Absence of Religiosity
Megillat Esther, like most stories in Tanakh, does not explicitly speak of the religious observance of its heroes and heroines. However, in contrast to many other Biblical texts, overt religiosity is completely absent from the story, and its main protagonist, Esther, even engages in halakhically questionable activity. Nowhere do she or Mordechai pray to Hashem,1 or even mention Hashem's name.2 In addition, Esther neither protests being taken to the king nor express discomfort about sleeping with a non-Jew. How should these facts be interpreted?
Esther's conduct can be contrasted to the actions of other Biblical characters in exile who attain similar positions of prominence.3 Daniel, in stark comparison to Esther, explicitly refuses to eat of the king's foods and risks his life to pray to Hashem. Yosef not only rejects Mrs. Potiphar's advances, but also constantly points to Hashem's guiding hand.4
The Septuagint's recounting of the Esther tale may serve as the sharpest foil, for it interpolates into the narrative these missing elements of religious observance.5 It presents Mordechai as warning Esther to remain loyal to her faith before going to the palace, and it also includes the prayers to Hashem of both Mordechai and Esther following Haman's decree. Do these foils demonstrate that Esther was not a religiously observant Jew, or are these arguments from silence inconclusive?
Esther's religious identity impacts on our understanding of various aspects of the Megillah:
- Becoming queen and marrying Achashverosh – Did Esther willingly go to the palace and desire to become queen? Should she not have sacrificed herself rather than unlawfully sleep with the king? See Esther's Relations with Achashverosh for a full discussion.
- Observance in the palace – Did Esther try to keep the Torah's commandments while in the palace? If so, how was this possible? See How Did Esther Conceal Her Nationality for elaboration.
- Hiding her identity – What led Mordechai to instruct Esther to hide her identity? Was this going to help or hinder her observance? See Why Conceal Esther's Nationality for details.
- Esther's dual name – Esther's original name was Hadassah. Her Persian name, Esther, seems to be derived from the name of a Mesopotamian goddess, Ishtar. Does this name imply that Esther had assimilated into Persian society even before becoming queen, or is this merely a name which she received upon becoming queen?