Purim – Personalities of Purim


The book of Esther recounts the deliverance of the Israelites from the genocidal decree of Haman through a mix of political intrigue and divine intervention. This article will focus on the main personalities of this story with particular emphasis on their roles in this divine plan and their names in Hebrew as expounded in the Talmud and Midrash.


The genocidal decree and the deliverance involve the following:

  • Hashem – who allowed the decree and guaranteed deliverance from the decree.
  • Gentiles – Ahasuerus who authorized the decree and Haman who suggested it.
  • Israelites – Mordecai and Esther, with Hashem’s help, overturned the decree and saved the Israelites.    


The Talmud (Megillah 10b-11a) provides several thematic approaches to the context of Purim based upon verses in scripture. For sake of brevity, the author will provide one example of the decree and one for the deliverance from the divine perspective.


The Talmud (ibid. 10b) quotes Deuteronomy 28:63, “It will be, just as Hashem rejoiced over you for your benefit and increase, so will Hashem cause to others (i.e. your enemies) to rejoice (when they plan) to annihilate and destroy you.” This verse implies that Hashem will allow enemies of Israel to plan genocidal decrees against the Israelites and permit them to enjoy their initial implementation.


Hashem has guaranteed the survival of the Israelites, albeit with potential losses, as the verse states (Leviticus 26:44), “But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor reject them to annihilate them, thereby annulling My covenant with them, for I am Hashem their G-d.” The Talmud (Megillah 11a) interprets the expression “to annihilate them” as referring to Haman’s decree and the guarantee of deliverance by Mordecai and Esther.      

Sin of Israelites

Based upon the principle of measure for measure (Sotah 8b), divine corrective action must be commensurate with the severity and nature of the transgression. Therefore the Talmud (Megillah 12a) and Midrash (Songs of Songs 7.8.1 or 7.13) pose the question, “What sin precipitated the decree of annihilation (through the decree of Haman)?” These sources provide the following answers:

  1. Denial of Hashem – They bowed to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar except for Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
  2. Eating – They enjoyed the feast of Ahasuerus.

Appendix 1 analyzes the nature of these sins and how they impacted Haman’s decree. 


As mentioned above, Hashem will allow gentiles to plan against the Israelites as a result of sin. In the case of Purim, Hashem thwarted this plan which prompts the following question, “If Hashem will thwart the plan, why did Hashem allow the plan in the first place?” The Talmud (Megillah 14a) addresses this question and wryly comments, “The removal of the signet ring of Ahasuerus which confirmed Haman’s decree (Esther 3:10) was greater than the work of 48 (major) prophets and 7 prophetesses in Israel. These prophets were unable to convince the Israelites to return to Hashem whereas removal of the signet ring caused the Israelites to return to Hashem (through fasting and prayers (Esther 4:3)).   

Similarly the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) notes that the Israelites accepted the Torah willingly at the time of Purim as an expression of gratitude to Hashem for their deliverance. By contrast at Mount Sinai the Israelites accepted the Torah under coercion by Hashem. Hence these decrees that were initially feared by the Israelites were in fact beneficial for them leading to a return to Hashem and completion of the second temple in Jerusalem.      


After Ahasuerus issued his decree, the Israelites were shaken and prayed to Hashem (Esther4:3). However there was no clear consensus on a plan to overturn the decree. As described in the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:14), the spirit of Elijah the prophet appeared to Mordecai in a dream and informed him that the decree may be overturned by returning to Hashem with righteous Mordecai acting as the leader of the Israelites. The Midrash, using a metaphor, explains that the divine decree was written on clay which can be easily broken. If the decree were written in blood there would be much suffering.

As a result of this clay decree, Mordecai realized that he must take the initiative through prayer as well as political intrigue. Therefore he informed Esther that she must see the king and plead for mercy (Esther 4:8). In fact he assured her that the Israelites would be saved (ibid. 4:14) but if she refused to approach the king then she would perish (ibid.) because she was chosen by Hashem as queen for this role (ibid.).      


The article will now focus on the main personalities of Purim and their names:

  • Ahasuerus (אחשורוש), King of Persia, who initially approved the genocidal plan of Haman (Esther 3:11-14) and later recanted through the pleading of Esther (ibid. 7:8-13).  
  • Haman – adviser to Ahasuerus who conceived the genocidal plan (ibid. 3:6-7) and convinced the king to accept it (ibid. 3:8-10). After the king recanted Haman was hung (ibid. 7:7-10).
  • Mordecai – leader of Israelites (ibid. 2:5) and cousin of Esther (ibid. 2:7) who advised Esther to plead with the king to rescue the Israelites (ibid. 4:7-14). After the execution of Haman, the king appointed Mordecai as viceroy (ibid. 10:3).  
  • Esther – Queen of Persia (ibid. 2:17) and heroine of the rescue of the Israelites through her intervention and intrigue (ibid. 5:4 and 7:3-10). Hence the scroll is called “Megillah of Esther”.


