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By: Dave Gordon
Each year, we read Megillat Esther – the story of Purim – recalling how the Jewish queen of Shushan intervened to foil Haman’s scheme, and saved the Jews in 127 provinces. But what may surprise many is that the megillah isn’t the only record of the heroes and villians of the Purim story.
Various ancient Greek and Semitic writings, tombs, and archaeological inscriptions all attest to information about Esther, Haman, and Achashverosh that, until recently, have remained relatively unknown. The new information gleaned from these sources sheds light on who the characters from the Purim story were and what they did.
For example, recent discoveries have revealed just how Haman determined his “lots.” Also they provide additional historical background on Achashverosh, and give us insight into the politics behind the ancient tomb where Esther and Mordechai are believed to be buried.
One investigator, award-winning documentarian Simcha Jacobovici, explained that Haman didn’t just want to murder the Jews of his
127 Persian provinces. He wanted to show that his god was superior to the Gd of Israel by rolling dice to determine the date upon which to act.
Jacobovici, 63, was born in Canada and now lives in Israel. He has dedicated his life to dig deeper into Jewish history.
The purin Purim loosely translates to dice, and is commonly – but erroneously – described as “throwing lots,” Jacobovici asserts.
“If he wanted to go out and get the Jews,” Jacobovici asks, “why didn’t he just go out and get ’em? Why’d he have to do it at a certain time, on a date next month, and give everyone a heads up? That’s when I realized he was trying to show that fate was stronger than the Gd of the Jews.”
Haman used a dice game, the Royal Game of Ur. It is a board game from Mesopotamia (southern Iraq) which was discovered byarchaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in a grave in the city of Ur in the 1920s.
As evidenced by the five ancient games thus far found, the dice used in the game are dissimilar to today’s six-sided dice; the dice in the Game of Ur are pyramid-shaped. “Exactly like the triangle cookies we still make on Purim,hamantashen. It’s not representing Haman’s hat, or his ears, as most people have believed,” Jacobovici insists.
The British Museum displays a Royal Game of Ur board adorned with precious stones, dating to the time of Joseph, hailing from an Afghanistan princesses’ tomb. Also displayed in the British Museum is an Assyrian palace gate that contains the game etched into it by bored guards from the eighth-century BCE.
Other boards, decorated with pictures offighting beasts, have been excavated recently. The “pawns,” or pieces used in the game, were made of various animals’ knuckle bones.
Until recently, the rules of play were a mystery. Dr. Irving Finkel, curator at the British Museum, decoded a second century BCE Babylonian cuneiform tablet which describes this race-to-the-finish-line game.
According to the carving, the 20-square board contained 12 zodiac squares and was thought to foretell players’ good or bad fortune (this is where Haman comes in). Various renditions of the game have been found across the Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean area, going back five thousand years. Archaeologists believe that the game was popular amongst traders, soldiers and missionaries.
Today, the Royal Game of Ur can be bought online. “I not only touched the game, but I brought it home and played it with my kids. We didn’t just celebrate Purim, but we played Haman’s game – and beat him at his own game,” says Jacobovici.
The Tomb of Mordechai and Esther
In the Kurdish region of Iran, about 200 miles west of Tehran, lies a tomb that has been the destination for countless Jewish pilgrimages and celebrations, perhaps going back two millennia.
Esther and Mordechai are said to be buried in ashrine in Hamedan, formerly known as Ecbatana, and before that, Shushan. In that shrine Hebrew writing still adorns the walls.
Texts have been discovered which were written by various explorers, dating back to the twelfth century. In these texts explorers recorded their experiences while visiting Shushan, as well as illustrations and descriptions. Many of those recollections discuss pieces of paper written in Hebrew, which were left near the tombs. This is similar to a custom we know today whereby peopletuck notes in between the stones of the Western Wall.
It is believed that Iranians in centuries of old used the tomb as the
next-best and nearest holiest place to Jerusalem. During those times travel to Jerusalem was prohibitively expensive, was very labor-intensive,
and was exceedingly time consuming. Jewish tombstones in the proximity attest to how important people felt the site was.
The shrine area today is different – at least in appearance. In an effort to make it more accessible and aesthetic, thehouses that surrounded it were bought and demolished in the early 1970s, in a goodwill gesture by the Iranian Jewish Society to honor 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy.
Architect Yassi (Elias) Gabbay was commissioned to renovate the area, building a bridgeon the main street to provide easy access. This bridge made it possible for people to avoid navigating a narrow dirt alleyway in order to enter. Gabbay built a partial-underground synagogue there, with a Star of David skylight. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Gabbay fled to Los Angeles.
According to media reports, in 2011 Iranian authorities removed the site from the National Heritage List. Additionally, a sign denoting the site’s significance was taken down. These moves were sparked by the threats of over 200 students who sought to destroy the site. At that time the state’s news media, Fars, reported that the story of Purim was really about 75,000 ancient Persians who were the victims of a Jewish-led massacre, dubbed a “holocaust.”
Meanwhile, another tradition holds that Esther and Mordechai were buried outside the village of Baram, near Tzfat, Israel. The tomb is located in Baram National Park. In the early thirteenth century, Rabbi Menachem Ha-Hevroni wrote that he visited the site. Additionally, just after Israel’s War of Independence when the area was liberated, it’s said that some Jews ventured to the tomb to read the megillah there.
