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It’s All About the Benjamins

Why Did Esther Not Refute Haman’s Accusations against the Jews?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • March 25, 2016
  • |
  • 15 Adar II 5776
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Essay for Purim and Shushan Purim

To Pascale Shoshana Sasson: You are a great Mother and Eishet Chayil!
From Benjamin, Maya, Leah, Joseph , Tally and David Pisarevsky

"I wouldn't belong to a club that would have me as a member." -- Groucho Marx

"The modern Jewish maxim is Incognito, ergo sum, 'I am invisible, therefore I am.'" -- Sidney Morganbesser.

The Case for Genocide

In the biblical book of Esther, Haman, the Prime Minister in the large and powerful Persian Empire, makes a short but powerful presentation to the Persian king, Ahasuerus, successfully persuading him to embrace his plan of Jewish genocide.

"There is a certain people," Haman says to Ahasuerus (1), "scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from all the other nations, and they do not observe the King's laws. Therefore it is not befitting the King to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let it be recorded that they be destroyed, and I will pay ten thousand silver talents … for deposit in the King's treasuries."

Haman's argument is straightforward and clear: Jews are different. They are alien, outsiders, an obstruction to normal society. They don't fit into the rest of the human family. They have their own faith and their own laws, which in their mind are superior to the king's laws. They are a nuisance, a thereat, a growth in an otherwise harmonious and integrated society. They ought to be disposed of.

The Talmud (2) records an oral tradition describing Haman's presentation in some more detail. "They don't eat from our food," Haman lamented to Ahasuerus; “they do not marry our women, and they do not marry their women to us. They waste the whole year, avoiding the King's work, with the excuse: Today is the Sabbath, or today is Passover."

Haman also discusses inhumane Jewish habits: "They eat, they drink and they mock the throne. Even if a fly falls in a glass of wine of one of them, he casts away the fly and drinks the wine. But if my master, the King, touches a glass of wine of one of them, that person throws it to the ground and does not drink it (3)."

The Jews, Haman argues, see themselves as superior to us; they will forever stand out. Thereis also dual loyalty among them. Who needs them?

Ilhan Omar did not invent the lie. She was repeating it... 

Repeating Haman's Words

Some six centuries after Haman, these same words are repeated by Philostratus, a third-century teacher in Athens and Rome, who summarizes the pagan world's perception of the Jews.

"The Jews," Philostratus wrote, "have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table, nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Sura or Bactra of the more distant Indies (4)." The same argument, in one form or another, would be repeated thousands of times throughout history.

The greatest Roman historian, Tacitus, living in the first century CE, had this to say about the Jews: "The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that which we abhor… toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity, they sit apart at meals and they sleep apart, and although as a race they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women."

One example he mentions to describe the moral conflicts between the Romans and the Jews is worthy of note. "The Jews," Tacitus writes, "regard it as a crime to kill any newborn infant." The Romans, as the Greeks before them, killed mentally and physically handicapped infants. In their minds, keeping such children alive was pointless and unaesthetic (5). 

First Lady Intervenes

Back to the Haman story of Purim. The viceroy's arguments persuade the King. A decree is issued from the Persian throne. Every Jewish man, woman and child living under Persian dominance would be exterminated on a particular date. Then, in a delightful turn of events, the First Lady, the Jewish queen Esther, invites her husband and Haman to a drinking feast.

As we recall, Esther, from all the thousands of young women who were brought from across the Empire as potential candidates for the role of queen, succeeded in gaining the affection and grace of the King. "The King loved Esther more than all the women, and she won more of his favor and grace than all other women; he set the royal crown upon her head (6)."

Years later, during this wine feast, the King makes a pledge to Esther that he would fulfill every request and petition. She utilizes the opportunity to make the fateful pitch. "If I have won Your Majesty's favor and if it pleases the King," Esther tells Ahasuerus (7), "let my life be granted to me as my request and my people as my petition. For we — I and my people — have been sold to be destroyed, slain and exterminated. Had we been sold as slaves and servant-girls, I would have kept quiet. The compensation our adversary [Haman] offers cannot be compared with the loss the king would suffer [by exterminating us, rather than selling us as slaves]."