Both the Talmud (Megillah 11a) and Midrash (Esther Rabbah 1:1 and 1:3) use different techniques to expound on the name of אחשורוש without reference to the Pentateuch, as follows:

  • Split the name into 2 words with letters omitted.
  • Letter substitution.
  • Permutation of letters.

 By contrast the Talmud (Hullin 139b) finds a hint to the remaining 3 personalities of Purim in the Pentateuch using different techniques as follows:

  • Haman (המן) – same letters but different vowels.
  • Mordecai (מרדכי) – same letters in Aramaic.
  • Esther (אסתר) – similar letters in Hebrew.


Ahasuerus (אחשורוש)


As mentioned above his role was:

  • Approve the decree.
  • Later recant.

Hence his name in Hebrew alludes to these different roles through the techniques listed above.


 Approve the Decree

Split the name

For each of the following derivations, the Talmud and Midrash split the name of (אחשורוש) into two words, albeit with some letters omitted. For example אחשורוש may be interpreted as אח (woe) and רוש (poor) leaving out the letters שו (Megillah 11a) meaning that the Israelites became poorer through excessive taxation (e.g. Esther 10:1).   

Letter substitution

In addition to spitting the word, both the Talmud and Midrash replace the letter vav (ו) with an aleph (א) to obtain אח (brother or woe) and ראש (head of state), which leads to the following interpretations:

  • Brother to king.
  • Woe because of the king or woe to the king.
Brother to King

The Talmud and Midrash describe Ahasuerus as a kindred spirit (literally a brother) to Nebuchadnezzar in that both were despots over the Israelites and sought to harm them (Lamentations 4:9 and Esther 3:10-14 respectively). In addition both were responsible for impairing the temple. The former king ordered its destruction (2 Kings 25:9) and the latter king ordered the cessation of rebuilding the temple (Ezra 4:6) thereby overturning the order of King Cyrus to build it. Hence the Talmud and Midrash initially see Ahasuerus as an enemy of the Israelites leading to the next interpretation.


The Talmud interprets the word אח (woe as in Ezekiel 6:11) and the word ראש (as referring to head or persons of the Israelites or Ahasuerus as head of state for his evil plans). Hence these sources interpret the name as bringing evil upon the world. 

The Midrash (ibid.) similarly substitutes letters to obtain כחש (weakened) and וראש (head) meaning that Ahasuerus weakened the heads (people) of Israel through fasts (Esther 4:16). In this case the Midrash replaces the letter aleph (א) with chaf (כ).  

Note: Although the Talmud and Midrash do not include the letter vav (ו) which means “and” in their derivations, the author has sometimes included this letter to use all of the letters of the name אחשורוש. 

Permutation of Letters

In addition to splitting the word, both the Talmud and Midrash permute letters to obtain additional meanings. For example, the Talmud (ibid.) takes the name אחשורוש and through transformation obtains אש (fire) and ושחור (black) meaning that through the decrees of Ahasuerus the faces of the Israelites became as black as a pot on fire. 

Later Recant

Based on the commentary Ben Yehoyada written by Rabbi Yosef Chaim a leading scholar of Bagdad in the 19th century, the author would like to add that the name אחשורוש could be rearranged as אחר (afterwards) and ושוש (rejoicing) meaning that the Israelites rejoiced (וששן) after the decrees of Haman were overturned (Esther 8:15). In addition the rejoicing may refer to the celebration of Purim with joy even to the present time. Hence this king caused hardship for the Israelites which eventually turned to joy, all alluded in his name אחשורוש.

Haman (המן)


As mentioned above his role was:

  • Ensnare the Israelites at the feast.
  • Formulate the decree of genocide. 

Hence his name in Hebrew alludes to these different roles through a word and concept association linking Haman to Adam’s sin of eating from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3:11).


Word Level

At a word level, the letters of Haman (המן) are the same as from (המן) the tree (העץ) in Genesis 3:11 when Hashem asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” In scripture Hebrew words are written without vowels allowing the sages to link words with similar letters even though the pronunciation is different. (This linkage only applies to Hebrew letters which is the divine language of scripture).    

Concept Level 

At a conceptual level the decree of Haman relates to the sin of Adam as follows:  

  • Sin – Denial of Hashem and eating.
  • Death.
Denial of Hashem

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) comments on Genesis 3:9 when Hashem asked Adam after eating from the tree of knowledge, “Where are you?” At a literal level the question is rhetorical. However in a moral sense, the Talmud understands that Adam thought that he could hide from Hashem (ibid. 3:8 and 10). Therefore the Talmud compares Adam to a heretic in a homiletic sense.  Similarly the Israelites sinned by attending the fest of Ahasuerus which celebrated the destruction of the temple which is tantamount to denying Hashem and His promises.


Adam’s sin was based upon eating from the tree of knowledge (ibid. 3:6). Similarly the eating at this feast brought divine retribution upon the Israelites.  


Both Adam’s sin and the sin of the Israelites led to a decree of death (ibid. 2:17 and Esther 3:13, respectively).

Letters of Haman’s Name (המן)   

Haman is the only one of the personalities of Purim, discussed in this article; whose exact name, in terms of the letters, occurs in the Pentateuch. The author will therefore expound on other examples of the word (המן) to find additional links to the Purim story. The following table shows the theme of the mention of these letters, verse of the first mention, and number of times in the Torah.

