It’s difficult to learn accurate history from the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud.
“The early Rabbis did not save any historical sources besides the Bible for the biblical or post-biblical periods,” states Hebrew University Professor Moshe Herr. A perfect example of his point is the Persian (Achaemenid) period: The rabbis believe that it lasted 52 years because there were only three Persian emperors listed in the Hebrew Bible. In truth, based on countless other historical sources, we know that it lasted 220 years, and that there were 10 Persian emperors in all. Therefore, when it comes to evaluating the historical veracity of the book of Esther, which is set in the Persian period, we must do so with extreme caution.
University of Maryland Professor of Biblical Studies, Adele Berlin, encourages us to think about the book of Esther in the context of what we know about the ancient world. Real Persian emperors needed to be strong and decisive, otherwise they would find themselves dead very quickly. In contrast, our Achashverosh can barely decide what he wants to have for breakfast. Real Persian emperors did not choose their queens by beauty contests—they contracted their marriages based on crucial geo-political alliances—and needless to say, there are no records of Esther, or any other Jewish woman, being crowned the queen of Persia.
Some historians have tried to identify Achashverosh with the historical Xerxes I, but real Persian emperors were absolute rulers—they could make or rescind any decree they wished. Our Achashverosh isn’t much more formidable than Toronto’s bumbling ex-mayor Rob Ford—stripped of his powers and left a mayor in name alone. You’ll find a truer depiction of the terrifying “God-King” Xerxes I in Frank Miller’s film “300” (2006) and its sequel “300: Rise of an Empire” (2014).
It seems, therefore, that the book of Esther must be a work of historical fiction. Yet, I must confess that I love it dearly all the same because it depicts a world so much like our own! A broken world, in which the presence of God is veiled and we humans are forced to be God’s hands in mending it. When we perform the mitzvot of the festival—providing for the needy, giving food parcels to friends, hosting festive meals—we become those divine hands in the world. Did Purim really happen all those millennia ago? Probably not. Does Purim happen today? Yes, without a doubt.
—Rabbi Marc Kraus, Temple Emanuel