Clearly, Esther is attempting to approach the issue from two sides, a personal one and an economical one.

First, she exposes her Jewish identity. The queen is a member of the people condemned to death. Esther knows, however, that this alone may not do the trick, so she continues to discuss dollars and cents (Haman too, as recorded above, used a two-point approach in persuading the King: logic and money). By selling the Jews as slaves, Esther argued, Ahasuerus would be profiting far more than by exterminating them. The money Haman offered him is miniscule vs. the potential profit from their sale into slavery.

The King, who never realized that Esther was Jewish, is outraged at Haman. He has his minister executed and his decree subverted. In subsequent conversations with Esther, Ahasuerus grants the Jews the right to self-defense against anybody who would dare to harm them.

The entire climate in the Persian Empire toward the Jew is radically transformed. Esther's first cousin, a Jewish sage, Mordechai, is appointed viceroy, replacing Haman.

Why Not Answer The Accusations?

Yet, one question remains. Haman did not argue the case for Jewish extermination on the basis of senseless venomous passion. He presented what was to the King a sound and persuasive argument. The Jews, Haman argued, were an alien growth, a bizarre people, a separatist nation that would not accept the King's ultimate authority and even considered their law superior to the King's.

A leader could not tolerate such a "superior group" with dual loyalties in his empire. This is a strong accusation. The King accepts it and as a result issues a decree demanding his subjects dispose of all the Jews — men, women and children. Yet nowhere in her entire dialogue with the King does Esther refute this argument.

Why did Ahasuerus consent to the abolishment of his original plan if he believed Haman's outcry to be valid? One might argue that Esther's charm and grace were the exclusive factors for the King's change of heart.

Yet, as proved above, it is clear that Esther does not rely on this alone. That is why she presents a logical argument for slavery vs. genocide. She refutes the economic offer made by Haman by demonstrating that the king would lose money. How, then, could she ignore the powerful argument of Haman advocating a "Judenrein" society?

When False Notions Face Reality

Some questions are canceled out via answers; some arguments refuted by counter-arguments. But there are those beliefs or notions that require neither debate nor dialogue to disprove them. When reality is exposed, the questions and distortions dissolve into nothingness.

Haman's argument fell into this category. Esther responded to Haman's argument for Jewish genocide not by dialogue, but by her sheer presence. The moment she identified herself as a member of the Jewish people and as a product of its faith, Haman's previously attractive "thesis" vanished.

Ahasuerus knew Esther intimately. She was his wife. He sensed her soul, touched her grace, and cherished her outer and inner persona. He adored her glow, charm, and would do almost anything for her, as he explicitly told her more than once. He knew that Esther's character and values were noble, dignified and pure. He chose her from thousands upon thousands of young women, all of them not Jewish. Yet the king never realized that she was Jewish—a daughter of the Jewish people and a product of its upbringing.

When Ahasuerus suddenly discovered that she was a proud member of the Jewish people, an adherent of the Jewish faith, he immediately realized the falsehood of Haman’s arguments—not through dialogue and debate, but there Esther’s living presence. Esther’s day-to-day life demonstrated, louder than any argument, the absurdity of Haman’s arguments that the Jews threatened society.

Looking at Esther, seeing her refinement and inner beauty, the King understood that this alien nation who lived by another code, ought not to be loathed, but respected. They may be different, but it is an otherness that elevates other nations rather than threatens them. (Leo Tolstoy wrote: "The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world (8).") The Jew may be different, but it is this "otherness" that has the power to inspire all of the nations of the world to live and love deeper, to encounter their individual path to G-d.

When the Persian King learnt that the royalty of Esther was a symptom of her Jewishness, he did not need to hear anything more. He got it. The last thing he needs to worry about is the Jewish people and their faith. If anything, they will prove to become the greatest blessing for his Empire. The decree could safely be annulled.

Should We Hide?