Adam’s sinGenesis 3:111
MannaExodus 16:355
Moses hit the rockNumbers 20:101
Adam’s Sin

As mentioned above, Adam sinned against Hashem by eating from the tree of knowledge and brought death to the world.


The Torah states (Exodus 16:35), “The children of Israel ate the manna (המן) for 40 years until they came to an inhabited land. They ate the manna (המן) until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.” In regard to the manna, Hashem said to Moses (ibid. 16:4), “Behold! I shall rain down for you food from heaven. The people shall go out and gather what is needed for the day, so that I can test them, whether or not they will follow My (divine) teaching.” Hence the manna has the themes of eating and following Hashem’s commandments. In fact the Torah mentions the displeasure of Moses with the Israelites (ibid. 16:20) when they did not follow Hashem’s command and attempted to store the manna for the next day, “Some men did not obey Moses and left over some of it until morning. It became infested with worms and became putrid, and Moses became angry with them.”

In addition to sin, the manna could lead to death as the Torah relates in chapter 11 of Numbers. When the Israelites complained about the blandness of the manna (ibid. 11:6), Hashem promised to bring quail to the Israelites (ibid. 18-20). However since the Israelites demonstrated a contempt for the gift of manna Hashem struck them with a might blow of death (ibid. 33).           

Moses Hit the Rock

After the death of Miriam (Numbers 20:1), the Israelites complained about a lack of water (ibid.  20:2). Hashem commanded Moses to take his staff, assemble the congregation, and speak to the rock to bring forth water (ibid. 20:8). In his anger Moses (ibid. 20:10) said to the rebellious Israelites, “Now listen, you rebels (Rashi also translates as fools), can we draw water for you from this rock ( המן הסלע )?” Moses in his frustration hit the rock instead of speaking to it (ibid. 20:11). Since he did not follow Hashem’s command to speak to the rock he was punished by Hashem to die and be buried outside the land of Israel (Numbers 20:12 and Deuteronomy 32:50-52). Hence we see that the word ‘from” or in Hebrew (המן) in this passage alludes to the themes of food (water), sin (not following Hashem’s command) and death (outside the land of Israel).    

The following table summarizes the common themes of these verses food, sin, and death.

Adam’s sinTree of Knowledge
Moses hitting the rockWater
Feast of Ahasuerus Food and drink

Haman’s Death

In addition to themes of sin and death for the Israelites, the same applies to Haman based upon the verse in Genesis 3:11 which mentions his name (המן) and tree (העץ) and the verse in Esther 7:10, “They hanged Haman (המן) on the gallows (העץ) that he had prepared for Mordecai.”   

Mordecai (מרדכי)


As mentioned above his role was:

  • Rescue the Israelites from the decree of genocide.
  • Acts as the spiritual and political leader of the Israelites.  

Hence his name alludes to these different roles through an allusion to his name via an Aramaic translation of an expression in Exodus 30:23 in reference to the anointing oil.


The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:2) compares Mordecai to Moses because both saved their generation from destruction. Moses saved the Israelites by pleading to Hashem after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32:10-14). Mordecai saved his people from destruction by instructing Esther to plead with Ahasuerus (Esther 4:13-14). In addition Mordecai uncovered a plot to kill the king (ibid. 2:21-23). This incident later moved the king to look favourably on him and his people (ibid. 6:10) because the king acknowledged that Mordecai was a Jew.


The connection of Mordecai to spices of the anointing oil indicates that Mordecai was destined for greatness because a king, when beginning his dynasty, is similarly anointed. The book of Esther (2:5) calls Mordecai a great man (איש) as leader of his generation and similarly the Torah calls Moses a great man (איש) (Numbers 12:3) as leader of his generation. In addition Mordecai taught Torah to his generation as the verse (Esther 9:30) says, “He (Mordecai) sent letters to all the Jews … in the realm of Ahasuerus, words of peace and truth (Torah).”     


Since the name Mordecai (מרדכי) does not appear in the Pentateuch, the Talmud (Hullin 139b) finds an allusion to his name in an Aramaic translation. When discussing the components of the anointing oil, the Torah (Exodus ibid.) first mentions “Pure myrrh or in Hebrew (מר דרור )”. In Aramaic the expression “pure myrrh” is written מירא דכיא. When finding allusions in the Torah one may omit certain letters especially silent letters (in this case י and א). Hence when leaving out these letters, the remaining letters in sequence exactly spell out Mordecai (מרדכי). Similarly the Targum on Esther 2:5 comments that Mordecai is compared to pure myrrh ( מירא דכיא ). This verse also alludes to the greatness of Mordecai because the words preceding “pure myrrh” are “finest spices” (בשמים ראש). The word ראש connotes greatness alluding to Mordecai’s position at the head of the kingdom as viceroy (Esther 10:3).        

