What's in a Word?

For the week ending 2 March 2024 / 22 Adar Alef 5784

Ki Sisa/Purim Katan: Myrrh & Myrtle (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Last week, Jews the world over celebrated Purim Katan, a minor holiday observed in the month Adar I of a leap year, exactly one month before the regular Purim is observed in Adar II. To start getting into the Purim spirit, this essay explores the names of two heroes from the Scroll of Esther customarily read on Purim — Mordechai and Esther. What is interesting about these two characters is that both of them have multiple names, so their alternate names can be said to be “synonymous” with their more familiar names. This essay offers an onomastic exploration of these characters’ names and makes some interesting connections in doing so.

Throughout the Scroll of Esther, Mordechai (Mordecai) — the lead male hero of the story — is known by the name Mordechai. The Talmud (Chullin 139b) famously asks where we find an allusion to the name Mordechai in the Torah, before replying with a phrase describing one of the spices used as an ingredients in the Anointing Oil, pure myrrh (Ex. 30:23). In Hebrew, that phrase reads mar dror, but Targum Onkelos translates it into Aramaic as mira dachya, which is phonetically similar to the name Mordechai. The idea behind this connection is that a righteous person like Mordechai exudes good vibes and good deeds in the same way that sweet-smelling myrrh gives off a good fragrance.

Similarly, the Talmud (Megillah 10b) relates that the Amoraic sage Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachamani would begin his ruminations on the Scroll of Esther by citing the verse, “instead of the thorn-bush will arise a cypress-tree [brosh]… (Isa. 55:13). He plays on the word brosh as though it said b’rosh (“at the head”), and reinterprets it as an allusion to Mordechai, whose name alludes to mar dror which is described by the Torah as besamim rosh (“the head of all spices/fragrances”). Amazingly, the Peirush HaRokeach (to Ex. 30:23) writes that the gematria of the word rosh (=501) equals that of the Hebrew phrase zehu Mordechai Ha'Tzadik ("this is Mordechai the righteous"), thus further cementing the connection.

Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that the Talmud did not mean any of this as an etymological insight into the name Mordechai, but rather as an exegetical allusion to the name in the Torah. What, then, is the actual etymology of the name Mordechai?

Many scholars have already noted the similarity between the name Mordechai and the Babylonian name Merodach, which appears elsewhere in the Bible. For example, the successor to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar was named Evil-Merodach (II Kgs. 28:27); and earlier, at the same time that Hezekiah was king of Judah, a fellow named Merodach-Baladan was the king of Babylonia (Isa. 39:1). Interestingly, Merodach-Baladan is known elsewhere as Berodach-Baladan (II Kgs. 20:12), probably due to the interchangeability of the letters MEM and BET.

Either way, the name Merodach appears one more time in the Bible: When Jeremiah foretold of the impeding destruction of Babylonia and the downfall of its idolatrous deities, Jeremiah said that the people will exclaim, “Bel is ashamed, Merodach is devastated; her idols are ashamed, her gods are devastated” (Jer. 50:2). In this passage, Jeremiah uses the name Merodach as an alternate name for the Babylonian god Bel (equivalent to the Canaanite Baal). Indeed, as archeologists have discovered, Merodach/Marduk was one the chief gods of the Babylonian pantheon. As a matter of fact, the Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish tells the ridiculous story of Marduk defeating Tiama t (the primordial sea monster of chaos) and using her body to create the world.

Just to clarify, I am not saying that Mordechai was named after the Babylonian deity Merodach/Marduk. Rather, what I am saying is that the personal name Mordechai and variants thereof that were used in Babylonian/Persian society were rooted in the name of that god. Once those names became popular and accepted, one can be said to bear such a name without being named directly after an idolatrous deity. This is very much like the way we use names like Mark or Veronica nowadays, without thinking about the names of the Roman deity Mars or the Greek deity Nike from which those given names are derived. [For more about the Babylonian god Marduk, see my book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry(Mosaica Press, 2018).]

Interestingly, Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) in He’Aruch HaShaleim suggests that the name Mordechai means actually “small person” in Persian, arguing that this name was bestowed upon Mordechai by others in appreciation of his superlative humility. [As an aside, I used to think that the Irish/Scottish name Murdoch was a corruption of the Biblical name Mordechai, but after researching it more, I found out that Murdoch more likely derives from the Gaelic word muir ("sea/marine").]

Besides the 58 times that Mordechai's name appears in the Scroll of Esther, it also appears twice more in the Bible in the name Mordechai-Bilshan, borne by one of the Jews listed as returning to the Holy Land with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:2, Neh. 7:7). Although Ibn Ezra (to Est. 2:21) presumes that Bilshan is the name of another person listed after Mordechai, the Talmud (Megillah 16b, Menachot 65a) assumes that it is a designation that refers to none other than Mordechai himself (see Maharsha and Keren Orah to Menachot 65a).