The lesson for our times is clear. Sometimes Jews think that by hiding the “otherness” of Judaism and the Jewish people they will gain the approval of the world. Yet the facts prove otherwise: Assimilation, the eclipsing the otherness of the Jewish people, has never assuaged anti-Semitism. Tradition tells us (9) that the Jews of Shushan (the capital of the Persian Empire at the time of the Purim story) were quite assimilated. Yet, this did not deter the Persian viceroy and king from believing that despite all of the Jews' compromises and attempts not to be "too Jewish," they were still strange, distinct and different.

This pattern has repeated itself in every milieu since. Never in history, has assimilation solved the problem of Jew hatred. Jews in Germany were the most assimilated and integrated in mainstream society, yet it was in that very country where the worst Jew hatred in history sprouted.

Scores of great non-Jewish thinkers, sympathetic to Jews as well as to anti-Semites, saw in Jews and Judaism something different, bizarre and extraordinary. In Tolstoy's letter above he continues: "The Jew is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions."

John Adams wrote that "the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation (8)." Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, believed that the Jews introduced to the world the "slave virtues" like "pity, the kind and helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industriousness, humility, friendliness," designated "for the weak and envious (10)."

Hitler blamed the Jews for inventing the life-denying reality called conscience. Today, many academics and laymen believe that the Jews are responsible for the great conflict in today’s world.  As much as we attempt to run from our identity as Jews, the non-Jewish world reminds us of who we are and where we came from. The non-Jew senses that since the day the Jew stood at Sinai, he or she has been different.

The solution for the Jewish people is not to deny its otherness. That will never work. Rather, the Jew ought to embrace his or her Jewishness, and just like Esther, be proud with the lifestyle and moral ethic of Torah. When we learn how to embrace our otherness with love and grace, rather than with shame and guilt, it will become a source of admiration and inspiration for all of humanity.

Just like Esther, the presence of a Jew who is permeated by the love and dignity of Torah and Mitzvos—speaks for itself. The grace of a true Torah Jew, the integrity, the innocence, the discipline, the modesty, the moral code, the sensitivity to all that is noble and dignified in life, the love for man and G-d which Torah inculcates in the Jew, the dedication to family, charity and education—all these refute the argument of Haman more than debate can ever hope to achieve.

The great Lithuanian sage Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin once remarked: "If a Jew doesn't make Kiddush (to sanctify himself by maintaining a distinctly Jewish lifestyle), then the non-Jew will make Havdalah for him (by making the Jew realize he is truly different)."

Israel, for example, will never succeed portraying itself to the world as “a regular country.” Its choice is either to run from its destiny or to embrace it, and thus become a source of pride for the entire world.

1) Esther 3:8. 2) Megilah 13b. 3) Wine poured in idolatrous service is according to Torah law forbidden to the Jew. The rabbis decreed that wine touched or poured by an idolator, even if not in service to his deity, be prohibited for a Jew to drink (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 123:1). 4) Quoted in Why The Jews? (By Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, NY, 1983) p. 83. 5) Ibid. pp. 86-88. 6) Esther 3:17. 7) Ibid. 7:3-4. The translation of the last clause of the verse follows Rashi's interpretation. 8) Quoted in Radican Then, Radical Now (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, London 2000) p. 3 with reference noted there. 9) See Talmud Meggilah 12a; Shir Hashirim Rabah 7:8. Introduction to Manos Halevi. Sicah, Purim 1941. 10) Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Harmondsworth, 1978) p. 178. 11) This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, on Purim 5729, March 4, 1969. Published in Sichos Kodesh 5729 vol. 1 pp. 401-414.


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Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    Yes it is so important for us to make a kiddish Hashem and to embody our potentials as Jews as Esther did.