The Maharsha (on Chullin 139b) points out that even though Mordecai had other names, the Megillah only uses the name of Mordecai to reflect his greatness as “head of spices”. Outside of the book of Esther, Mordecai is called “Mordecai Bilshan” where the verses (Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7) indicate that Mordecai travelled to Israel. The Talmud (Menachot 65a) explains that the name Bilshan (בלשן) indicates that Mordecai could combine (בייל) different languages (לישני) and interpret them. In addition (ibid.) he was called Petachya (פתחיה) meaning opening of Hashem because he would open (פתח) (i.e. elucidate difficult topics) and interpret them with the help of Hashem (י-ה). These skills of language and elucidation helped him as viceroy to Ahasuerus.

Role in Exile

The Book of Esther calls Mordecai, as מרדכי היהודי (literally Mordecai the Jew or Judean) in 6 different verses (viz. Esther 5:13, 6:10, 8:7, 9:29, 9:31, and 10:3). Appendix 2 – Mordecai the Jew describes his role in exile based upon these 6 verses. It is interesting to note that Mordecai is the only person in the bible who is given the title היהודי. After the destruction of the first temple the word יהודים is used several times in the bible to describe the Jews because most of the Israelites were from the tribe of Judah (יהודה). However the opening letter of ה in the word היהודי indicates that Mordecai was a Jew par excellence.

Both the Talmud (Megillah 13a) and Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:2) comment on this title because the term היהודי indicates that Mordecai was a member of the tribe of Judah. However in fact he was from the tribe of Benjamin as the verse states (Esther 2:5), “There was a Judean man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordecai … a Benjamite (i.e. from the tribe of a Benjamin).”   

The Talmud asks, “Why the verse calls him a Yehudi (יהודי) (implying that he was from the tribe of Judah?” The Talmud provides several answers as follows:

  • Honourary titles.
  • Family lineage.
  • Repudiates idolatry.

Honourary Titles

Mordecai was called a Yehudi because he was given honourary consideration as a member in the tribe of Judah. Since the kings of Israel are usually descendants of King David from the tribe of Judah (Maimonides Laws of Kings 1:7), Mordecai as leader of his generation was named a Yehudi.  

Family Lineage

Although Mordecai’s father was from the tribe of Benjamin, his mother was from the tribe of Judah hence the name Yehudi. Membership in a tribe follows patrilineal descent based upon Numbers 1:2 and Talmud Bava Batra 109b.

Repudiate Idolatry

Anyone who repudiates idolatry is called Yehudi (יהודי) because he declares the oneness (יחידי) of Hashem. The words יהודי and יחידי have similar spellings because the letter pairs (ה and ח) and (ו and י) have a comparable shape and pronunciation.

The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:2) compares Mordecai to Abraham as both were unique individuals in their generations. In this case the Midrash interprets the word Yehudi (יהודי) as unique (יחידי) in reference to Mordecai in addition to the uniqueness of Hashem. Just as Abraham was prepared to offer his life instead of worshipping idols at the time of Nimrod so Mordecai refused to bow down to the idolatrous image that Haman wore (Esther 3:2). In addition just as Abraham influenced people to abandon idolatry so many gentiles converted to Judaism at the  time of Mordecai (Esther 8:17).   

Esther (אסתר)   


Esther is unique among the personalities of Purim in that the Megillah (Esther 2:7) explicitly calls Esther by different names, “He (Mordecai) brought up Hadassah (הדסה) that is Esther (אסתר), his uncle’s daughter. She had neither father nor mother. The maiden was of comely form and appearance.” Based upon this ambiguity, the sages of the Talmud (Megillah 13a) debate whether Hadassah or Esther was her original name.

Hadassah Original Name

According to this view the name Esther refers to:

  • Hiding her identity (מסתרת).
  • Name used by gentiles.

Esther hid her identity as the verse (Esther 2:20) says, “Esther did not reveal her lineage or nationality, as Mordecai had commanded her.” Mordecai realized that Esther as queen could later save the Israelites from a harsh decree. If she had revealed her identity earlier Ahasuerus may not have chosen her as queen. In addition by keeping her identity secret she could plan the downfall of Haman without Haman expecting a plot against him.  

Name by Gentiles

The gentiles called Esther by the name “אסתהר” which means either moon (Rashi) or Venus (Second Targum on Esther 2:7). In this manner she could continue her political intrigue disguising herself as gentile. This name in Persian (setara) is similar to “star” in English.  

Esther Original Name

According to the view that Esther was her original name, the name Hadassah refers to her:

  •  Height.
  • Complexion.
  • Righteousness.

The Talmud (ibid.) compares Esther to the height of the myrtle tree which is neither too tall nor too short, hence pleasing to those who see her. The myrtle tree of the Middle East (Myrtus Communis) grows up to 15 feet which is much smaller than the cedar tree which grows up to 100 feet.


The Talmud (ibid.) remarks that Esther had a sallow complexion similar to the leaves of the myrtle. The Vilna Gaon explains that the sallow complexion was a result of her marriage to Ahasuerus and separation from Mordecai. Nevertheless she bore her travails and maintained her initial charm (Esther2:15), “Esther would captivate all who beheld her.”  


