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Esther

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Queen Esther is granted a hidden favour by King Ahasuerus; from an early 20th century Bible card
Queen Esther is granted a hidden favour by King Ahasuerus; from an early 20th century Bible card

Esther is the Jewish Queen and prophetess with the most complete and detailed life story, for an entire book of the Bible has been written about her deeds. She lived approximately between 492 BCE and 460 BCE. In the Book of Esther 2:7 she is introduced as "Esther who is Hadassah." Hadassah is Hebrew for “Myrtle” and this was her original name at birth. Hadassah's father died after her conception and her mother died after her birth. As an orphan, she was raised by her uncle Mordecai, and he eventually adopted her as his daughter. The Persian King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes I) was searching for a woman to replace his queen Vashti, whom he had executed because she would not obey him. He was entranced by Hadassah’s beauty and fell in love with her. At the time, the Persians occupied Jewish territory and held the people under subjugation. In order to conceal their identities as Jewish people, they took on captivity-names. Mordecai, (whose captivity-name identifies him as a servant of the Babylonian god Marduk, changed Hadassah's name to Esther, in allusion to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar and the Persian word “stara,” which means “star," as well as a double entendre with the Hebrew word "hester," which means "hidden," because she hid her Jewish identity. When the king married her, she became Queen Esther, and lived a double life among her people's oppressors. While in the palace, she managed to keep the Sabbath by counting the names of her seven maid-servants as the days of the week, and she was able to abide by Jews dietary laws by eating only seeds and beans.

The king's chief advisor Haman, attempting to exert domination over the Jews, demanded that Esther’s uncle Mordecai bow to him as a superior. When Mordecai refused, Haman was so offended that he requested permission from King Ahasuerus to have all the Jews in Persia killed. Esther learned that Haman's request had been granted, and Mordecai urged her to reveal her true identity so that the king might repeal the decree. Esther knew that to do this might result in her death. She called upon all of the Jews to join her in fasting for three days, and the spirit of divine inspiration descended on her, but as she approached the king, walking through the seven departmental halls in the palace, she was overtaken by fear and recalled the words of Psalms 22: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Nevertheless. with a determination that included the real possibility of her imminent death, she asked the king to grant her a favour, which she would not reveal. King Ahasuerus was so in love with Esther that he extended his royal scepter to her and promised that he would do anything she wanted if it did not oppose his rulership. At a banquet attended by the king and Haman, she revealed her secret -- that she was actually a Jew! She then asked the king to grant the hidden favour, to spare her life and the lives of all of the Jews. The king inquired who was the source of the threat to the Jewish people, and Haman was named. Haman threw himself at Esther’s feet and begged for mercy, but the king ordered that Haman be put to death. Mordecai's role in saving his people was revealed and he was then made the king’s highest advisor. The order of genocide was revoked and reversed by the king with permission granted for the Jews to defend themselves against any and all attackers. Even to this day Persian Jews are sometimes called "Esther's Children."

Esther was considered to be one of the four most beautiful women ever to exist. (The others were Rachel, Sarah and Abigail.) The early springtime Jewish holiday of Purim is held in her honour. As part of the festivities, her story is told, along with the account of how she saved her people from genocide. During Purim, the whole megillah (or scroll) of the Book of Esther is read aloud, and the congregation reviles Haman by writing his name on the soles of their shoes and blotting out the sound of his name whenever it is mentioned with special ratcheted noisemakers called graggers. At the feast of Purim, triangular cookies called Hamantaschen are eaten, one corner at a time; their name is a double entendre between "mohn taschen" (German for "poppy seed pockets," in reference to Esther's diet of seeds) and "Haman tash" (Hebrew for "Haman weakens," describing the deliberate consumption of the delicacy by biting off its corners first). According to the Zohar (The Book of Radiance), a foundational text in the Kabbalah and Jewish Grimoire tradition, one can accomplish more good by rejoicing at the happy holiday of Purim than by fasting at the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur. Because Esther's enemy Haman fell at her feet but was denied mercy, she is identified with the verse in Psalms 110 in which the Lord says to King David, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet," a line which is echoed in the Christian tradition in Luke 20:43, wherein Jesus Christ argues with the scribes about the meaning of Psalms 110. Esther is symbolically associated with date honey, the Zodiacal sign Pisces, the planet Jupiter, the Archangel Sachiel, the stone amethyst, and the robes of royalty. She has a special place in Jewish folk magic because it is said that no one born at the time of Purim can be affected by the evil eye. She is venerated at the Tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan, Iran.

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