Who was Achashverosh?
The Persian emperor who assumed the throne at age 36 after his father Darius died in 486 BCE, was known by various names in different regions. In Hebrew and Babylonian he was known as Achashverosh, an attempt to pronounce the Persian “Khshayarsha.”
In Greece, where his father’s military had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon, he becameknown as Xerxes.
Historical writers of the era – Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, and Plutarch – tended to use another name altogether, Shahanshah, meaning “king of kings.”
In one of his first acts as emperor, Achashverosh’s army chief, Mardonius, pressured him to renew the fight against Greece, to avenge Darius’ losses. According to Herodotus, the Persian army corralled more than two million soldiers, the largest military force up to that point in history. Incredibly, it consisted of Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Israelites.
Initially, the Persian army succeeded, particularly in the
now-famous Battle of Thermopylae. Even recently, bestselling films and books have recalled these battles of heroism and strategic importance. However, after being defeated at Plataea, the Persian army lost critical supplies from destroyed ships. After Platea, Achashverosh refrained from further military conquests.
Back in Shushan, Achashverosh earned a murderous reputation for cruelly killing off various family members (including a son and a brother) in fits of jealousy, and for viciously killing others he perceived as traitors. His focus turned to the building ostentatious architecture, mostly created to honor … himself! He funded these lavish projects with exorbitant sums from the national treasury.
After the Greek war, Achashverosh dedicated his time and resources to concluding construction projects that had been initiated by his father and grandfather, including the palace and gate of Susa (mentioned in Megillat Esther, “sha’ar hamelech,” the king’s gate, where Mordechai sat). Other of Achashverosh’s projects included a grandiose palace, the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, and extensive empire-wide roadways for couriers, which were later appropriated by the Romans. These couriers and the roadways they traveled are said to be the harbinger of the modern postal system.
Unfortunately, these costly vanity projects, on top of the cost of tremendous military losses, meant increasingly higher taxes for Achashverosh’s subjects. High taxes placed an unbearable burden on the citizens, which produced an economic ripple effect, said to lead to the eventual crumbling of his empire.
The story of Purim, however, wasn’t Achashverosh’s only run-in with the Jewish people.
In the book of Ezra (chapter 4), Achashverosh received a letter signed by a few royal associates (“enemies of the Judah and Benjamin,” many scholars also say “Samaritans”), stating that some Jews had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild theTemple.
Achashverosh was warned that if the Jews settled in Jerusalem, he’d lose tax money. Furthermore, he was warned, the Jews might be led to revolt against him, as they had revolted against other kings in the past. Achashverosh then sent men to stop the building “by force.”
Over time, Achashverosh’s conquests amassed him treasures. Among these, may be the sacred vessels from the Temple, as alluded to in the “riches” in the Book of Esther, chapter 1. Though he took great pains to hide the Temple vessels, Achashverosh’s successor, Cyrus, discovered these treasures. Cyrus eventually returned them to the Jews to use as they wished for the rebuilding of the Temple. The book of Isaiah alludes to Cyrus giving away these “treasures of darkness.”
In summary, we can say with some certainty that the popular Purim pastry “ozney-Haman” (translated: Haman’s ears)had nothing to do with Haman’s ears or the three-pointed hat he wore. Actually, these pastries most probably allude to the shape of the pyramid dice used by Haman to determine the fortune of the Jewish people. Hats and ears, after all, have little connection to the Purim story.
Similarly, the Haman-taschen(Yiddish for Haman’s pouch or pocket – alluding to bribery) could have just as easily
been Haman-tash– in Hebrew meaning “to weaken,” or
Other scholars believe that during the Renaissance the German word “mohn,” meaning poppy seed, is intentionally hidden in “ha-mohn-taschen.” In fact, a popular cookie in Germany during that era was the mohntash– or literally, poppy seed pocket.
On that topic, since Achashverosh’s palace only had
non-kosher food, Esther – who kept her identity hidden – ate only fruit, seeds, and legumes. This provides us with another appropriate explanation why we use poppy seeds in hamantashen. The seeds, like Esther’s identity, are covered in dough – or “hidden,” as the word “Esther” means in Hebrew.
And finally, as we read above, there is much more to Achashverosh than the sliver of time represented in Megillat Esther.
Having ruled for a little more than two decades, he was at the center of wins and losses of Greek military battles. He ordered political assassinations and government-sponsored architectural vanity projects. He held precious items of the Temple, and held back its rebuilding.
Achashverosh was killed at age fifty-seven, the victim of a political assassination by his royal bodyguard.
We learn in the Purim story and in Achashverosh’s life as well, the message of hashgacha pratit, Divine providence, for the Jewish people. Although Hashem works with hester panim, literally, with His face hidden, we know that He is the one pulling the strings. In today’s modern Persia, Iran, a new Achashverosh-type regime rules. We pray that the Jews of today,who face destruction at the hands of Iranian leaders, will, like the Jews of Achashverosh’s time, be ultimately saved. May Hashem destroy our enemies, prevent potential catastrophe, and allow us to celebrate victory for generations to come.