The fascinating story of Esther begins in that part of the world that we now know as Iran, during the Achaemenid Dynasty of the Persian Empire, around the 4th century BCE. By that time, the Jewish diaspora was well established and groups of exiles could be found living in Persia. Esther’s parents were dead, and she was raised by her older cousin, Mordecai, who was like a father to her. Her story is found in the Old Testament of the Bible in the Book of Esther and it narrates the origins of the holiday of Purim.
The Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) or “The Story of Purim”
The Persian empire was ruled by King Ahasuerus who was looking for a new beautiful wife. Reluctantly, Esther was included in the group of young women to be considered. The king immediately fell for her, and she was made queen, all the while keeping the fact that she was Jewish hidden from him. One day, Mordecai overheard a plot being hatched to murder the king. Mordecai got word to the king and the plot was thwarted sparing the king’s life.
Haman, a prime minister of King Ahasuerus, was offended when Mordecai, who was a very proud man, refused to bow to him as was decreed by the king’s order. Haman decided that he would take revenge not just against Mordecai, but against all Jews, by exterminating them. He threw “lots” to determine the lucky day for the massacre, and it was the 13th day of the month of Adar on the Hebrew calendar. Haman told the king of his plans and the king gave him his blessing.
Mordecai told Esther that she had to do something to stop this massacre and that she herself would not be safe even though she lived in the royal palace. Esther told Mordecai to gather all the Jews in the area and have them fast for 3 days after which time, she would approach the king. Although she had not been summoned by him, after 3 days Esther bravely went to the king’s chambers with the knowledge that she could be killed for such an unauthorized intrusion. Fortunately, King Ahasuerus was quite happy to see his beautiful queen and asked her what she wanted. She invited the King and his Prime Minister, Haman, to a feast that she had prepared for the next day.
At the feast, the king again asked Esther if she had a request and she told him that she would like to invite him and Haman to attend another feast of food and wine the following day and she would make her request then. Haman was very honored to be included in this royal fete. But when he left he saw Mordecai who again would not bow to him and he became furious and was compelled by his advisors to build a gallows to hang Mordecai the next day and to go to the king with his plan.
That night, the king was reminded that Mordecai had saved his life and that he had done nothing in return to thank him. When Haman came to ask his permission to hang Mordecai, the king first asked him what he should do to honor someone. Thinking that the king meant how he could honor him, Haman explained that the person should be dressed in royal garments, given a royal horse, and told to ride through the streets of the city proclaiming that he has the special honor of the king. The king rather liked that idea and told Haman to make it so for Mordecai whom he wanted to honor for saving his life.
Haman was chagrined, but carried out the kings wishes the next day. After the ceremony, he went to the second feast with the king and queen. Queen Esther revealed to the king that she herself was a Jew and begged him to save her people from the annihilation planned by Haman and incited by his hatred of the Jewish people. When the king discovered that Haman had already built a gallows upon which he planned to hang Mordecai, he declared that “the tables had turned” and Haman himself would be hanged there.
More tables turned after that: Mordecai was made Prime Minister and Esther was given Haman’s estate. But the decree Haman had had the king set forth – to exterminate all the Jews – was still in place and could not be removed. Instead, Mordecai and Esther had the king set forth another decree that the Jews could fight against their oppressors. And on the 13th of Adar, the day Haman was to begin his massacre, the Jews fought back and killed their would be murderers including all the sons of Haman. The next day was a big a joyous celebration of freedom that became the holiday of Purim (literally meaning “lots” in Hebrew), on the 14th day of Adar, and is commemorated with feasts of food and wine around the world today.