Ibn Ezra on Esther – Part 1


Ibn Ezra wrote two commentaries on the biblical book Esther. The first published was a short version. His long version was not printed until about 150 years ago.[1] Both contain clever interpretations of the Esther drama. However, he also included some legendary material to add spice to his commentary, ideas he did not believe, and since he was constantly traveling and probably lacked books, his commentary has some contradictory explanations.


Ibn Ezra notes that this biblical book does not mention of God. It also doesn’t say that it was God who saved the Judeans from Haman’s machinations. Some people claim that Mordecai’s warning to Esther, if you do not help, help will come “mi’makom achier,” is Mordechai informing her that God will bring salvation even if she does not act. These people argue that makom, literally “place,” is used as a synonym for God is in many verses. But, says ibn Ezra, while makom may signify God in post-biblical literature, it never does in the Bible. He explains that God is missing because Mordecai composed the book at the bequest of King Ahasuerus to be placed as an historical document in the Persian royal archive. Since the archive officials were idol worshippers they would change the divine name to the name of their idol.[2]

Ibn Ezra was convinced that the Ahasuerus of Esther is the Ahasuerus II (who reigned from 464-424) mentioned in Ezra 4:6, who is called Artaxerxes in 4:7.[3] He was 62 years old. Other scholars say that Ahasuerus was Artaxeres’s father Xerxes (who reigned from 485-464).[4]

He made a celebration during the third year of his reign after, ibn Ezra supposes, he successfully concluded his wars of conquest, as a celebration of his marriage to Vashti or, being an anti-Semite, he was rejoicing over the defeat of the Judeans: he wrongly calculated the prediction of the prophet Jeremiah that the Judeans would return from their exile after 70 years; he saw by his wrong calculation that 70 years had passed and the prediction was wrong. Ahasuerus made his party in the outside courtyard, but his wife Vashti had he celebration inside the palace because “it is not fitting that men and women should be together” at a party.

Ibn Ezra offers two reasons why Vashti refused to appear before Ahasuerus when he ordered her appearance: she was concerned what could happen since Ahasuerus was drunk, but he recognizes that a Midrash[5] states that the angel Gabriel put a leprous dot on her face and she was ashamed to show herself in this condition.[6]

Ahasuerus consulted astrologer to determine what to do with his wife. There is an unsupported tradition[7] that Memucan who advised Ahasuerus to dispose of Vashti was Haman. He writes that the rabbis may be highlighting an irony that evil Haman created his own downfall, for Vashti’s successor was Esther who brought about his death.

Verse 1:23 states that Ahasuerus ordered two things: men should rule their homes and speak according to the language of their people.[8] Ibn Ezra suggests that Ahasuerus added the second order, which had nothing to do with Vashti, so that he wouldn’t appear ridiculous to his people: that he only issued the decree because his wife failed to obey him.

The book describes Mordecai as ish Yehudi, which many think means “Jewish.” However, ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, and other commentators explain that it means Judean. As Rashi put it “All who were exiled with the kingdom of Judea were called Judeans by the non-Judeans, even if they were from another tribe.[9] Verse 5 states Mordecai was the son of Kish. The Babylonian Talmud[10] identifies this Kish as the father of King Saul, which ibn Ezra rebuffs.  Kish and Saul lived about five centuries before Mordecai and, additionally, if the book wanted to give Mordecai pedigree it would have mentioned the king not his father. Ibn Ezra feels that Mordecai had an official position as a judge that allowed him entry into the palace courtyard before Esther was made a queen. The Persian court believed him when he reported that two conspirators wanted to kill Ahasuerus because they knew he had served on the high court in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin.

Verse 6 states that he was part of the exile of King Jehoiachin from Judea. Jehoiachin was succeeded by Zedekia, who ruled for eleven years until the Babylonians destroyed Judea and its temple in 586 BCE. If Ahasuerus of Esther is the Ahasuerus II, called Artaxerxes who reigned from 464-424, Mordecai would be over 150 years old. Ibn Ezra contends he was older than 90. He mentions a rabbinical view that Mordecai and Esther were married, but since this is contrary to the plain meaning of the story, of Ahasuerus seeking a young virgin, ibn Ezra may have mentioned this notion only to add spark to his commentary.

Mordecai told Esther not to reveal that she was a Judean, according to ibn Ezra, because if she told officials that she was a Judean, she wouldn’t have been chosen as the queen. He and others, such as Gersonides, suggest that this idea came to Mordecai as a prophecy or dream. Ibn Ezra also wrote that by not revealing her identity she could more easily observe Jewish laws such as the Sabbath. Isaac ben Moses Arama failed to see the logic: how would Esther not revealing that she was a Judean make it easier for her to observe Jewish practices?

When Mordecai told Ether that Haman planned to murder all Judeans, Esther requested that Mordecai arrange that all Judeans fast for three days. Ibn Ezra notes that the book of Esther does not reveal when the fast began. However there is an opinion in the Babylonian Talmud[11] that the fast began on 13 Nisan, which meant that the Judeans violated a biblical law to eat matzah on15 Nisan. Curiously, he writes that even if this Talmudic opinion is correct, the Judeans would not have violated the Torah command, for the Torah command to eat matzah on the 15th only applies in Israel; Jews eat matzah outside Israel only to remember the biblical law.[12] This view is problematical even though it reflects a Talmudic opinion[13] because ibn Ezra takes the opposite view that eating matzah outside of Israel is a biblical command in his commentary to Exodus 12:15, 23:15, and his book Sod Moreh 4.


                      I will summarize some of ibn Ezra’s views in chapters 4-10 in a few days.


[1] This essay is based on Megillat Esther im perushei harishonim, Mossad HaRav Kook, 2006. It contains the two versions and the commentaries of nine others and the two Aramaic Targums on Esther with a translation into Hebrew.

[2] This is certainly clever but, asks Isaac ben Moses Arama (1420-1494), the author of the commentary Akedat Yitzchak, if there was such a fear, why was God’s name deleted from the biblical books Daniel and Ezra.

[3] Rashi also accepts this dating.

[4] Encyclopedia Judaica.

[5] In Babylonian Talmud Megillah 12b.

[6] The Talmud explains that she was punished for forcing Jewish women who worked for her to work on Shabbat.

[7] In Megillah 12b.

[8] Presumably forcing wives to speak their husband’s language.

[9] Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin. The term Judean was latter shortened to Jew.

[10] Megillah 13b.

[11] Megillah 15a.

[12] Nachmanides had this view: all biblical laws were mandated only for Israel; outside of Israel Jews obey these laws only by rabbinical decree. Commentary to Leviticus 18:25, Deuteronomy 11:18 and Sermon on the Words of Kohelet.

[13] In Pesachim 120a.