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  • N

    Nina -4 years ago

    Good Morning-
    I am not certain why I was included in your invitation.
    You are certainly gifted- I've told you this before, and you don't need me to validate rich matonos from Hashem.
     The article is well researched and intricate in setting the ground work.
    I am a simple person, and this is my take.
    I do know that whatever action or thought we do/entertain; it's unleashed into the world's air, affecting one or more than one and then it's compounded.  It also awakens either a stronger element within us, or unfortunately (chas V'Shalom) a propensity to rationalize a darker path.
    I've worked in a mixed world most of my adult life and I know what they first notice, is honesty and ethics.  We Yidden live under the world's microscope and are held to a much higher standard.  The next tier of non-Jews, who actually know a little about the separation of milk and meat, and foods "blessed by the Rabbi", will notice when we are sloppy with our kashrus and that creates a very bad impression. 
    To them it's key to the religion and we are throwing the keys away.
    So I wondered why the choice of example was eating non-kosher first.
    What truly struck me was the mercy and understanding from Hashem.  We live in a time, where judgments are formed faster than the click of "like" or "accept".  The media tries in the court of public opinion.  The country's democracy has been under siege, by the opposite of judicious reflection, objectivity, training of judges and heart..  Not only this country but the current state of Israel.  Agenda over justice.
    Without that justice, no person can be forgiven or given another chance to try better and aim higher..
    These are the thoughts and first impressions,  and I write them personally, rather than in LinkedIn.

    Have a good Shabbos and Tomid.

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  • Anonymous -4 years ago

    Did't Fully Explain Jew-hate in Title

    Rabbi YY,

     While this is a fine and valuable article, you didn't address the hate in the title, quoting Ilhan Omar's antisemitic statement. Woudn't it be helpful to explain this statement and why it is abhorrent? 

     All you write is

    "Ilhan Omar did not invent the lie. She was repeating it..."

    But it still doesn't pointedly refute the lie.   If you could add this...then those who most need to understand the phenomenon of antisemitism will better understand and be able to refute it.

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  • M

    Moshe -4 years ago

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't

    The Tanya speaks about the extra, second soul.of a yid. One can call this "extra horsepower". 

    It is well known that yidden are far and away disproportionately represented in Nobel prizes, scientific, artistic, literary, musical, academic, banking, wealth, etc., etc. and every worthwhile field possible.  Even in the opposite of a  worthwhile field like ponzi schemes. You name the area of human enterprise and  the yidden are at the top far on excess of  their one quarter of one percent of the global population.  One third of  Amazon sellers are from Brooklyn, Lakewood and Monsey! 

     Bloomberg has dropped out but here is  a yid who is a very successful capitalist, one of the top richest in the world.  Bernie is  a flaming communist. Both yidden.

      The point is  that we are the extremes of everything.  

      So if one wants to bash communism, we're there. If one wants to  bash capitalism, we're there. Any field of human enterprise one wants to  bash, discriminate against, revile and boycott, we're not only there but leading it. 

      Iran is even blaming the yidden for the  Corona virus that has already killed some of  their top brass. We caused 9/11. We baked matza with blood. We are the butt of most UN resolutions. Etc. 

      Of course the nation responsible for being the moral compass of the world and of history is the one to be bashed. We look different, we act different, we even think differently.  Even when we try to hide. 

      The correct response is  to be UNabashed. To be UNabashed about being jewish, about keeping the Torah and mitzvos, and to continue to  be a dugma chai to the world.  We are all by virtue of being a people apart walking talking billboards and ambassadors of the Divine.  A person who litters is a litter bug, but a jew, especially an obvious jew, who litters, is a jewish litterbug.

      Just as we are different, we must live up to the higher standard Hashem set for us. 

      They will bash us anyway.

      So by being walking, talking, dugma chais, like Esther, we can refute unfounded hatred just by example.  

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  • ES

    Eli Samuels -5 years ago

    Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often gives the same advice, and, he says, this is the reason why he has never been the victim of public anti-semitism. However, one of the public orthodox Jews today, Ben Shapiro, was the number one receiver of anti-semitism l last year. Why has there been such a diametrically opposite response to these to very public, yet proud orthodox Jews?

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  • DK

    David Kottler -5 years ago

    very sound advice

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  • C

    chaim -5 years ago

    Brilliant title, brilliant essay! Happy purim

    (I thought you were going to connect her lineage of שבט בנימין)

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • Anonymous -6 years ago

    Value to Assimilation

    Dear Rabbi,

    Thank you for your thought provoking work.