The Talmud (ibid.) identifies the myrtle as a symbol of righteousness based upon Zachariah 1:8, “A man was riding on a red horse and standing among the myrtles.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93a) explains this metaphor as the man represents the Divine Presence and the myrtles are the righteous Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  The righteous are compared to the myrtle because just as people are pleased with the pleasant fragrance of myrtle leaves, Hashem is pleased with the actions of the righteous. Hence in addition to her physical beauty she attained divine grace through her righteous conduct.

 Word Association

The Talmud (Hullin 139b) cites Deuteronomy 31:18, “I (Hashem) will surely conceal (הסתר אסתיר) My (divine) face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, that they turned to other deities.” As mentioned above when finding allusions in the Torah, one may omit certain letters especially a silent one (in this case י). Hence when leaving out this letter, the remaining letters of the second word in sequence exactly spell out אסתר. In addition when finding allusions one may substitute letters to obtain a different meaning. In this case when substituting the letter “he (ה)” with an aleph (א) in the word “הסתר” (hide) one also obtains the name Esther (אסתר).    

Concept Association

In addition to the word association, verses 16-18 in Deuteronomy chapter 31 speak of divine retribution (ibid. 17) when the Israelites worship deities of the nations, forsake Hashem and violate His covenant (ibid. 16). Verse 17 reads, “My (divine) fury will rage against them on that day. Therefore I will abandon them and conceal My face from them. They will become prey and many evils and troubles will befall them. They will say on that day: Is it not because Hashem is no longer in my midst, that these evils have befallen me?” In the opinion of the author these verses relate to the sins that led to the decree of Haman as explained above:

  1. Denial of Hashem – They bowed before the statue of Nebuchadnezzar except for Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
  2. Eating – They enjoyed the feast of Ahasuerus.
Denial of Hashem – Idolatry

The sin of idolatry is clearly mentioned in verses 16 and 18. The former verse says, “This nation (Israel) will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land.” The latter verse states, “I (Hashem) will surely conceal (הסתר אסתיר ) My (divine) face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities.” Similarly the Israelites sinned by bowing down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar.   

Eating – Enjoying the feast of Ahasuerus

The sin of enjoying this feast is related to forsaking Hashem and violating his covenant. As explained above, by enjoying this feast the Israelites appeared to abandon hope of the redemption and promises of Hashem.

Result of Sin

As a result of sin, the Israelites will realize that Hashem has appeared to abandon the Israelites as the verse indicates (ibid. 17), “Is it not because our G-d is no longer in my midst (בקרבי), that these evils have befallen me?” Similarly when the Israelites complained about a lack of water Hashem punished the Israelites with the battle of Amalek, the Israelites questioned “Is Hashem in our midst (בקרבנו) or not (Exodus 17:7)?” Hence an attack or provocation by Amalek is a result of the Israelites doubting whether or not Hashem is in their midst. 


As mentioned above her role was to rescue the Israelites from the decree of genocide through:

  • Political intrigue.
  • Her beauty.
  • Righteousness.  

Hence her name alludes to these different roles through word and concept association (Hullin 139b).

Political Intrigue

The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:5) compares Esther to the myrtle in terms of her role in the court of Ahasuerus. Just as the myrtle leaf has a pleasant fragrance but a bitter taste so Esther was kind to Mordecai and bitter to Haman. Specifically she recommended that Ahasuerus appoint Mordecai over the house of Haman (Esther 8:1-2). In addition she pleaded with the king to overturn the decree of Haman (ibid. 8:5-6) and the king consented (ibid. 8:8). The book of Esther points out that although a royal decree cannot be directly revoked (ibid. 8:9) another decree can supersede a previous one (ibid.).

When dealing with Haman, Esther cleverly and patiently planned his downfall. She invited him twice to a royal banquet (Esther 5:4 and 5:8) giving him the impression that Esther was an ally. At the second banquet when Ahasuerus was under the influence of wine Esther revealed her identity as an Israelite and therefore subject to the decree of Haman (ibid. 7:4 and 7:6). In this manner, the Midrash teaches that a person in a position of power ruler must be both compassionate and stern depending upon the situation and parties involved.


At a literal level the name Esther was a reflection of her heavenly beauty and desirability (viz. either Venus or star).Hence she was able to engage in political intrigue without arousing suspicion because people are naturally drawn to beauty.


The Talmud (Megillah 10b) quotes Isaiah 55:13 to indicate that Esther played the role of the righteous queen to replace the former queen Vashti who was wicked. She advised Ahasuerus to cease building of the temple of the temple in Jerusalem (Targum on Esther 1:1). The verse follows, “Instead of the briar (allusion to Haman) a cypress shall rise (allusion to Mordecai). Instead of the nettle a myrtle (הדס) shall rise (allusion to Esther through her name הדסה). It shall be for Hashem as a name (allusion to reading of the Megillah) and everlasting sign which shall not be discontinued (allusion to the days of Purim).” Hence the role of Esther was to replace a wicked monarch with a righteous one, rescue the Israelites, and lead to rebuilding of the temple through her son Darius II (Leviticus Rabbah 13:5)


The following table summarizes the different techniques used by the Talmud and Midrash to expound on the names of the main personalities of Purim. 

