Ibn Ezra on Esther 4-6


Esther’s chapters 4-6 describe the Judean[1] exiles’ reactions to Haman’s decree that allowed Persian citizens to murder every Judean on 13 Adar.[2] According to Jewish tradition, which is not stated in the book of Esther, the decree was promulgated in mid-Nisan, some ten months before the event. Mordecai encourages his niece, Queen Ether, to use her influence at court to save her people. She advises him, without mentioning God, to have every Judean fast for three days. 

His commentary on these chapters reveals not only clever out-of the-box thinking, but also some contradictory thoughts and the insertion of notions into his commentary that he believed were untrue, but added simply to supply some spice to his writing.


Who was Hathach?

Ibn Ezra notes that a “single individual” is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud[3] that Esther’s aid and advisor in the Persian palace, Hathach[4] was none other than the biblical figure Daniel, about whom one of the biblical books was composed. He served as a go-between 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. 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. Was the fast’s purpose to petition God for help 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 fast without interruption for two days and nights until the third day in his first commentary, but a commentator[5] on ibn Ezra understand his second commentary to say 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.


Why did Esther require the king and Haman to come to a party before revealing her concern?

Ibn Ezra does not discuss this puzzling question. Rashi refers to the Babylonian Talmud[6] and supposes that she was trying to make her husband jealous of Haman and want to kill him. Chachmei Tzarfat[7] suggests that she felt she needed to speak to her husband when his officials, many of whom supported Haman, were not present and could not help Haman.

Rashi states, without any source, that Esther told Ahasuerus that she will reveal her ancestry to him at the feast, a request he had constantly made to her. Ibn Ezra and Chachmei Tzarfat state she told him that she would reveal her request.


Why did Haman brag about his sons?

After being invited with the king to Esther’s private party, Haman returned home assembled his friends and his wife and told them how the king elevated him to high office above other officials, his successes, his sons, and that Queen Esther invited him to join the king in her private meal.

Ibn Ezra notes that some people questioned why Haman would speak to his wife and friends about his wealth and sons, surely they knew about it? These people answer that he was bragging about his sons’ successes. Ibn Ezra reads Haman’s statement as a lament: even though I have been raised to high office, am wealthy, have successful sons, and am even invited to Esther’s feast, these successes are diminished because the Judean Mordecai also has some official recognition in that he sits in the king’s courtyard as a judge.


Haman’s wife’s response

Haman’s wife and friends suggested that Haman build a gallows fifty amot high[8] and ask the king for permission to hang Mordecai on it. Ignoring that the advice is not only from Haman’s wife, but also his friends, and the irony that Haman will be hung from this gallows, ibn Ezra egregiously states, women generally react emotionally without considering consequences.


Haman thinks

Haman rushes to the king to request permission to hang Mordecai, but is surprised to hear the king ask him what reward should be given a person who the king wants to honor. He doesn’t know that the king had just been reminded that he failed to honor Mordecai for saving his life by revealing a conspiracy to kill him. “Haman said in his heart: ‘who would the king delight to honor other than me?’” He gave the king advice he thought was appropriate for him.

Ibn Ezra asks in his second commentary: how could the author of Esther know what Haman was thinking? He responded: the author wrote what he thought Haman was thinking.[9]

This practice of putting words into the mouth or mind of historical figures, even though it is clear that the author didn’t know what was said or thought, was a common ancient practice. The first historians Herodotus and Thucydides did so in the third century BCE. Even the Jewish historian Josephus did so around 100 CE.  This practice helped readers understand what was happening. Current historians also offer this information but state or at least imply that it is their opinion.


The king’s crown

Haman’s suggestion is in 6:8, dress the honoree in the king’s clothes, ride him on the king’s horse, “and set on his head a crown royal.” Ibn Ezra notes that some feel the order of items in the verse is wrong; the crown belongs as part of the king’s clothes. However, he felt that the order is proper; the crown was placed on the horse’s head to show it was the king’s horse.


Rejected commentaries

Haman’s wife’s and his wise men’s comment in 6:13 is an example of ibn Ezra inserting an explanations in his commentary that he reject in order to add spice to his work.. They tell him, if Mordecai is “of the seed of the Judeans, you will not prevail against him.” This is a strange comment since they knew that Mordecai was a Judean.[10] Ibn Ezra does not offer his own explanation but states that others say that it means, “If he is of the seed of those who destroyed Agag and Amalek”[11] or “if he is a pure-blood Judean and not a convert.” Since he writes “others say” and had previously rejected the notion that Mordecai was a descendant of King Saul[12] and the differentiation of pure-blood Jews from converts is ridiculous, it is clear that ibn Ezra did not agree with this view.


[1] As I noted previously, Jews were called Judeans during this period because most of them were from the tribe Judah who lived in Judea. Later Judean was shortened to Jew.

[2] While Jews today use these names for their months, these names were Persian. Jews adopted them despite their origin and although some suggested pagan deities or were explicitly named after a deity, such as Tamuz. The Bible titles the months fist month, second month, etc.

[3] Megillah 15a.

[4] In 4:5.

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

[6] Megillah 15b.

[7] In Megillat Esther im Perushei Harishonim.

[8] About 75 feet, an obvious exaggeration.

[9] As I pointed out in the past, ibn Ezra sometimes contradicts himself. In this instance he says in his first commentary that the book of Esther was composed by divine inspiration and God knows all.

[10] As indicated in 5:13.

[11] A reference to King Saul in I Samuel 15:7 and 8.

[12] In his commentary to 2:5.