    I have been reflecting on this essay and feel a significant issue has been overlooked in this analysis.

    In order to be chosen as the Queen, Esther had to be assimilated to a significant degree.  

    In fact, she was so assimilated that she did not expose her true identity until her "fateful pitch" to the King.

    Another compelling narrative could be that there is value to assimilation if it is done in such a way as to not lose one's Jewish identity and the understanding of the significance of one's Jewish identity.

    Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • Anonymous -6 years ago

      Let us recall the story the way it is recorded in the book of Esther. Esther was taken to the king, the Bible tells us. She was taken against her will, and forced to marry a tyrant, the king of Persia, Achashverosh.

      This was no romantic courtship. Having executed his previous queen for not obeying his wishes, Achashverosh ordered that every woman in the kingdom present herself before him. Esther, a sweet Jewish girl, was deemed the most beautiful candidate, and so she was chosen to be king's queen. She had no choice - to resist meant death.

      When an evil decree was made to annihilate the Jewish nation throughout the kingdom, Esther used her position to beg for the salvation of her people. She succeeded, but there was no happy ending for her. The Jews celebrated their victory in the streets, but Esther was stuck in the palace. She remained chained to her despotic husband till the end.

      Esther is not a model of intermarriage. This was a forced marriage. Yet Esther's marital situation was never used as an excuse for her to weaken her ties to Judaism.

      Intermarriage is never good for the Jews. Esther was good for the Jews, because she never gave up her Jewishness.


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  • Anonymous -6 years ago

    Dear Rabbi,

    I am truly pleased with the content of this article! It shows erudition and a highly respectable understanding of the eternal place Judaism and the Jews should find themselves on the human record.

    Kol tuv,

    Yoel Nitzarim

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • A

    Abe -6 years ago

    While I completely agree with the overall message you are delivering, the logic in one of your key points is hard to understand. You write that Achashveirosh needed no justification of the value of Judaism once he found out that Esther was Jewish. (It is interesting that the Megillah itself presents him as an impulsive, greedy simpleton, while many of the meforshim attempt to rehabilitate him as one of calculated logic.) If he was aware of the way she viewed him in a personal and halachic context, and avoided him in matters of intimacy, and the way that Mordechai also viewed him, and that how we as Jews viewed him then and now, do you think he would still feel favorable to the Jews? Of course, Esther, Mordechai, and Klal Yisroel are correct in our view and approach to Achashveirosh. Esther wasn't given any choice and was forced into a marriage she did not willingly consent to. That is the flip side to Purim that is a shmooze on its own.

    I stress that our views are correct and are not racist by any means, just that your key logical point in an otherwise excellent piece is difficult to understand. I think we need to stress other  explanations of how we are not racist, and you touched upon some of them. However, within the ridiculous views of equality that our liberal secular world deem sacrosanct and above reproach, we are unfairly judged and viewed as racist. We live in a time where anyone who feels they possess something of value that should remain within a group and withheld from being shared with just about anyone, is deemed racist. That entire logic is what falsely labels us as racist.

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  • R

    Rafi -6 years ago

    A bisel eidelkeit

    ‘Well said, but..,

    ’He adored her body’.

    Why must one insert words that offend some people? 

    Where else, even in modern orthodox shuls, do speakers use such language?  

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • SP

    Shlomo Potter -6 years ago

    This is a brilliant analysis. Thank you for your amazing insights.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • AB

    Alan Batterman -8 years ago

    It does not mention that the King had gone through his journal and recalled that Mordechi had saved him from assassination.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • B

    BN -8 years ago

    Beautiful. Thank you for strenthening my pride, joy and gratitude for being a part of this G-dly nation. May we always live up to our name.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • LR

    levi rapoport -8 years ago

    Very well written.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • March 25, 2016
  • |
  • 15 Adar II 5776
  • |
  • Comment
To Pascale Shoshana Sasson: You are a great Mother and Eishet Chayil!
From Benjamin, Maya, Leah, Joseph , Tally and David Pisarevsky

Class Summary:

Essay for Purim and Shushan Purim

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