What were Mordechai’s other names?

The Mishnah (Shekalim 5:1) teaches that the person in charge of kinnim (birds brought in pairs of sin-offerings and burnt-offerings in the Holy Temple) was named Petachyah, further identifying this Petachyah character with Mordechai.

Unlike the name Mordechai, the name Petachyah has quite a Hebrew ring to it. In fact, the name Petachyah already appears in the Bible as the name of a Kohen in time of King David (I Chron. 24:16) and in lists of Levites involved in post-exilic Jerusalem (Ezra 10:23, Neh. 9:5, see also Neh. 11:24). From an onomastic perspective, the name Petachyah can be parsed as comprised of the triliteral root PEH-TAV-CHET (“open”) and a theophoric reference to Hashem’s name (with two out of four letters of the Tetragrammaton). Indeed, the Mishnah (there) continues to explain that Mordechai was called Petachyah because he would "open" (poteach) with words to expound them and because he knew seventy languages.

The Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 65a) clarifies that even though all members of the Sanhedrin were required to be experts in the seventy languages, Mordechai was outstanding even among them: Mordechai’s linguistic prowess allowed him to mix and match between multiple languages, rather than possessing mere fluency in seventy languages as discrete bodies of knowledge like his peers. The Talmud finds an allusion to this skill of his in the fact that Mordechai was granted the name Bilshan, which was understood as a contraction of the phrase bayil lishni v’darish (“mixes languages and expounds”). [For stories that illustrate the depth of Mordechai’s mastery of language, see Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 64b–65a) and Jerusalemic Talmud (Shekalim 5:1).]

Indeed, this skill came in handy for Mordechai in the Story of Purim, as it helped him to understand the regicidal machinations discussed by Bigthan and Theresh in a foreign language (see Megillah 13b). This allowed Mordechai to report back to Achashverosh about the latter’s plans to kill him, a development which later proved important in turning the tides against Haman.

Rabbi Chaim Palagi (1788–1868) finds an allusion to the Mishnah’s identification of Petachyah as Mordechai by noting that half the gematria of each of the first three letters of name Petachyah (PEH, TAV, CHET) equals each of the first three letters of the name Mordechai (MEM, REISH, DALET), while double the gematria of the final two letters of Petachyah equal the final two letters of the name Mordechai (KAF, YOD).

In line with the Mishnah that identifies Mordechai as Petachyah, Rabbi Baruch Epstein (1860–1940) in Torah Temimah (to Ex. 30:23 §48, and Est. 2:5 §11) explains why the Talmud (cited above) sought to find an allusion to the name Mordechai in the Torah. He postulates that Mordechai’s true Hebrew name was Petachyah; yet, for some reason, the Bible nonetheless chooses to consistently identify him by his Babylonian name Mordechai, which we have already noted seems to be associated with the Babylonian god Merodach. Because of the name Mordechai’s idolatrous implications, the Talmud sought to find a positive allusion in the Torah to that name and thereby give it some legitimacy, hence the exposition on the words mira dachya in Targum.

When Moses pleaded that Hashem forgive the Jewish People for the sin of the Golden Calf, he said: "And now You [Hashem] shall bear their [the Jews'] sin, and if not, then erase me [Moses] now from Your book that You wrote” (Ex. 32:32). Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeschutz (1690–1764) in Ya’arot Dvash (vol. 2 drush #13) explains that as a result of this request, Moses’ real names given to him by his parents are not used in the Torah, and instead the name given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter is used. Similarly, Rabbi Eybeschutz adds, Mordechai who likewise sacrificed himself to save the Jewish People, caused his real name Petachyah to be omitted from the Scroll of Esther, wherein he is only known by the appellation Mordechai. [For more about Moses’ various names, see my earlier essay “Moses’ Many Names” (Dec. 2021).]

According to one opinion in the Talmud (Megillah 15a), the prophet Malachi was actually none other than Mordechai, who was called Malachi because he was the viceroy to the Persian king (mishneh l’melech, presumably seeing malachi as related to melech). This would mean that Mordechai had three names: Mordechai, Petachyah, and Malachi. Nevertheless, other opinions in the Talmud (there) maintain that Malachi was actually an alternate name for Ezra, or that Malachi was a totally separate person. Maimonides – in his introduction to Yad HaChazakah — follows this last approach, because he lists Malachi, Mordechai Bilshan, and Ezra as separate members of the Men of the Great Assembly.

To be continued…

In next week’s installment, we will discuss the name of the lead female character in the eponymous Scroll of Esther — Esther, as well as her alternate name Hadassah.

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