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If the Shoe Fits (Purim)

In the middle of the Purim megillah, Achashverosh, king of Persia, is suddenly reminded that Mordechai had once saved him from an assassination plot. In reward, Achashverosh commands Haman to dress Mordechai in royal raiment and parade him through Shushan on the king’s steed, all the while announcing: “So shall be done to the man whom the king desires to honor” (Es. 6:11).

The full proclamation which Haman issues before Mordechai knows no equivalent in the annals of Biblical history. It does, however, find partial precedent. That is because there is one other instance (and only one such instance) found in Tanach of the phrase “so shall be done to the man who…” (ככה יעשה לאיש אשר…). It occurs in the law of the levirate marriage (=“yibbum”):

 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to another man. Her husband’s brother shall consort with her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his shoe off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “So shall be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose shoe was pulled off” (Deut. 25:5-10).

Image result for sandals biblicalIn Biblical law, a man whose brother has died without children (=the “yavam”) is encouraged to marry his widowed sister-in-law (=the “yevamah”). Should the yavam opt not to do so, he is designated a “choletz” (“one whose shoe was pulled off”), and the elders of the city call before him: “So shall be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.”[1]

That Haman’s proclamation in our megillah so closely evokes the proclamation of the city elders in the yibbum law may amount to little more than mere coincidence. On the other hand, we know that the diction attributed to Haman in the megillah must have been deliberately chosen. After all, neither Haman nor the crowds assembled at Mordechai’s procession were native Hebrew speakers; they likely spoke Persian, the lingua franca of the Achaemenid Empire. Thus, Haman’s pronouncement as recorded in our megillah cannot represent a direct quote. Rather, its specific formulation was chosen purposefully by the megillah’s author—a Jewish author, that is: one who would have been familiar with the yibbum law, and whose composition would ultimately gain inclusion within the same canon in which that law had been codified.

 So the possibility that Esther 6:6 consciously recalls Deuteronomy 25:9 should not be easily dismissed. And, indeed, despite the relative brevity of the yibbum law—it spans no more than six verses—close analysis reveals multiple literary intersections between it and the Purim megillah. Beyond the example already mentioned, such intersections include:

1. In both Mordechai’s procession and the yibbum law, the term “desire” (ח.פ.ץ) captures the motivation driving the drama of the scene. In the megillah, it is Achashverosh’s desire to honor Mordechai which prompts Mordechai’s triumphant circuit of Shushan: “So shall be done to the man whom the king desires(חפץ) to honor.” In the yibbum law, conversely, it is the choletz’slack of desire to marry the yevamah which prevents the yibbum from taking place: “But if the man has no desire (לא יחפץ) to marry his brother’s widow… [and] persists, saying, “I have no desire (לא חפצתי) to marry her…” (Deut. 25:7-8).

2. Another key word describing the motives of the yavamis “refuse” (מ.א.ן); thus, the yevamah declares: “My husband’s brother refuses(מאן) to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me” (Deut. 25:7). In the megillah, meanwhile, Esther’s (and, indirectly, Mordechai’s) rise to power is facilitated by marital “refusal” of a different sort—the refusal of Achashverosh’s former wife, Vashti, to cater to the whims of her lascivious husband: “But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused (ותמאן) to come; so the king became furious and burned with anger” (Es. 1:12). 

3. Both Mordechai’s procession and the yibbum law unfold at prominent gathering places within the “city:” “the city square,” in the case of the megillah (Es. 6:9, 11); the “gate” where the “elders of the city” sit, in the case of the yibbumlaw (Deut. 25:7-8). Indeed, the “gate” where the city’s officials sit features prominently in the megillah as well, for it is the site where Mordechai is most commonly found (Es. 2:19, 3:2, 4:2,6, 5:9,13, 6:12). More specifically, it is from there that he discovers the plot whose foiling his procession recognizes: “In those days, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs, who guarded the threshold, became angry and conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus” (Es. 2:21).

4. In both texts, fear looms large over the loss of a particular family line—that is, the loss of a “father’s/brother’s house.” In the yibbum law, this is most poignantly articulated through the court’s previously cited edict: “So shall be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house” (בית אחיו). In the megillah, it is invoked by Mordechai as he attempts to persuade Esther to intervene on behalf of her fellow Jews: “For if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house (בית אביך) will perish” (Es. 4:14). Instructive, too, is the focus in both texts on the possibility of finding salvation through an alternative source: “if you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise to the Jews from another place” (ibid.); “the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to another man” (Deut. 25:5).

5. Both Mordechai’s procession and the yibbum law culminate with the disgrace of an individual whose shame finds sartorial expression. At the end of Mordechai’s procession, “Mordecai returned to the king’s gate, but Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered (חפוי ראש)” (Es. 6:12). At the end of the yibbum law, “the wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “So shall be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off” (חלוץ הנעל) (Deut. 25:9-10).  Interestingly, these outcomes mirror each other: the foot of the choletz is uncovered, while the head of Haman is covered.

