What's in a Word?

For the week ending 9 March 2024 / 29 Adar Alef 5784

Vayakhel: Myrrh & Myrtle (Part 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Part I of this essay already discussed the name Mordechai and the other names by which the historical Mordechai was called, so this installation focuses on the names Esther and Hadassah.

After Achashverosh gets rid of his wife Vashti and begins the search for a new queen, the Scroll of Esther introduces the heroine of the Purim Story by stating that that a Jewish man named Mordechai lived in Shushan, and "he raised Hadassah — she is Esther, his cousin — because she did not have a father or mother" (Est. 2:7). This verse contains the only reference to the name Hadassah, as throughout the rest of the story, the heroine is always called Esther. Ralbag (to Est. 2:7) clearly states that the heroine of the story had two names Esther and Hadassah, but does not expand on the relationship between these two names and what they mean.

The Talmud (Megillah 13a) was already bothered by her dual names, and presented several different opinions as to how to understand the interplay between them. The first approach is that of the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Meir, who maintained that her actual name was Esther, but that she was called Hadassah because righteous people are likened to a hadas (“myrtle”). Rabbi Meir adduces this notion from a passage in which the prophet Zecharia describes Hashem’s Shechinah (“Holy Presence”) being exiled to Babylon alongside righteous men from Jerusalem by saying “…and He stands amongst the myrtles [hadasim]” (Zech. 1:8). The Chachmei Tzarfat commentary (to Est. 2:7) also seems to follow this approach, commenting on the word Hadassah “that was what they called her,” and commenting on the word Esther “that was her name.”

Interestingly, the Talmud (Megillah 10b) also relates that the Amoraic sage Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachamani began his exegetical excurses into the Scroll of Esther by citing the verse “instead of the thornbush will arise a myrtle-tree" (Isa. 55:13) as an allusion to Esther (the myrtle) replacing the position once held by Vashti (the thornbush). Targum Sheini (to Est. 2:7) also explains that her “Hebrew name” was Hadassah because just as a myrtle contributes a good fragrance to the world, so did Esther's good deeds contribute to the world, and because righteous people are compared to a myrtle.

The Talmud (Megillah 13a) then cites the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Yehuda as explaining that the opposite is true: her real name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther because she “hid” (nistar) her origins from Achashverosh by refusing to reveal from which nation she came (Est. 2:20). Rabbi Avigdor Katz (a late 12th century sage) adds that the name Esther also refers to Mordechai “hiding” (nistar) his cousin when Achashverosh was looking for a bride queen.

The connection between the name Esther and “hiding” is also found in another passage in the Talmud (Chullin 139b), which famously asks “Where do we find the name Esther in the Torah?” and answers by citing the verse in which Hashem warns “I shall surely hide Myself (haster astir)” from the Jewish People should they indulge in sin (Deut. 31:18).

A third Tannaitic sage, Rabbi Nechemiah (Megillah 13a), opined that indeed her actual name was Hadassah, but that she was called Esther because the gentiles named her after Istahar. This is also the view followed by the Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra to Est. 2:7). Rashi (to Megillah 13a) and Sefer He’Aruch (s.v. sahar) explain that Istahar derives from the Aramaic word sihara (“moon”), as Esther’s beauty was equated with that of the moon. Nonetheless, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697–1776) explains that Istahar actually refers to the planet “Venus,” and not to the moon. He supports this assertion by noting that Targum (to Job 31:26) refers to Istahar as a source of light alongside the moon, which implies that it cannot be identified with the moon itself. Indeed, an alternate version of Rabbi Nechemiah’s statement is found in Yalkut Shimoni (Est. §1053), and that version explicitly reads that the idolaters called Esther after Venus, which they called Istahar.

Targum Sheini(to Est. 2:7) similarly explains the name Esther as relating to the astrological force of Nogah (“Venus”). That perceived force was worshipped by various different pagan societies as the goddess of love and fertility under different names, including the Canaanite Ashtoreth, Sumerian Inanna, Babylonian Ishtar/Astarte, Greek Aphrodite/April, Latin Venus, and Germanic Eostre. Although Rabbi Yosef Nechmias (to Est. 2:7) incorrectly writes that Istahar refers to the “sun,” in some pagan mythologies the equivalent to Istahar may have been the wife or consort of the sun god. For more about these idolatrous deities, check out my book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry(Mosaica Press, 2018).]

