A few days ago, we looked at what the rabbis had to say about Vashti, for good and for ill. Today, we turn to her famous successor: Esther. Was Queen Esther largely a good looker who lucked into a position of influence? Or was her intelligence and charm her real strength?
The sages begin by declaring that whatever else we can say about her, Esther was certainly beautiful — in fact, one of the most beautiful women in the world, as this teaching makes clear:
The sages taught, there were four women of extraordinary beauty in the world: Sarah, Abigail, Rahab, and Esther.
Not all agree that Esther was a great beauty. In fact, this teaching, the Gemara quickly points out, contradicts an earlier statement (Megillah 13a) that Esther was green (like the iconic Wicked Witch?), meaning it must have been her sweetness and kindness that made her so attractive to Ahasuerus. So which is it? The Talmud suggests that if Esther was actually unattractive, as the one who stated she was green must believe, then she ought to be replaced in the list of four great beauties by Vashti, whom we also know was stunning (even if the rabbis were ambivalent about her for many other reasons, as we recently learned.) But it doesn’t resolve the dilemma.
Either way, Esther was certainly more than a pretty (or ugly) face, as the rabbis explain, citing this verse in which Esther trepidatiously prepares to enter the throne room of the king without an invitation:
“And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther clothed herself in royalty” (Esther 5:1).
It should have said: Esther clothed herself in royal garments (instead of just royalty).
Rabbi Elazar said, quoting Rabbi Hanina: This teaches that she clothed herself with a divine spirit.
Here, the rabbis have explicitly inverted the plain meaning of the megillah. A verse that suggests Esther dolled herself up in finery to please the king transforms the act of primping into something far more sacred: surrounding herself with a divine spirit. This Esther is certainly more than a dreamboat — she is both righteous and clever.
As is its wont, the Talmud goes on to quote other teachings that Rabbi Elazar espoused in the name of Rabbi Hanina, which also happen to stress the value of good character:
Rabbi Elazar said, quoting Rabbi Hanina: One should never regard the blessing of an ordinary person as unimportant in one’s eyes.
Rabbi Elazar said, quoting Rabbi Hanina: When a righteous man dies, the loss is felt by the rest of that generation. Similar to a man who has lost a pearl — wherever it is, it is still a pearl, only the owner is deprived.
And one more:
Rabbi Elazar said quoting Rabbi Hanina: Whoever reports a saying in the name of the person who originally said it brings redemption to the world. As it is stated, “And Esther reported it to the king in the name of Mordechai” (Esther 2:22).
Mordechai, those familiar with the story will recall, discovered the plot to assassinate Ahasuerus and quickly communicated it to Esther, who relayed it on to the king in the name of Mordechai. This chain of reporting led to Mordechai being elevated and, together with Esther, saving the Jews. In this way, we might say, reporting a teaching in the name of the person who first said it really did bring redemption.
What appears at first glance to be a scattershot list of teachings Rabbi Elazar brought in the name of Rabbi Hanina turns out to have more structure and coherence than these lists sometimes do. This last teaching, in particular, not only brings us full circle back to the megillah, but it preaches what it practices: always citing one’s sources.
Read all of Megillah 15 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 27th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.