Name (English)Name (Hebrew)Technique
AhasuerusאחשורושSplit into different words
HamanהמןIdentical letters
MordecaiמרדכיSplit into different words with Aramaic translation
Estherאסתר    Leave out a letter

In the case of Ahasuerus the Talmud (Megillah 11a) and Midrash (Esther Rabbah 1:1 and 1:3) split his name into different words to obtain several interpretations. By contrast the Talmud (Chullin 139b) uses the identical letters of Haman’s name albeit with different vowels. In the case of Mordecai the Talmud (ibid.) splits his name into different Aramaic words. By contrast the Talmud (ibid.) matches the letters of Esther’s name to a verse in the Torah with similar spelling.  


This article examined the principal personalities in the Purim story in terms of their names and role in either formulating the intended genocide and the eventual rescue. The author also examined the decree and rescue from a divine perspective as expounded in the Talmud and Midrash. This article highlighted different techniques to interpret the names whether in Hebrew or Aramaic to show the many ways that hints and allusions may be derived from sacred texts.

The Purim story of faith and deliverance has supported the Israelites throughout the ages as the verse (Esther 9:28) remarks, “These days of Purim shall never cease from the Israelites nor their commemoration from their descendants.”

Appendix 1 – Sins of the Israelites

Based upon the principle of measure for measure (Sotah 8b), divine corrective action must be commensurate with the severity and nature of the transgression. Therefore the Talmud (Megillah 12a) and Midrash (Songs of Songs 7.8.1 or 7.13) pose the question, “What sin precipitated the decree of annihilation (through the decree of Haman)?” These sources provide the following answers:

  1. Denial of Hashem – They bowed to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar except for Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
  2. Eating – They enjoyed the feast of Ahasuerus.

Denial of Hashem – Statue of Nebuchadnezzar

The sin of bowing down to this statue may have led to the decree of annihilation because the Torah records a precedent when the Israelites worshipped the golden calf. Hashem said to Moses (Exodus 32:10), “I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation.” Nebuchadnezzar erected this statue (Daniel 3:1) and commanded all of his subjects, through representatives, to bow down to it (ibid. 3:5). Those who refused would be put to death in a fiery furnace (ibid. 3:6). Amongst the Israelites present, only Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refused to bow down and trusted in Hashem (ibid. 3:17). Hashem miraculously saved these men (ibid. 3:25).

The commentators on the Talmud (e.g. Tosafot on Pesachim 53a and Ketubot 33b) debate whether this statue was simply a royal symbol or actually an object of idol worship. The verses in Daniel chapter 3 may support either interpretation. For example some Chaldean men attempted to denounce the Israelites as being unfaithful to the king. They said (Daniel 3:12), “O king! They (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) do not worship your god and they do not prostrate themselves to the golden image that you have set up.” Is the golden image as mentioned in this verse a continuation of your god or is it separate? According to the Midrash (Song of Songs 7.8.1 or 7:13) the statue was idolatrous. This source records a dispute about the number of representatives that Nebuchadnezzar chose to bow down to this statue, either 3 or 23. According to the former view no Israelites bowed down implying that another sin led to Haman’s decree. According to the latter view 20 (i.e. 23-3) Israelites actually bowed to the statue. 

In any event, refusal to bow to this statue would be a demonstration of faith in Hashem and sanctification of His name. When seeing that Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were miraculously saved, Nebuchadnezzar cried out (Daniel 3:28), “Blessed be the G-d of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Babylonian names of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah), Who sent His angel and rescued His servants, who trusted Him, disobeyed the command of the king, and risked their lives in order not to worship or prostrate themselves to any god except to their G-d.” Therefore he ordered that anyone who would speak amiss about Hashem would be killed (literally made into a dung heap) (ibid. 3:29). 

However there are several points to consider about this comparison:

  1. This statue may not have been idolatrous.
  2. Not all the Israelites bowed to this statue hence a decree of genocide appears excessive. By contrast the there was no major protest against the apostasy of the golden calf.
  3. The Israelites were compelled by the king to bow to the statue or face death. By contrast the Israelites willingly worshipped the golden calf. 
  4. The bowing to the statue occurred in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar which was more than 40 years before the decree of Purim. 

Enjoying the Feat of Ahasuerus

The Talmud (ibid.) and Midrash (ibid.) record an opinion that the Haman’s decrees were a result of the sin of the Israelites enjoying themselves at the feast of Ahasuerus. They may have been justified to attend the feast to placate the king. However they should not have enjoyed the feast especially since Ahasuerus celebrated the destruction of the temple and the end of the 70 years of exile, as predicted by Jeremiah, with this feast. Ahasuerus felt that the 70 years had come to an end and since the Israelites were not redeemed the temple would not be rebuilt. Hence any Israelite who would attend this feast demonstrated a lack of faith in Hashem and the promise to rebuild the temple.  

