Esther's Relations with Achashverosh

Exegetical Approaches


Commentators differ in both their evaluation and defense of Esther's marriage to and relations with the idolatrous Achashverosh.  A minority opinion, championed by R. Reggio, castigates Esther and Mordechai for their actions. The approach claims that Esther's marriage did not conform to Torah law.  However, the majority of sources follow the lead of the Bavli, and while agreeing that a public marriage to an idolater is a serious sin, they nonetheless justify Esther's actions as she was taken under duress and was a passive victim of Achashverosh's desires. Ralbag opts for a different tack, asserting instead that the benefits gained by being in position to save the nation outweighed the negatives incurred by Esther's misdeed.  Finally, an additional approach argues that in the era or Mordechai and Esther, a blanket prohibition of intermarriage was not yet in existence.

Improper Conduct

Esther's behavior did not conform with accepted halakhah, and it was prohibited and inappropriate for her to marry Achashverosh.

What prohibition was being transgressed? This approach assumes that the sin was one of relations with a heathen, but that Esther was not acting under duress nor to save her nation, and as such there was no justification for the action.
Willingness to become queen – According to R. Reggio, Mordechai's main concern throughout the story was that Esther be chosen as queen, not for the good that her position could provide for her nation, but for her own prestige and that of her family.3  Thus, not only did he not try to prevent her being taken, but he even attempted to increase the chances of her being chosen. R. Reggio criticizes Mordechai for being so power hungry that it blinded him to the problems of his relative marrying a polytheist who prayed to the sun.
Mordechai's and Esther's religious identity – R. Reggio portrays Esther and Mordechai as ordinary Jews who were not particularly knowledgeable in Jewish law.  If so, this position could suggest that it was a mixture of ignorance and desire for honor that distorted Mordechai's priorities.  See the discussions in Esther's Religious Identity and Mordechai's Religious Identity for R. Reggio's general reading of the characters of Esther and Mordechai.4
"לֹא הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר אֶת עַמָּהּ וְאֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ" – According to R. Reggio, Mordechai thought that revealing Esther's lowly origins would hinder her chances of becoming queen. R. Reggio points out that hiding Esther's faith also made observance of other commandments more difficult.5
"וּבְכׇל יוֹם וָיוֹם מׇרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי חֲצַר בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים" – R. Reggio asserts that, on a daily basis, Mordechai would check on Esther to see whether his plans for her to become queen had made any progress.
Other Biblical cases – Some of the other Biblical cases of intermarriage might similarly be explained as transgressions.  See, for example, RadakMelakhim I 11:1-2About R. David Kimchi who maintains that Shelomo violated the Torah by marrying heathen women.6

Under Duress

Esther was not culpable since the relations were coerced by Achashverosh, and she was neither a willing nor an active participant.

