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    The hidden heroes of Purim

    The Feast of Esther by Jan Lievens, 1625

    The Feast of Esther by Jan Lievens, 1625

    Everybody knows that the main characters in the Purim story are the two queens Vashti and Esther, the wicked vizier Haman, Mordechai the Jew and Ahasuerus the king. We expect to see God playing a decisive role, but He doesn’t get a mention, even though it is obvious that His hand is at work.

    There is another hidden player – the Jews of Persia. They live in the shadows of the story. There are very few references to the community organising itself and taking any strong initiatives.

    It is likely that a handful of Jews are present at the royal banquet with which the story opens, but we search the text in vain for information as to where they were sitting, what they ate and drank, and what they thought of Vashti’s refusal to parade herself in public.

    Are they an orthodox observant community? Do they have any moral fibre? Does anyone know or worry about their views on matters of state? We are left wondering.

    We don’t even know their names apart from Mordechai, and when Mordechai gets criticised by the sages of Persia for mixing into politics too much we learn, perhaps for first time, that there actually were froom Jews and rabbinic scholars in the country.

    It is possible that some of the Jews were assimilated, preferring to be unnoticed and unheard. In the end, though, their non-distinctiveness doesn’t help. Once Haman gets it into his mind that he wants all Jews out, they are shocked that their quiet life as good Persians counts for nothing and can’t save them from the pogrom.

    Maybe some of the gentile inhabitants supported the Jews against Haman, but the Book doesn’t say other than to remark that many of the local people mityahadim – acted like Jews, which might mean a form of conversion.

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