Esther, Haman, and History

By Abramowitz, Mayer | Midstream, February-March 2004 | Go to article overview

Esther, Haman, and History


Abramowitz, Mayer, Midstream


Purim is one of the more unusual holidays on the Jewish calendar. Suffice it to note the rabbinic injunction that "one must become so intoxicated as not to recognize the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordecai.'" (1)

In times past, another unusual custom was performed: the burning of Haman in effigy. This practice inflamed Christian hostility to Jews, so that as early as the fifth century, Theodosius II (Emperor of Rome) "prohibited Jewish mockery of Christianity and its symbols on Purim." (2)

Was the burning of Haman in effigy a mockery of Christianity? Was it only that the Christians viewed it as a mockery, or did the Jews also view it as such?

A passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (3) may offer an insight as to the relevance between Haman and Jesus. In that passage, Queen Esther asks the Sages, "Mekablim atem aleichem shenei hayamim halalu bechol shanah veshanah. Are you accepting these two days [of Purim] each year?" They reply, "Lo dayenu hatzarot haba-ot aleinu she'at rotzah lehosif aleinu od tzarato shel Haman." Is it not enough that we have suffering coming upon us that you wish to add upon us the travail of Haman?'

What struck me as worthy of investigation of this statement is the different treatment of Esther's same request as stated in the Talmud Bavli. (4) There, the same question is asked by the queen and the Sages reply: "Kin'ah at me-oreret aleinu mi-bane ha-umot. You are arousing the envy of the nations against us. They seem to be saying, "Don't rock the boat."

In Babylonia, the relations between Jews and the Babylonian populace were tolerable, unlike that which existed between Christianity and Judaism in Palestine. (5)

In this essay, we will try to discover what the Sages in Palestine intended by their reference to Haman. By mentioning "travail of Haman," did they intend to equate Haman with Jesus? Was Haman a sobriquet for Jesus? We will not know for certain. But, if that were the case, if they did equate Haman with Jesus, their reply to Queen Esther would make sense, because, at the time of the redaction of the Jerusalem Talmud (in the 5th century CE), Jewish suffering at the hands of the Christians was intense.

A few quotations will suffice:James Carroll attributes the cause of Jewish suffering beginning with the Church Fathers as follows : "The pattern of the Gospels deflecting blame away from the Romans and onto the Jews is commonly taken now as evidence of a primordial Christian anti-Judaism." He further describes Jewish suffering in early church history: "Saint Chrysostom was the master of the sermon genre known as Adversus Judaeos (Against Jews). Such words inevitably led to actions: assaults on synagogues, exclusion of Jews from public office, expulsions." (6)

Will Durant states, "Periodically Church Councils ... added to the tribulation of Jewish life." (7)

With persecution increasing in intensity as century followed century, Purim gave the Jew an opportunity to vent both his anger and joy at the downfall of Haman. Part of that celebration was to burn Haman in effigy, which "by design or by accident, [took] the form of a cross." (8)

Using a sobriquet to refer to Jesus is common throughout the pages of the Talmud. In several passages in the Talmud, we find Jesus referred to as ben Stada, Balaam, Oto Ha-ish, ben Pantera, et al. (9) It may well be that when the Sages in the Jerusalem Talmud put "travail of Haman" in their response to Queen Esther's request, they may have used Haman as a sobriquet for Jesus.

However, one question remains: why did Christianity not only oppose the Purim Festival, but why did the Church Fathers originally oppose the Book of Esther? Both the Roman and the Eastern Church did not accept the Book of Esther into their canon until the ninth century. And, as late as in the 15th century, Martin Luther stated: "I am so hostile to the Book of Esther that I wish that it did not exist. …

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