What prohibition was being transgressed?
  • Relations with an Idolater (ביאת עכו"ם) – Most of these sources assume that Esther was unmarried, and was thus transgressing only the prohibition of having relations with an idolater.  They all view the transgression as severe, but for different reasons:
    • A simple reading of Bavli Sanhedrin8 implies that, under normal circumstances, relations with an idolater would not obligate one to forfeit one's life, but when done in public, it would.9 
    • R. Saadia and R. Meir Arama, in contrast, maintain that even had the marriage not been public, such relations nonetheless fall under the category of illicit relations prohibitions (גילוי עריות) for which one must be killed rather than transgress.
  • Adultery (ביאת אשת איש) – According to Bavli MegillahMegillah 13aMegillah 13bMegillah 15aAbout the Bavli,10 Esther was married to Mordechai.11 If so, her sleeping with another man would constitute adultery, and falls into the category of illicit relations for which one is obligated to forfeit one's life rather than transgress.12
Why is "duress" a sufficient excuse?
  • Abayye in Bavli SanhedrinSanhedrin 74a-bAbout the Bavli asserts that the obligation to sacrifice one's life rather than transgress only applies if one is an active participant.13  Since Esther was totally passive ("קרקע עולם") she was not required to forfeit her life, despite the severity of the sin or the public nature of the marriage.
  • Rava maintains, instead, that one need not give one's life when the prohibition is being violated solely for the pleasure of the Gentile.14
"וַתִּלָּקַח" – Was Esther forced? Ibn EzraEsther Version B 2:16About R. Avraham ibn Ezra and R. Meir Arama assert that the word "וַתִּלָּקַח", in both 2:8 and 2:16, implies Esther's being taken by force and against her will.
"לֹא הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר אֶת עַמָּהּ וְאֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ" – According to Rashi, the Akeidat Yitzchak, and R. Meir Arama, in not revealing her identity, Esther was trying to avoid being forced into a situation of prohibited relations.15
  • Rashi and R. Meir Arama claim that Esther hoped to avoid becoming queen altogether.  She thought that Achashverosh would find her royal lineage16 appealing,17 and thus she tried to conceal her origins.  For further discussion, see Why Conceal Esther's Nationality.
  • The Akeidat Yitzchak maintains that Esther concealed her nationality to make sure that Achashverosh would be forcing her to have relations only for reasons of his personal pleasure, rather than to intentionally cause her to violate her religion publicly.18  If he did the latter, she would have been forced to forfeit her life rather than transgress.19
"לֹא בִקְשָׁה דָּבָר" – The Akeidat Yitzchak and R. Meir Arama20 suggest that the emphasis on the fact that Esther did not request any jewelry or fragrances is further evidence that she was forced to go before Achashverosh, and did not do anything of her own will before being taken.
"וַאֲנִי לֹא נִקְרֵאתִי לָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ זֶה שְׁלוֹשִׁים יוֹם" – The Second Targum understands the word "לָבוֹא" (to come) in its sexual sense, and reads the verse to mean that Esther had been praying for thirty days that Achashverosh would not ask for her to have relations again.
Mordechai's obligations – These commentators disagree regarding the level of Mordechai's obligation to prevent Esther from being taken.  If he handed her to the officers, would she still be considered "under duress"?
  • Active participation allowed – The Second Targum maintains that Mordechai actively took Esther out of hiding once they were threatened with death.  This suggests that this was allowed and did not affect Esther's status as "forced."
  • No need for active resistance – According to R. Saadia, it seems that Mordechai would not have been allowed to actively hand Esther over, but once she was taken by force, he was not obligated to actively resist either.
  • Resist at all costs – R. Avraham Saba implies that Mordechai should have even killed Esther (if nothing else would have availed) so as to prevent her from being given to an idolater.  He compares the episode to events in his own time, during the forced conversion of Portuguese Jewry, when many of the Jews preferred to die and even kill their own children rather than have them baptized.21
Did Mordechai resist? In line with their positions above, the exegetes differ in their understanding of what Mordechai actually did or did not do to protect Esther:
  • Resistance – R. Saadia raises the possibility that Mordechai did indeed actively resist the taking of Esther, but was simply overpowered and failed.  Nonetheless, he prefers to say that his resistance was passive in nature since otherwise Esther's Jewish identity would have become apparent.
  • Hiding – According to Seder Olam Rabbah29About Seder Olam Rabbah, the Second Targum, and the commentary attributed to Rambam, Esther had gone into hiding, but was eventually discovered.
  • No opportunity to save – According to R. Avraham Saba,22 in contrast, since Esther and Mordechai lived in or near the palace, she was immediately seized and Mordechai never had opportunity hide or protect her.23  Otherwise, he would have even risked his life to prevent her being taken.
  • Looked to save even afterwards – See also R. Avigdor Kohen TzedekEsther 2:10About R. Avigdor Kohen Tzedek who proposes that the reason that Mordechai was "יֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ", was that he was looking for a way to rescue Esther from the palace.  His daily walks by the women's courtyard "לָדַעַת אֶת שְׁלוֹם אֶסְתֵּר" might be explained in the same manner.
"וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא כַדָּת וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי" – R. Abba in Bavli Megillah24 understands the word "אָבוֹא" to have sexual connotations, suggesting that Esther intended to seduce Achashverosh into saving the Jews. Though until that point she had been under duress, from this point on she went willingly, and as a result, violated the Torah's prohibitions on improper sexual relations.  Thus, she says that she is coming "אֲשֶׁר לֹא כַדָּת", against Torah laws (and not the Persian law against entering the King's throne room). Similarly, when Esther laments "וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי", she refers not to her potential death by the hand of Achashverosh but to the Torah's requirement that she leave her husband, Mordechai, after having relations with another man.25
Other Biblical cases – This approach would likely attempt to find halakhic justifications also in other instances of purported intermarriages in Tanakh, by suggesting either that the Gentile converted beforehand,26 or the seemingly heathen identity of the spouse is merely a red herring.27
Mordechai's and Esther's religious identity – According to this approach, Esther and Mordechai were fully observant Jews.