The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:14) relates that Mordecai told the Israelites to avoid the feasts of Ahasuerus because it was a spiritual trap that Haman had laid. Haman invited Israelites and hired women to “eat, drink, and be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15)” with the intention that Hashem would punish them for their immorality. The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 15:14) adds that the food served by the king may not have been kosher. In fact 18,500 Israelites did not heed Mordecai’s warning and sinned grievously. In turn the Satan, acting as the accuser, advised Hashem to punish the Israelites with annihilation. Initially Hashem refused Satan’s suggestion because who would observe the Torah? To counter this argument the Satan said, “Let the Torah remain in heaven with the angels.”

Hashem agreed to the Satan’s suggestion and said about the Israelites (Deuteronomy 32:26), “I will make an end of them and eradicate their memory from mankind.” Then Hashem said to the Satan, “Bring me a scroll (מגלה) and I will write a decree of annihilation.” The author interprets the discussion between Hashem and the Satan as a figure of speech because Hashem does not need any being to convince Him of action. Rather the Midrash explains why Hashem initially permitted the decree of Haman and wanted the Israelites to return to Him through prayer and fasting to overturn the decree (Esther 4:16). The use of the word scroll (מגלה) is significant because the book of Esther is read from a scroll on Purim indicating that this reading is a rectification of the sin of the Israelites at that feast.

After Hashem consented to the decree, Elijah the prophet approached Moses to seek advice to nullify the decree as Moses had nullified the decree of destruction following the sin of the golden calf. Moses told Elijah to seek a fitting person (i.e. righteous and capable) for the task of saving the Israelites through prayer and action. Thereupon Elijah came to Mordecai in a dream as the verse relates (Esther 4:1), “Mordecai knew all that had transpired (i.e. both in heaven and on earth). Then Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes (as a sign of mourning to prepare the Israelites for prayer). He went out into the midst of the city and cried with a loud and bitter cry (to arouse the people to return to Hashem).” In addition he sent a message to Esther to approach the king and plead on behalf of her people (Esther 4:12-14).

However there are several points to consider about this reason: 

  1. The meal occurred about 9 years before the decree of Haman. The feast occurred in the 3rd year of the reign of Ahasuerus (Esther 1:3) and the decree in his 12th year of reign (Esther 3:7). 
  2. Only the Israelites in Shushan attended the feast. Why were all of the Israelites punished?
  3. The sin of enjoying this feast is not idolatrous and should not be the cause of genocide.

In the opinion of the author, the sin of enjoying this feast is similar to the sin of the spies Numbers (13:26-14:4) where the people lost faith and would rather return to Egypt instead of attempting to conquer the land of Israel. In turn Hashem had planned to annihilate the Israelites and start over with Moses (Numbers 14:11). Hence by attending the feast the Israelites were in effect abandoning hope of rebuilding the temple and returning to Israel. They were content to remain in exile as subjects of Ahasuerus and ignore the prophecy of Jeremiah that the exile would end after 70 years.

70 Years of Exile

Based upon the above points, some explain that both of these sins were cause for the decree of Purim. The reason for delay between sin and decree is to coincide with the end of the 70 years exile based upon the verse in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven.” Since the exile from Israel was the result of sin, as stated by the prophets (2 Chronicles 36:15-16), returning to Hashem is a prerequisite to end the exile and rebuild the temple.  A separate article on this web site “70 Years of Exile” analyzes this prophecy and provides a time reference for the kings who reigned during this period. Ahasuerus reigned toward the end of these 70 years. 

Appendix 2 – Mordecai the Jew (היהודי)

As mentioned above the Book of Esther calls Mordecai, as מרדכי היהודי (literally Mordecai the Jew or Judean) in 6 different verses (viz. Esther 5:13, 6:10, 8:7, 9:29, 9:31, and 10:3). The following paragraphs will analyze Mordecai’s role by referring to the verses which mention היהודי in sequence:

  • Withstand persecution (Esther 5:13).
  • Cooperate with the gentile government (ibid. 6:10 and 8:7).  
  • Strengthen religion (writes holy books and establishes laws) (ibid. 9:29 and 9:31).
  • Rule the people (ibid. 10:3).

Withstand Persecution

Since the first mention of a word in scripture sets its connotation, it is interesting to note that the first mention of the word (היהודי) (Esther 5:13) occurs in relation to Haman’s hatred of Mordecai. The verse follows, “But all this (glory) is worth nothing to me (Haman) every time I see Mordecai the Jew sitting in the king’s gate.” Haman detested Mordecai because the latter would not bow down to the former (Esther 3:5). Initially Haman only wanted to kill Mordecai in revenge. However the hatred festered to lead Haman to plan to annihilate all of the Israelites (Esther 3:6). Despite the decree, Mordecai maintained his faith in Hashem and told Esther that the Israelites would be saved (Esther 4:14) and that she should intervene on behalf of the Israelites (ibid. 4:8).

