescind his decree (iv. 16). Ahasuerus, delighted with her appearance, held out to her his scepter in token of clemency, and promised to dine with her in her own apartments on two successive nights (v. 2-8). On the night before the second banquet, when Esther intended to make her petition, the king, being sleepless, commanded that the national records be read to, him. The part which was read touched upon the valuable services of Mordecai (vi. 1 et seq.), who some time before had discovered and revealed to the queen a plot against the king's life devised by two of the chamberlains (ii. 23). For this, by some unexplained oversight, Mordecai had received no reward. In the meantime the queen had invited the grand vizier to the banquet. When Haman, who was much pleased at the unusual honor shown him by the queen, appeared before the king to ask permission to execute Mordecai at once, Ahasuerus asked him, "What shall be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honor?" Haman, thinking that the allusion was to himself, suggested a magnificent pageant, at which one of the great nobles should serve as attendant (vi. 9). The king immediately adopted the suggestion, and ordered Haman to act as chief follower in a procession in honor of Mordecai (vi. 10).

The next day at the banquet, when Esther preferred her request, both the king and the grand vizier learned for the first time that the queen was a Jewess. Ahasuerus granted her petition at once and ordered that Haman be hanged on the gibbet which the latter had prepared for his adversary Mordecai (vii.). Mordecai was then made grand vizier, and through his and Esther's intervention another edict was issued granting to the Jews the power to pillage and to slay their enemies.

Before the day set for the slaughter arrived a great number of persons, in order to avoid the impending disaster, became Jewish proselytes, and a great terror of the Jews spread all over Persia (viii. 17).
(see image) Traditional Tomb of Esther and Mordecai.(From Flandin and Coste, "Voyage en Perse.")

The Jews, assisted by the royal officers, who feared the king, were eminently successful in slaying their enemies (ix. 11), but refused to avail themselves of their right to plunder (ix. 16). The queen, not content with a single day's slaughter, then requested the king to grant to her people a second day of vengeance, and begged that the bodies of Haman's ten sons, who had been slain in the fray, be hanged on the gibbet (ix. 13). Esther and Mordecai, acting with "all authority" (ix. 29), then founded the yearly feast of Purim, held on the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar as a joyous commemoration of the deliverance of their race.E. G. H. J. D. P.

—In Rabbinical Literature:

The story of Esther—typical in many regards of the perennial fate of the Jews, and recalled even more vividly by their daily experience than by the annual reading of theMegillah at Purim—invited, both by the brevity of some parts of the narrative and by the associations of its events with the bitter lot of Israel, amplifications readily supplied by popular fancy and the artificial interpretation of Biblical verse. The additions to Esther in the (Greek) Apocrypha have their counterparts in the post-Biblical literature of the Jews, and while it is certain that the old assumption of a Hebrew original for the additions in the Greek Book of Esther is not tenable (see Kautzsch, "Die Apocryphen und Pseudepigraphen des Alten Testaments," i. 194), it is not clear that the later Jewish amplifications are adaptations of Greek originals.

The following post-Biblical writings have to be considered:

(1) The first Targum. The Antwerp and Paris polyglots give a different and longer text than the London. The best edition is by De Lagarde (reprinted from the first Venice Bible) in "Hagiographa Chaldaice," Leipsic, 1873. The date of the first Targum is about 700 (see S. Posner, "Das Targum Rishon," Breslau, 1896).

(2) Targum Sheni (the second; date about 800), containing material not germane to the Esther story. This may be characterized as a genuine and exuberant midrash. Edited by De Lagarde (in "Hagiographa Chaldaice," Berlin, 1873) and by P. Cassel ("Aus Literatur und Geschichte," Berlin and Leipsic, 1885, and "Das Buch Esther," Berlin, 1891, Ger. transl.).

(3) Babylonian Talmud, Meg. 10b-14a.

(4) Pirke R. El. 49a, 50 (8th cent.).

(5) Yosippon (beginning of 10th cent.; see Zunz, "G. V." pp. 264 et seq.).

(6) Midr. R. to Esther (probably 11th cent.).

(7) Midr. Lekah Tob (Buber, "Sifre di-Agadta," Wilna, 1880).

(8) Midr. Abba Gorion (Buber, l.c.; Jellinek, "B. H." i. 1-18).

(9) Midr. Teh. to Ps. xxii.