Taken together, the connections between Mordechai and the choletz seem to highlight the stark contrast between the two. Most saliently: the proclamation made of the choletz derides him, whereas the proclamation made of Mordechai praises him; the choletz is humbled in the city square, whereas Mordechai is honored at the city gate; the choletz bears the mark of his shame in his dress, whereas it is Mordechai’s enemy who meets this fate.

Perhaps, then, one way to gain insight into Mordechai is to view him as a sort of “anti-choletz”—that is, as a “quasi-yavam. Mordechai does, after all, engage in conduct reminiscent of the yavam’s:

Now there was a Jew in the capital of Shushan whose name was Mordecai son of Jair son of Shimei son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away. He had adopted Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother; the girl was fair and beautiful, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter… (Es. 2:5-7).

Like the yavam, Mordechai welcomes into his home the female survivor of a deceased male relative. Moreover, while the choletz is characterized by his “refusal” (מ.א.נ) to act with such magnanimity, Mordechai, in the megillah’s turn-of-phrase, graciously “adopts” (א.מ.נ) Esther as his daughter (Es. 2:7, 20). This is apparently critical information: it is among the first significant details about Mordechai included in the text’s introduction of him, and it is repeated for emphasis before Esther’s momentous audience with Achashverosh (ibid. 15). Both explicitly and intertextually, then, the megillah seems to be positioning Mordechai’s adoption of Esther as a pivotal event in the Purim narrative.

In fact, this makes sound thematic sense. After all, the core conflict of the megillah revolves around a genocidal decree against the people of Mordechai and Esther promulgated by Haman the Amalekite. It is due to earlier attempts such as these on the part of the Amalekite nation that the Torah commands, in turn, the abolition of Amalek’s legacy: “you shall blot (תמחה) the memory of Amalek” (Deut. 25:19). Yet the yibbum law, recorded in the same chapter as the Amalek law, and only a few verses prior to it, already alludes to a sort of precondition for fulfilling this latter dictate: “Her husband’s brother shall consort with her… so that his name may not be blotted out (ימחה) of Israel.”[2] Amalek will persist in its efforts to erase you from history, warns the Torah, as it were; if you wish to overcome these efforts, you must first ensure that you are not yourself tacitly participating in them. You must, in other words, commit to “perpetuating the name” of the most vulnerable among you—the deceased, the widow, and the orphan—before you call on Hashem to reciprocate in kind.

All this, Mordechai did. As an official at the “city’s gate,” he likely exhorted countless yevamim who presented themselves before him to protect the welfare of their yevamot and to preserve the memory of their brothers. As Esther’s adoptive parent, he himself protected the welfare of his cousin, and preserved the memory of his uncle. And perhaps it was in this merit, our megillah implies, that he emerged in the days of Purim as the leader who orchestrated the protection and preservation of his entire people, as well.[3]


[1] Although yibbum served in its original context to promote the economic and social welfare of the yevamah, it should be noted that later rabbinic authorities discouraged the practice (see Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 165).

[2] At least three other details bear mention by way of connecting the Amalek law to the yibbum law. The first is Haman’s ignoble designation as “adversary (צרר) of the Jews” (Es. 3:10, 8:1, 9:10). The same designation, in slightly different grammatical form (צרה as opposed to צרר), is used to describe the relationship between wives of the same husband (see I Sam. 1:6), and would commonly apply to the yevamah following yibbum (see, for example, Yevamot 1:1). The second is the custom of observing the Amalek law by writing the name of this nation on the sole of one’s shoe—a custom in which the choletz, of course, cannot participate. This third (connected, perhaps, to the second), is a medrash, pointed out to me by Harry Glazer, which relates that Mordechai had once purchased Haman as a slave, and written the contract of sale on the sole of his shoe; later, when Haman would command Mordechai to bow to him, Mordechai would respond by waving his shoe before Haman (see Aggadat Esther 5:9; c.f. Megillah 15a-b). 

[3] It was from the megillah of Esther that our sages derived the Talmudic maxim, “Whoever reports a saying in the name of he who said it brings redemption to the world” (Megillah 15a). In this vein, I am pleased to acknowledge that in the course of writing this essay, I discovered a lecture in which R. David Fohrman adduces several of the same connections made here between the yibbum law and the megillah, towards a different interprertation than the one presented in this essay. He also notes a connection which did not occur to me (a compelling one, at that: the “spitting” of the yevamah [ירקה בפניו] vs. Haman’s “calling before” Mordechai [ויקרא לפניו] and conferring “honor” [יקר] upon him), and omits several others which appear here (most importantly, Mordechai’s adoption of Esther as a quasi-yibbum act).


2 Comments

  1. Paul Shaviv says:

    brilliant.

  2. rschwarzyuedu says:

    WOW, I really enjoyed this amazing.

    Ronnie

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