PURIM Unmasked

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By: Rabbi Zamir Cohen

Fascinating facts about the story of Purim in light of recent archeological findings, including the capital city of Shushan, the splendor of the royal palace, and the wine banquet.

Shushan the Capital City

The seat of King Xerxes (Ahashverosh, or Ahasuerus) was in a city referred to by the Megillahas Shushan, a city in Western Iran that is known today in Farsi by the name Shush, and in English, by the name Susa.

The Megillah’s references to this city can be more clearly understood in light of archeological findings. The Megillahsometimes speaks of the city simply as “Shushan,” and in other instances, as “Shushan habirah– Shushan the capital.” In the Bible and rabbinic writings, “birah”means a high place, a fortress or a palace. (Over the years, this word came to mean the capital city where the government resides.) In the Megillah, the expression “Shushan habirah”indicates the area where the king’s palace was located, as noted by the Ibn Ezra (Esther 1:2): “in Shushan habirah– where the palace was.” Today, we would call this area the “Shushan palace,” or the “Shushan fortress.”

Hebrew language expert Abba Ben-David explains: “Shushan had two parts: the city and the fortress. The king’s palace and the surrounding compound was called ‘Shushan the fortress,’ and the rest of the city was called ‘Shushan the city.’ Mordechai would come and go from the city to the royal compound, and from the royal compound to the city. The city was separate from the royal compound.”

Shushan the fortress contained the royal palaces, the primary and secondary harems, government buildings, and more. The expression “Shushan habirah”also teaches us that the king’s palace was situated on a high plateau. Indeed, Ahasuerus’ palace in ancient Shushan was built on a high and wide plateau which is still in existence today. The sages in the Talmud (Megillah15a) say that around Shushan the fortress was an arkuma d’maya (river, or canal). This detail, too, was discovered in contemporary archaeological excavations, as Professor Elia Samuele Artom (1887-1965) explains: “Based on excavations made in the area of ancient Shushan, a river separatedbetween the city and the fortress, and the king’s palace was in a high place in the royal compound.”

According to an accepted tradition described by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela in his book, the grave of the prophet Daniel is in Shushan, in a special edifice that is known even today.

The Splendor of the King’s Palace

The Megillahalso presents a detailed description of the king’s palace. These details have been uncovered in archaeological excavations and described by scholars in the field: “The author of theMegillahwas thoroughly acquainted with the Shushan fortress and all the sections of the royal compound, such as the outer courtyard, the inner courtyard, the royal palace, and the pavilion that stood on columns and was open to the inner courtyard, as excavations conducted here by the French rediscovered” (Encyclopedia Hebraica, vol. 5, p. 101).

The Megillah(Esther 1:6) devotes special attention to the king’s orchard garden, describing the grandeur of the garden grounds: “There were spreads of white, finecotton, and blue, embroidered with cords of linen and purple on silver rods and marble columns; couches of gold and silver on a pavement of green, white, shell, and onyx marble.” The Persian king surrounded himself with fancy furniture, fine fabrics, and expensive utensils.

This description corresponds to the Greek historian Herodotus’ description of the luxuries with which Ahasuerus surrounded himself. As scholars have noted (Peneh Olam HaMikra, p. 184): “The description in Megilat Ester of silver rods, gold and silver couches, and large variety of utensils displayed at Ahasuerus’ banquet fits the description by Herodotus of the numerous silver and gold vessels left behind by the Persians when they fled from the Greeks during the time of Xerxes: ‘They spread throughout the camp and found tents decorated with gold and silver, beds coated with gold and silver, gold cups and goblets and other drinking vessels.’ Herodotus goes on to say that Xerxes’ own home utensils fell into the hands the Greek commander, and they included utensils, beds and tables of gold and silver, just as is described in the Megillah.”

The Wine Banquet

“And the drinking was according to law, with no coercion”(Esther 1:8). This means that the king enacted a law that no person would be forced or pressured to drink.

A contemporary person reads this verse and wonders: Is it necessary to legislate a special law against forcing someone to drink wine?

The Midrash explains that before this great banquet, in which King Ahasuerus sought to reach out to the citizens of his kingdom, the king repealed an ancient royal practice that had been such an integral feature of the palace banquets that the king had to enact a new law to annul it.

According to the conventional protocol, at the beginning of the banquet a giant golden cup filled with strong, unprocessed wine was brought to enhance the merriment of the ministers and courtiers. The chief butler was authorized by law to choose several guests from among the kingdom’s dignitaries, and force them to drink a full glass. The goal was to get these guests to act mindlessly at the banquet, so everyone else would laugh at them and make them the butt of their jokes. The unfortunate individual who was chosen could not refuse, and he had to drink the entire glass even if he would become sick or even die as a result.

In the words of the Midrash (Midrash Esther, 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Esther, 1048):

This was a custom in Persia: They had a huge cup that held 30 shmatziyot [a Persian volume measurement], which was called a pitka. Each person had to drink from it even if he would die or lose his sanity as a result. The one who was the chief butler would be made rich by the attending Persian dignitaries, who would hint to him [not to face them with the large cup during the banquet] and give him several dinars of gold so he would not offer them the drink. Ahasuerus did not bring this cup to his banquet, and said instead that whoever wants to drink can drink.

The meaning of the words in the Megillah, “And the drinking was according to law, with no coercion” is that the drinking was in accordance with the new law, such that no one was coerced to drink.

Archaeological excavations conducted in the Achaemenid Empire palaces have unearthed huge gold goblets in strange shapes, and everyone who saw them wondered, what kind of person drinks from such a giant wine goblet? And even if there was a strange person who would do this, he certainly would not be a prominent figure – so why would it be made from gold? It appears that these goblets were used for the cruel practice of Persian kings in their parties, with the exception of this one banquet hosted by Ahasuerus, as our sages report.

The Greek writer Aristophanes, who lived sometime after the end of the Persian era, describes the Persian banquets as follows: “They would force the guests to drink unprocessed, sweet wine from gold cups.” He does not specify the huge size of the gold cups which have recently been unearthed and can be seen by our very eyes. Most likely, as many years had passed since the downfall Persian kingdom, he was not aware of this detail.