Sunday, February 24, 2013

How do we know that Mordechai married Esther?

There is a famous midrash which changes much of the dynamic in the megillah, that Mordechai and Esther were husband and wife. The midrash is based on this pasuk in the megillah:

ז  וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת-הֲדַסָּה, הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-דֹּדוֹ--כִּי אֵין לָהּ, אָב וָאֵם; וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ, לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי לוֹ לְבַת.7 And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter.

On Megillah 13a:

תנא משום ר"מ אל תקרי לבת אלא לבית וכן הוא אומר (שמואל ב יב) ולרש אין כל כי אם כבשה אחת קטנה אשר קנה ויחיה ותגדל עמו ועם בניו יחדו מפתו תאכל ומכוסו תשתה ובחיקו תשכב ותהי לו כבת משום דבחיקו תשכב הוות ליה <לבת> [כבת] אלא <לבית> [כבית] הכי נמי לבית

Thus, in a brayta in the name of Rabbi Meir, we should reread levat as levayit, "as a household", meaning as a wife. And there is Biblical precedent for such reinterpretation.

However, this by itself is not sufficient to produce a midrash. How many times does the word bat appear in Tanach? When we see that Yocheved is bat Levi, does this mean that she was the wife of Levi? When Avraham defends himself saying:

 וְגַם-אָמְנָה, אֲחֹתִי בַת-אָבִי הִוא--אַךְ, לֹא בַת-אִמִּי; וַתְּהִי-לִי, לְאִשָּׁה. 

does he really mean that Sarah is the wife of his father?! Obviously not. There must be some trigger which would influence Rabbi Meir to say this.

I gave it some thought and came up with the following:

1) The word לְקָחָהּ might be a prompt. Elsewhere, lakach is used to denote marriage. This then matches the prompt in Shmuel Beit where it states ובחיקו תשכב.

2) More importantly, there is the jarring statement that וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה. Why, when speaking of her parents' deaths and Mordechai taking her, would it be relevant that she was of beautiful form and fair to look on? He should have adopted her as a daughter nonetheless, even if she was of green complexion! Rather, this would be a reason he would marry her, and thus stands as a prompt for Rabbi Meir's derasha.

Of course, on a peshat level, saying how beautiful she was makes perfect sense, since we had just been told that the king was in search of fair maidens to make his queen:

ב  וַיֹּאמְרוּ נַעֲרֵי-הַמֶּלֶךְ, מְשָׁרְתָיו:  יְבַקְשׁוּ לַמֶּלֶךְ נְעָרוֹת בְּתוּלוֹת, טוֹבוֹת מַרְאֶה.2 Then said the king's servants that ministered unto him: 'Let there be sought for the king young virgins fair to look on;


However, the scope of statements such as וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה are much narrower in the midrashic world. We don't look to context of surrounding pesukim to understand the import. That would be significance minimalism and context maximalism. Midrash is significance maximalist and context minimalist.

1 comment:

Joel C. Salomon said...

There’s also the repetition of “אשר לקח־לו לבת” in Esther 2:15, which feels odd on a peshat level as well: but if we assume a tradition that Mordechai and Esther were married, the repetition feels like a plausible way of hinting at this.

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