Ends Justify the Means

Esther's marriage to Achashverosh was permitted since it was necessary for saving the Jewish people.

What prohibition was being transgressed? According to R. Yosef Colon, Esther was married, making the prohibition one of adultery with an idolater.  However, Ralbag and R. Chayyun appear to assume, as the simple reading of the chapter implies, that Esther was unmarried,29 and thus the transgression was limited to having relations with an idolater. It is not clear, however, how severely they view this act.  Ralbag believes that it is a Torah level prohibition,30 but nonetheless describes Esther's actions as only a "גנות מועט" (small disgrace).
Why do the ends justify the means? R. Yosef Chayyun compares Esther's actions to the law that one is allowed to violate Shabbat once in order to enable a person to observe many Shabbatot.31  Thus, too, Esther was allowed to violate one prohibition to ensure that the nation as a whole would be able to keep their religion intact, and observe many Torah laws.  Ralbag similarly expresses that the benefits that the nation could gain from Esther's misdeed by far outweighed any of the negatives of the act.
Mordechai's precognition – These sources disagree regarding whether Mordechai acted knowing that the nation was in danger:
  • Knew via prophecy – According to the opinion cited in Ibn Ezra, Mordechai knew all along via prophecy that Esther was to save the Jews.
  • Did not know – According to Ralbag and R. Yosef Chayyun, in contrast, Mordechai was unaware of any specific threat, and was only hoping to maneuver Esther into a useful position since life under foreign rule is always uncertain.32  According to them, even the chance of Esther's bringing salvation sufficed to permit the relations with Achashverosh.33
"וַתִּלָּקַח" – Was Esther forced? R. Chayyun asserts that not only was Esther not taken by force, but Mordechai actively placed her in in the public eye, hoping that she would be taken.  He might explain that the passive language of "וַתִּלָּקַח" simply means that she, like all candidates, was taken to the palace by the king's officers, but not necessarily against her will.
"לֹא הִגִּידָה אֶסְתֵּר אֶת עַמָּהּ וְאֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ" – These sources assert that Esther concealed her nationality to increase her chances of being chosen as queen.  If Achashverosh had known her lowly origins, he might have rejected her out of hand.  See Why Conceal Esther's Nationality for more.
"לֹא בִקְשָׁה דָּבָר" – Ralbag might suggest34 that this was part of Esther's strategy to be chosen as queen.  Esther asked for nothing on her own, instead putting her trust in Hegai's recommendations, assuming that he would know best what the king desired.
"וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא כַדָּת וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי" – The commentary attributed to Rambam reads this verse to mean that after Haman's decree, Esther willingly set out to seduce the king in an attempt to save her people.  Though she herself initiated the act, it was permitted due to the noble goal of saving her people.
Mordechai's and Esther's religious identity – These commentators understand that Esther and Mordechai were observant Jews who put the interests of the nation above their own personal good.
Biblical parallels – A similar concept of עבירה לשמה (a transgression for the sake of a noble purpose) is employed by Bavli NazirNazir 23bAbout the Bavli in its graphic depiction of how Yael was able to kill Sisera.35
See also Ralbag who consistently justifies similar actions, lauding protagonists for opting to commit a lesser sin in order to prevent some greater evil.  Thus, he defends Avraham's decision to endanger Sarai in Egypt, despite his knowing that she might be taken by a heathen, since the alternative (death by famine) was far worse.36  See Endangering Sarai in Egypt for elaboration.  He similarly justifies Tamar's sleeping with Yehuda and even Lot's daughters' relations with their father.
Contemporary applications – Later commentators discuss whether prophetic powers are required to authorize committing a transgression for a higher purpose.37  One of the ramifications of this issue is the use of espionage "honey traps" to protect national interests.38

No Prohibition

The prohibition of intermarriage was only a later Rabbinic enactment which did not yet exist in the time of Esther.

Prohibition of intermarriage – According to this approach, the prohibition of intermarriage is of Rabbinic origin, rather than Biblical.39
Mordechai's and Esther's religious identity – This position could posit that Mordechai and Esther kept all of the laws of the Torah.
Esther's willingness to become queen – According to this approach, there is no mention of resistance because there was no transgression involved.
Other Biblical cases – Esther is but one of numerous Biblical characters (such as Shimshon, David, and Shelomo) who had heathen spouses.40  Until the era of Ezra and Nechemyah, this was not viewed as problematic, as it was not prohibited by Torah law.