(10) Midr. Megillat Esther (ed. by Horwitz in his "Sammlung Kleiner Midrashim," Berlin, 1881).

(11) helma de Mordekai (Aramaic: Jellinek, "B. H." v. 1-8; De Lagarde, l.c. pp. 362-365; Ad. Merx, "Chrestomathia Targumica," 1888, pp. 154 et seq.).

(12) Yalk. Shim'oni to Esther.

The Rabbinic Account.

With the omission of what more properly belongs under Ahasuerus, Haman, and Mordecai, the following is briefly the story of Esther's life as elaborated by these various midrashim: A foundling or an orphan, her father dying before her birth, her mother at her birth, Esther was reared in the house of Mordecai, her cousin, to whom, according to some accounts, she was even married (the word , Esth. ii. 7, being equal to = "house," which is frequently used for "wife" in rabbinic literature). Her original name was "Hadassah" (myrtle), that of "Esther" being given her by the star-worshipers, as reflecting her sweet character and the comeliness of her person. When the edict of the king was promulgated, and his eunuchs scoured the country in search of a new wife for the monarch, Esther, acting on her own judgment or upon the order of Mordecai, hid herself so as not to be seen of men, and remained in seclusion for four years, until even God's voice urged her to repair to the king's palace, where her absence had been noticed. Her appearance among the candidates for the queen's vacant place causes a commotion, all feeling that with her charms none can compete; her rivals even make haste to adorn her. She spurns the usual resources for enhancing her beauty, so that the keeper of the harem becomes alarmed lest he be accused of neglect. He therefore showers attentions upon her, and places at her disposal riches never given to others. But she will not be tempted to use the king's goods, nor will she eat of the king's food, being a faithful Jewess; together with her maids (seven, according to the number of the week-days and of the planets) she continues her modest mode of living. When her turn comes to be ushered into the royal presence, Median and Persian women flank her on both sides, but her beauty is such that the decision in her favor is at once assured. The king has been in the habit of comparing the charms of the applicants with a picture of Vashti suspended over his couch, and up to the time when Esther approaches him none has eclipsed the beauty of his beheaded spouse. But at the sight of Esther he at once removes the picture. Esther, true to Mordecai's injunction, conceals her birth from her royal consort. Mordecai was prompted to give her this command by the desire not to win favors as Esther's cousin. The king, of course, is very desirous of learning all about her antecedents, but Esther, after vouchsafing him the information that she, too, is of princely blood, turns the conversation, by a few happy counter-questions regarding Vashti, in a way to leave the king's curiosity unsatisfied.

Mordecai and Esther.

Still Ahasuerus will not be baffled. Consulting Mordecai, he endeavors to arouse Esther's jealousy—thinking that this will loosen her tongue—by again gathering maidens in his courtyard, as though he is ready to mete out to her the fate of her unfortunate predecessor. But even under this provocation Esther preserves her silence. Mordecai's daily visits to the courtyard are for the purpose of ascertaining whether Esther has remained true to the precepts of her religion. She had not eaten forbidden food, preferring a diet of vegetables, and had otherwise scrupulously observed the Law. When the crisis came Mordecai—who had, by his refusal to bow to Haman or, rather, to the image of an idol ostentatiously displayed on his breast (Pirke R. El. lxix.), brought calamity upon the Jews—appeared in his mourning garments, and Esther, frightened, gave birth to a still-born child. To avoid gossip she sent Hatach instead of going herself to ascertain the cause of the trouble. This Hatach was afterward met by Haman and slain. Still Mordecai had been able to tell Hatach his dream, that Esther would be the little rill of water separating the two fighting monsters, and that the rill would grow to be a large stream flooding the earth—a dream he had often related to her in her youth.

Esther Before Ahasuerus.

