Esther Chapter 4                             

                                                  Esther is persuaded to act


Esther’s chapter 4[1] describe the Judean exiles’ reactions to Haman’s nefarious decree that allowed Persian citizens to murder every Judean, even women and children, on 13 Adar. According to Jewish tradition, which is not stated in the book of Esther, the decree was promulgated in mid-Nisan, close to a year before the event. Mordecai hears about the decree,[2] clothes himself in sackcloth and ashes,[3] cries a bitterly throughout the city,[4] and comes before the king’s gate.[5] The text does not indicate that he prayed.

Esther is informed how he is dressed and sends a servant, called Hathach,[6] with new clothes.[7] Mordecai tells the servant to inform Esther of Haman’s decree to exterminate Judeans and encourage her to use her influence at court to save her people. In essence, he is saying that while he instructed her previously not to reveal her nationality, she should do so now.[8] She responds that there is a problem with approaching the king. The law forbids people to visit the king unless they are summoned, and she hasn’t been summoned for thirty days.[9] Mordecai warns her that if she doesn’t act “deliverance will come to the Judeans from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish.”[10] She then advises him, without mentioning God, to have every Judean fast for three days “for me.”[11] She does not mention prayer.[12]


Who was Hathach?

Ibn Ezra notes that a “single individual” is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud[13] that Esther’s aid and advisor in the Persian palace, Hathach,[14] was none other than the biblical figure Daniel, about whom one of the biblical books was composed. He served as a messenger between the queen and her uncle. Ibn Ezra rejects this view as impossible. Daniel was exiled with King Jehoiachim from Jerusalem some two centuries earlier, in 597 BCE. Ibn Ezra suggests that the rabbi who made this statement may have meant that Hathach was as wise and trustworthy as the biblical Daniel.

Esther’s fast

We are unable to determine from the book of Esther precisely why she wanted every Judeans to fast and how long the fast should be. We also do not know why she wanted her female servants to fast with her; they were apparently not Judeans. Was the fast’s purpose to petition God for help[15] or was there another reason? Why did Esther feel that the fast would only be effective if every Judean fasted? Suppose one or more Judean in Persia did not fast, would this affect the outcome? Why just require Judeans in Persia to fast, why not also send emissaries to Judea and the rest of the world asking them to join in the fast? Wouldn’t a fast destroy Esther’s beauty and be counter-productive? Did Esther fast for three consecutive days without eating at night?

Ibn Ezra understands “three days” in 4:16 as a fast without interruption for two days and nights until the third day. He wrote this in his first of his two commentaries on Esther, but a commentator[16] on ibn Ezra understood his second commentary as saying, as does Midrash Rabbah, that she fasted only during the day for three days. Ibn Ezra adds in his first commentary that Esther had more faith in God than in her beauty. Although she realized that a fast would mar her beauty she fasted to beg for God’s help.


The Greek Septuagint that adds much in its translation of the Hebrew Bible’s version of this tale inserts three extended supplements between chapters four and five. The first is Mordecai’s prayer to God in which he states that his refusal to bow to Haman was not due to personal pride but his reluctance to give a human the kind of respect due to God. Although there are many instances where Jews bowed to people and this excuse is weak, the rabbis copied it into Midrashic literature and it was placed in the later second Targum.

The second appendage is Esther’s prayer begging for mercy for her people. She describes how she hates being in the palace and insists that she is there only because she was taken by force and she was made the wife of a man she despises against her will. She mentions that she never ate the palace food, dislikes the clothes she is required to wear, and recognizes that help comes only from God.

The third insert is an expanded version of her entrance to the king.



[1] This is the only chapter, except for the three verses in chapter 10, the books epilogue, which does not refer to banqueting (Fuerst, page 64).

[2] Rashi supposes that Mordecai discovered the decree in a dream.

[3] Sackcloth and ashes are an outward sign of mourning, as in Jonah 3:6. Scholars note that we have no idea how Mordecai used the ashes: did he place them on himself and, if so where? Did he lie down on ashes? Paton, Anderson, and others see Mordecai performing a religious act, but “it may just have been a conventional way of expressing grief and humiliation (see II Kings 18:37, Job 7:5, Genesis 37:29)” (Moore, page 47).

[4] He wanted to alert non-Judeans about Haman’s despicable and immoral plan with the hope that they would rally to aid the Judeans (A. Chacham, page 29). This plan failed.

[5] He does not enter the court yard because it is indecent to do so in sackcloth (Rashi) it is insulting to the king (ibn Ezra).

[6] Hathach is described as “one of the king’s chamberlains,” not one of hers. Should we suppose that he was a superior to her chamberlains? Why did she use him?

[7] Since individuals wearing sackcloth could not enter the king’s gate, Esther sent new raiments so that he might enter and communicate with her (Cohen, page 215). Esther thought at first that he was robbed of his possessions and clothes (Gersonides).

[8] There is an apparent problem here. While the verses state that Esther sent a single messenger to Mordecai, verse 12 indicates “they told to Mordecai Esther’s words,” using the plural. Several answers are possible. As I pointed out in earlier books, the Hebrew Bible frequently uses the plural when a singular is intended and vice versa. It is also possible that Hathach, being a high ranking official, did not think he should lower himself to being a mere messenger and sent several underlings to fulfill Esther’s request.

[9] Does this imply that Ahasuerus lost his ardor for Esther after being married to her for five years (Fuerst, page 64)? Or, was she informing Mordecai that the king hadn’t summoned her for thirty days and he should do so again shortly, so why hurry and put herself in danger (A Chacham, page 32). Gersonides imagines that Esther mentioned the law forbidding entrance to the king unless summoned to inform Mordecai that his proposed solution is not as easy as he may suppose; she thought that once he realizes the danger, he would develop another plan. Since the execution decree was eleven months in the future, what was the hurry? This may have been a literary device to add suspense to the plot. Note the use of three in thirty days and three days of fasting; three appears frequently in biblical tales.

[10] Since in later rabbinic literature, rabbis used the Hebrew makom, “place,” to refer to God since God is in every place, rabbis saw here an anachronistic illusion to God: if you do not act, God will still save the Jews, but will punish you (Targums and Midrash Rabbah). The statement “you and your father’s house will perish is ambiguous. It certainly does not mean other relatives because she had no family that we know of other than Mordecai. It could mean that if you do not act, you as a Judean will be killed with the other Judeans, or you and I will be killed, or with your death, you being the only survivor of your father’s house, his house will be whipped out.

[11] When Esther states “for me,” was she focusing overmuch on herself rather than the national Judean peril, or did she mean fast so that I can be successful and save our people?

[12] Her preparations are dissimilar to those of Judith in chapter 9 of this non-biblical book, for Judith prayed. However, since prayer often accompanied fasting, at least some Jews must have prayed, as in Jeremiah 14:12, I Samuel 7:6, and elsewhere (Moore, page 47).

[13] Megillah 15a.

[14] In 4:5.

[15] As Gersonides supposes.

[16] Rabbi Moshe ben YItzchak Halav whose commentary is in Megillat Esther im Perushei Harishonim.