Why Did Esther Hide Her Jewish Identity? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
There are many mysteries in Megillat Esther that are not explained in the text of the Megillah. For example, the text does not explain why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. Another mystery is Hashem’s purpose in arranging that Haman parade Mordechai around Shushan on the king’s horse and wearing the king’s clothes, while the edict of destruction against the Jews remained in full effect.
In this essay we will seek to gain insight into the mystery of why Esther did not reveal her Jewish identity. This behavior is mentioned twice in the Megillah, both before (2:10) and after she became the queen (2:20). The repetition highlights its importance in the Megillah story. What is even more troubling is the fact that not only did Esther hide her Jewish identity, but also that Mordechai seems to emphasize his Jewish identity to the Persian government officials (see 3:4) in a manner that endangers the survival of the entire Jewish people. Why then did Mordechai instruct Esther to hide her Jewish identity?
We shall explore four answers that are presented by two classic commentators to the Megillah, Rashi and Ibn Ezra. We then will present a new approach to this issue that is suggested by Rav Avraham Shama in an essay that is printed in Esther Hee Hadassah, a publication of the Herzog Teacher’s College, a branch of Yeshivat Har Etzion. The answers to this question teach many lessons of how Jews should behave and survive in the Exile, a major theme of Megillat Esther (see Reflections of the Rav 1:178-186). Our essay is an expansion and variation of Rav Shama’s essay and is enhanced by the insights of the 5764 Senior Navi Shiur at the Torah Academy of Bergen County.
Rashi (commenting on 2:10) explains that she hid her Jewish identity in order that she would not be chosen as queen. Had she revealed her Jewish identity she would have had to reveal that she was a descendant of King Sha’ul. This, in turn, would have motivated Achashveirosh to choose Esther as queen. She hid her Jewish identity in order to create the impression that she was of ordinary lineage and unqualified to be chosen as queen.
Rashi believes that Esther did not want to be chosen as queen, as can be inferred from the Pesukim that state that Esther was first taken to the house of Achaveirsosh (2:8) and subsequently taken to Achashveirosh himself (2:16). The fact that Esther seems to make no effort to be chosen as queen (she requests no special oils or perfumes even though she would have been given anything she would have requested, 2:15), strongly supports this assertion.
Rashi’s approach is rooted in Chazal who assert that Esther did not want to be chosen as queen. Chazal (Sanhedrin 74b) highlight this point to explain why Esther was not Halachically required to sacrifice her life in order to avoid the sin of consorting with Achashveirosh. Indeed, Chazal (Aggadat Esther, Parashah 2) compare Esther’s being taken to Achashveirosh’s palace to Sarah Imeinu’s being taken to ’Pharaoh’s palace (B’ereshit 12:15). We should note that Megillat Esther is unusually rich in allusions and parallels to other stories in Tanach (see the introduction to the Da’at Mikra commentary to Megillat Esther pp. 12-16 and Rav Amnon Bazak’s essay in Esther Hee Hadassah). Rav Shama also notes the parallel between Mordechai watching out for his niece Esther as she is taken into the king’s palace and Esther subsequently saving Mordechai to Miriam watching out for her brother Moshe as he was taken into the king’s palace and Moshe subsequently saving Miriam.
Rashi also seems to derive his insight from the seemingly repetitive language of the Pasuk that states that she did not reveal her nation (Amah) or her descent (Moladtah). Rashi explains that she did not reveal her nation, as that would have forced her to reveal her descent from royalty. Rashi is also based on Chazal’s assertion that Esther is a descendant of King Sha’ul. In fact, Chazal (Megillah 16a) state that Achashveirosh extended Esther more respect when Esther revealed her identity and (Chazal note) her royal pedigree.
Rav Shama notes that we should understand Chazal’s assertion that Esther and Mordechai descend from King Sha’ul in light of Chazal’s assertion that Haman descends from Amalek. The literary cues that point to these assertions are the association of Mordechai and Esther with Kish (2:5; Chazal assert that this refers to the father of King Sha’ul) and the Megillah’s repeated referral to Haman as Aggagi (the book of Sh’muel records that Aggag was the king of Amalek).
Chazal view the battle of Mordechai and Esther against Haman as a re-creation of the battle between Sha’ul and Amalek. In fact, this battle can be seen as a Tikkun (correction) of the sin of Sha’ul in his taking of some of the booty in his battle against Amalek (Shmuel 1:15:9). This might explain the Megillah’s recording no less than three times (in Chapter 9) that the Jews did not take from the booty of the battle, even though Achashveirosh’s decree entitled them to do so.
It is interesting that according to Rashi, had Achashveirosh known that Esther was Jewish, he would have certainly chosen Esther as his queen. This seems to be one of countless examples of a major theme in Rashi’s commentary to Tanach. It appears that Rashi never misses an opportunity to emphasize and highlight the special character of Am Yisrael (Rashi’s introductions to each of the five books of the Chumash are an example of this phenomenon; see Rav Mordechai Breuer’s Pirkei Bereshit 1:20-47).
Rav Berel Wein once commented that without Rashi’s commentary to the Tanach we would have never survived the Exile. In contrast to the ridicule and humiliation that many of the Nochrim and their spiritual leaders heaped upon us in our troubled Exile, Rashi never ceases to constantly remind us (and quite often in a subtle manner, as in this case) that we are a very special nation.
It is also very interesting that Rashi seems to teach that a Jew should not seek a very high office while in Exile. Esther was suitable to be the queen of the Persian Empire, yet she made every effort to avoid being chosen. Nevertheless, Hashem subtly arranged for Esther to be chosen despite her efforts.
Rav Shama notes that Rashi’s approach explains only why Esther concealed her Jewish identity before she was chosen as queen. However, it does not explain why Esther continued to conceal her Jewish identity even after she was chosen as queen. Perhaps Rashi would say that Esther and Mordechai were hoping that Esther would not be a “star” (despite the fact that her name Esther, means star in Persian; see Da’at Mikra to Esther 2:7) in Achashveirosh’s palace and would hopefully be permitted to quietly leave the palace at some time in the future. This seems to be a viable approach in light of the fact that Esther was apparently not Achashveirosh’s only wife (see Esther 2:19 and 4:11, as well as the Da’at Mikra commentary to Esther 2:19). Perhaps we can understand Mordechai’s advising Esther after she was chosen (2:20-21), as planning a subtle and safe exit plan for Esther.