Cooperate with Gentile Government

While in exile, the Israelites must work with the gentile government as the prophet Jeremiah (29:7) says to the exiles in Babylon, “Seek the peace of the city where I (Hashem) have exiled you (Israelites). Pray to Hashem for its peace, for in its peace you shall have peace.” Hence the Israelites must seek the welfare of the state unless the state persecutes the Israelites.  In that case, the Israelites must act with extreme prudence. Along these lines the sages in Avot (3:2) recommend, “Pray for the welfare of the government; for without its authority, a man would swallow his neighbour alive.” However when dealing with an autocratic leader the sages caution (Avot 2:3), “Be prudent with the government, for they befriend a person for their own benefit. They appear to be friendly when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person in his time of need.”     

In this context, Mordecai uncovered a plot to assassinate the king (Esther 2:21) and informed Esther to tell the king in Mordecai’s name (ibid. 2:22). Although the king did not reward Mordecai at this juncture he did acknowledge Mordecai’s help when he commanded Haman to parade Mordecai in the capital city of Shushan (Esther 6:10). The verse follows, “The king said to Haman: Hurry, take the royal clothes and horse as you have spoken and honour Mordecai the Jew (היהודי), who sits in the king’s gate.”  

After Esther had revealed her identity as a Jewess (Esther 7:3) and therefore was a victim of Haman’s plan of genocide (ibid.7:4), the king permitted Esther to appoint Mordecai over the house of Haman (ibid. 8:2). Then the king gave royal assent to this position as the verse relates (ibid. 8:7), “Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to Mordecai the Jew (היהודי): “Behold I have given Haman’s estate to Esther. He has been hung on the gallows because he plotted against the Jews.”

Strengthen Religion

The book of Esther emphasizes Mordecai’s strengthening of Judaism through:

  • Writing a book of scripture (i.e. Book of Esther) (Esther 9:29).
  • Establishing the holiday of Purim (Esther 9:31). 

In both of these cases, the Book of Esther calls Mordecai as the quintessential Jew (היהודי) who left a lasting mark on Judaism both in written form and observance. The verses follow:

Esther 9:29 – “Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew (היהודי) wrote with full authority (i.e. Megillah) to ratify this second Purim letter.”

Esther 9:31 – “To establish these days of Purim in their appointed times just as Mordecai the Jew (היהודי) and Queen Esther had enjoined them.”

Rule the People

The book of Esther (10:3) ends with a verse that describes the greatness of Mordecai, “For Mordecai the Jew (היהודי) was viceroy to King Ahasuerus. He was great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their offspring.” The Targum on this verse comments that the nations revered and feared Mordecai due to his integrity and power.

The book of Esther ends on a humble note by stating that not all approved of Mordecai’s leadership, “accepted by most of his brethren” similar to the popular idiom, “You cannot please everybody.” The commentator Ibn Ezra (12th century Egypt) explains that some were jealous of Mordecai’s position. The Talmud (Megillah 16b) explains that some members of the Sanhedrin did not approve of Mordecai’s government position because it took time away from teaching and studying Torah. Although they agreed that Mordecai was justified to be in the government to rescue the Israelites, they felt that after the crisis had subsided he should have returned full time to the Sanhedrin. Nevertheless Mordecai felt that his position in government was justified to help his brethren and avert a future crisis.    

  The author would like to point out that by rearranging the letters of the word היהודי one obtains יד י-ה-ו-ה which means the hand of Hashem. This implies that Mordecai was an extension of Hashem in his generation through his leadership in temporal and religious spheres. Mordecai’s Legacy This last verse in the book of Esther provides several messages about the life and legacy of Mordecai. The following table examines the opening and closing letters of this verse and its number of words and letters.   Technique Value Word Meaning Opening and closing letter ו כ (20 + 6 =26) י-ה-ו-ה Divine support Number of words 18 חי Life Number of Letters 77 זע עז Steadfast   
Opening and Closing Letters

The opening and closing letters of this verse are ו and כ respectively whose values in gematria are 20 and 6 and whose sum is 26. The gematria of the Tetragrammaton is also 26 indicating that Hashem inspired and supported Mordecai in his endeavours.   

Number of Words

The number of words in this verse is 18 corresponding to the gematria of (life) alluding to Mordecai’s role in saving the Israelites from annihilation. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) remarks that Purim commemorates the miracle from death to life (לחיים ממיתה).    

Number of Letters

The number of letters in this verse is 77 corresponding to the gematria of the words זע (flinch) and עז (strength). It is interesting to note that the letters ע ז are interchangeable in the Atbash system of transformation meaning that these 2 words are strongly connected. The word זע   (flinch) in this form occurs only once in scripture (Esther 5:9), “That day Haman went out joyful and exuberant. However when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate and that he neither rose nor flinched (זע) because of him, Haman was filled with wrath against Mordecai.” Hence this word connotes Mordecai’s moral strength and courage to avoid bowing down to Haman. The Talmud (Megillah 19a) explains that Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman because the latter posed as a divine being. The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:2) explains that Haman wore an idolatrous image indicating that he was chosen by the idols to rule over the kingdom.  

In addition the word עז (strength) relates to Mordecai through the verse in Psalms (27:11), “Hashem shall grant strength עז to His people. Hashem shall bless His people with peace.” Hashem rewarded the strength of Mordecai with peace as the book of Esther ends (10:3),” Mordecai was seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their offspring.”

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