Mordecai called upon her to pray for her people and then intercede with the king. Though Pesah was near, and the provision of Megillat Ta'anit forbidding fasting during this time could not be observed without disregarding Mordecai's plea, she overcame her cousin's scruples by a very apt counter-question, and at her request all the Jews "that had on that day already partaken of food" observed a rigid fast, in spite of (Esth. iv. 17) the feast-day (Pesah), while Mordecai prayed and summoned the children and obliged even them to abstain from food, so that they cried out with loud voices. Esther in the meantime put aside her jewels and rich dresses, loosenedher hair, fasted, and prayed that she might be successful in her dangerous errand. On the third day, with serene mien she passed on to the inner court, arraying herself (or arrayed by the "Holy Ghost," Esth. Rabbah) in her best, and taking her two maids, upon one of whom, according to court etiquette, she leaned, while the other carried her train. As soon as she came abreast with the idols (perhaps an anti-Christian insinuation) the "Holy Ghost" departed from her, so that she exclaimed, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Ps. xxii. 1); thereupon, repenting having called the enemy "dog," she now named him "lion," and was accompanied by three angels to the king. Ahasuerus attempted to ignore her, and turned his face away, but an angel forced him to look at her. She, however, fainted at the sight of his flushed face and burning eyes, and leaned her head on her handmaid, expecting to hear her doom pronounced; but God increased her beauty to such an extent that Ahasuerus could not resist. An angel lengthened the scepter so that Esther might touch it: she invited the king to her banquet. Why Haman was invited the Rabbis explain in various ways. She desired to make the king jealous by playing the lover to Haman, which she did at the feast, planning to have him killed even though she should share his fate. At the supreme moment, when she denounced Haman, it was an angel that threw Haman on the couch, though he intended to kneel before the queen; so that the king, suspecting an attempt upon the virtue and life of his queen, forthwith ordered him to be hanged.

To the Rabbis Esther is one of the four most beautiful women ever created. She remained eternally young; when she married Ahasuerus she was at least forty years of age, or even, according to some, eighty years (ה = 5, ם = 60, ד = 4, ה = 5 = 74 years; hence her name "Hadassah"). She is also counted among the prophetesses of Israel.
(see image) Scrolls Of Esther In Silver Cases.(In the United States National Museum, Washington, D. C.)S. S. E. G. H.

—Critical View:

As to the historical value of the foregoing data, opinions differ. Comparatively few modern scholars of note consider the narrative of Esther to rest on an historical foundation. The most important names among the more recent defenders of the historicity of the book are perhaps Hävernick, Keil, Oppert, and Orelli. The vast majority of modern expositors have reached the conclusionthat the book is a piece of pure fiction, although some writers qualify their criticism by an attempt to treat it as a historical romance. The following are the chief arguments showing the impossibility of the story of Esther:

Improbabilities of the Story.

1. It is now generally recognized that the Ahasuerus (), mentioned in Esther, in Ezra iv. 6, and in Dan. ix. 1, is identical with the Persian king known as Xerxes (Ξέρζης, "Khshayarha"), who reigned from 485 to 464 B.C.; but it is impossible to find any historical parallel for a Jewish consort to this king. Some critics formerly identified Esther with Amastris (Ionic, "Amestris"), who is mentioned by Herodotus (viii. 114, ix. 110; compare Ctesias, 20) as the queen of Xerxes at the time when Esther, according to Esth. ii. 6, became the wife of Ahasuerus. Amastris, however, was the daughter of a Persian general and, therefore, not a Jewess. Furthermore, the facts of Amastris' reign do not agree with the Biblical story of Esther. Besides all this, it is impossible to connect the two names etymologically. M'Clymont (Hastings, "Dict. Bible," i. 772) thinks it possible that Esther and Vashti may have been merely the chief favorites of the harem, and are consequently not mentioned in parallel historical accounts.

It is very doubtful whether the haughty Persian aristocracy, always highly influential with the monarch, would have tolerated the choice of a Jewish queen and a Jewish prime minister (Mordecai), to the exclusion of their own class—not to speak of the improbability of the prime ministry of Haman the Agagite, who preceded Mordecai. "Agagite" can only be interpreted here as synonymous with "Amalekite" (compare "Agag," king of the Amalekites, the foe of Saul, I Sam. xv. 8, 20, 32; Num. xxiv. 7; see Agag). Oppert's attempt to connect the term "Agagite" with "Agaz," a Median tribe mentioned by Sargon, can not be taken seriously. The term, as applied to Haman, is a gross anachronism; and the author of Esther no doubt used it intentionally as a fitting name for an enemy of Israel. In the Greek version of Esther, Haman is called a Macedonian.

2. Perhaps the most striking point against the historical value of the Book of Esther is the remarkable decree permitting the Jews to massacre their enemies and fellow subjects during a period of two days. If such an extraordinary event had actually taken place, should not some confirmation of the Biblical account have been found in other records? Again, could the king have withstood the attitude of the native nobles, who would hardly have looked upon such an occurrence without offering armed resistance to their feeble and capricious sovereign? A similar objection may be made against the probability of the first edict permitting Haman the Amalekite to massacre all the Jews. Would there not be some confirmation of it in parallel records? This whole section bears the stamp of free invention.

3. Extraordinary also is the statement that Esther did not reveal her Jewish origin when she was chosen queen (ii. 10), although it was known that she came from the house of Mordecai, who was a professing Jew (iii. 4), and that she maintained a constant communication with him from the harem (iv. 4-17).

4. Hardly less striking is the description of the Jews by Haman as being "dispersed among the people in all provinces of thy kingdom" and as disobedient "to the king's laws" (iii. 8). This certainly applies more to the Greek than to the Persian period, in which the Diaspora had not yet begun and during which there is no record of rebellious tendencies on the part of the Jews against the royal authority.

5. Finally, in this connection, the author's knowledge of Persian customs is not in keeping with contemporary records. The chief conflicting points are as follows:

(a) Mordecai was permitted free access to his cousin in the harem, a state of affairs wholly at variance with Oriental usage, both ancient and modern.

(b) The queen could not send a message to her own husband (!).

(c) The division of the empire into 127 provinces contrasts strangely with the twenty historical Persian satrapies.

(d) The fact that Haman tolerated for a long time Mordecai's refusal to do obeisance is hardly in accordance with the customs of the East. Any native venturing to stand in the presence of a Turkish grand vizier would certainly be severely dealt with without delay.

(e) This very refusal of Mordecai to prostrate himself belongs rather to the Greek than to the earlier Oriental period, when such an act would have involved no personal degradation (compare Gen. xxiii. 7, xxxiii. 3; Herodotus, vii. 136).

(f) Most of the proper names in Esther which are given as Persian appear to be rather of Semitic than of Iranian origin, in spite of Oppert's attempt to explain many of them from the Persian (compare, however, Scheftelowitz, "Arisches im Alten Testament," 1901, i.).

Probable Date.

In view of all the evidence the authority of the Book of Esther as a historical record must be definitely rejected. Its position in the canon among the Hagiographa or "Ketubim" is the only thing which has induced Orthodox scholars to defend its historical character at all. Even the Jews of the first and second centuries of the common era questioned its right to be included among the canonical books of the Bible (compare Meg. 7a). The author makes no mention whatever of God, to whom, in all the other books of the Old Testament, the deliverance of Israel is ascribed. The only allusion in Esther to religion is the mention of fasting (iv. 16, ix. 31). All this agrees with the theory of a late origin for the book, as it is known, for example, from Ecclesiastes, that the religious spirit had degenerated even in Judea in the Greek period, to which Esther, like Daniel, in all probability belongs.

Esther could hardly have been written by a contemporary of the Persian empire, because (1) of the exaggerated way in which not only the splendor of the court, but all the events described, are treated (compare the twelve months spent by the maidens in adorning themselves for the king; the feasts of 187 days, etc., all of which point rather to the past than to a contemporary state of affairs); (2) the uncomplimentary details given about a great Persian king, who is mentioned by name, would not have appeared during his dynasty.

It is difficult to go so far as Grätz, who assignsEsther to an adherent of the Maccabean party in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. The vast difference in religious and moral tone between Esther and Daniel—the latter a true product of Antiochus' reign—seems to make such a theory impossible. Nor is the view of Jensen, followed by Nöldeke, more convincing to the unprejudiced mind. He endeavors to prove that the origin of the whole story lies in a Babylonian-Elamitic myth. He identifies Esther with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (Aphrodite); Mordecai with Marduk, the tutelary deity of Babylon; and Haman with Hamman or Humman, the chief god of the Elamites, in whose capital, Susa, the scene is laid; while Vashti is also supposed to be an Elamite deity. Jensen considers that the Feast of Purim, which is the climax of the book, may have been adapted from a similar Babylonian festival by the Jews, who Hebraized the original Babylonian legend regarding the origin of the ceremonies. The great objection to such a theory is that no Babylonian festival corresponding with the full moon of the twelfth month is known.

The object of Esther is undoubtedly to give an explanation of and to exalt the Feast of Purim, of whose real origin little or nothing is known. See Megillah; Purim.