Interestingly, etymological cognates of the word Istahar include the English words star, astrology, astronomy, asterisk, asteroid, disaster, stellar, estrogen, Easter, as well as the English name Stella, the Languedocien name Astruc, and the German name Stern (which is also a popular Jewish surname). Some have argued that the given name Estori borne by Rabbi Estori HaParchi (the early 14th century author of Kaftor Va’Ferach) is also related. Interestingly, Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727–1792), author of the Pri Megadim, writes in one of his letters that the feminine given name Sterna (also pronounced Shterna) in Yiddish also derives from Esther. This leads him to consider whether that should have a bearing on how the name ought to be spelled in gittin (that is, with the letters SIN and TET like a foreign name, or with the letters SAMECH and TAV like the Hebrew name Esther).

There are several other explanations as to why Esther was called Hadassah:

  • The way Rashi reads him, the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha (Megillah 13a) implies that she was called Hadassah on account of her greenish complexion, which resembles the color of a hadas (“myrtle”) leaf. It should be noted that in ancient times, Venus was perceived to be a green planet, so this may also fit with the Istahar connection.
  • Ben Azzai (there) explains that she was called Hadassah on account of her average stature, as she was not especially tall like a lulav, nor especially stout like an etrog.
  • Rabbi Refael Berdugo (1747–1821) cites an unknown source that tells that King Herod’s daughter had an especially pleasant body odor, which was attributed to the fact that her mother made a habit of consuming citrons while she was pregnant. Based on this, Rabbi Berdugo speculates that Esther was called Hadassah because her body likewise gave off an especially pleasant fragrance, just like a hadas.
  • Rabbi Dovid Oppenheim (1664–1736) points out that the Talmud (Brachot 57a) states that when one sees a hadas ("myrtle") in a dream, this is a sign of future success in one’s property, and if they do not own any property, then it is a sign that they will unexpectedly inherit property. As Rabbi Oppenheim explains it, Esther was thus called Hadassah because she ended up unexpectedly "inheriting" Haman's estate after he was put to death (Est. 8:1).
  • Other sources claim that the name Hadassah contains an allusion to Esther’s age when she was taken to be queen, as the gematria of Hadassah equals 74, and a rabbinic tradition states that she was precisely 74 years old when chosen (Midrash Panim Acheirim version 2 §2, Ibn Ezra to Est. 2:7, see also Bereishit Rabbah §39:13). A similar idea is found in Targum (to Est. 2:7) which states that she was called Esther (related to “hiding”) on account of her extreme modesty for the seven and a half decades she lived in Mordechai’s house.

To understand how her two names work together, Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi (13th century Hebrew lexicographer) writes that Esther’s original birthname was Hadassah, which clearly has a Hebrew ring to it. However, when later she became well-known in royal circles, they started calling her Esther. Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (1420–1494) similarly writes that her original name was Hadassah, but when she became the Persian queen, she was given a Persian name and became Esther.

Going in a slightly different direction, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1500–1576) in Manot HaLevi (to Est. 2:7) and Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1512–1585) in Yosef Lekach (to Est. 2:7) wrote that her original name was Hadassah, but later on when Mordechai wanted her to conceal her identity and not reveal that she was Jewish, she assumed the name Esther, as the Hebrew word hadas (“myrtle”) in Aramaic is assa, which is close enough to Esther (see also Ibn Ezra to Est. 2:7).

Even though Rabbi Ashkenazi writes that the name Esther is of Aramaic origin, Maharsha (to Chullin 139b) and Rabbi Meir Mazuz (Sansan L’Yair to Est. 2:7) assume that it was actually a Persian name. By the way, the Maskillic scholar Yitzchak Ber Levinsohn (1788–1860) in Shorashei Levanon argues that the name Esther is actually a portmanteau of asa (“myrtle”) and ter (“fresh,” possibly via the interchangeability of TAV and TET) making it an exact translation of the phrase hadas ra’anan used by Sefer He’Aruch (s.v. asa).

[Interestingly, there was a King of Judah named Asa, who was a great-grandson of King Solomon (I Kgs. 15, I Chon. 3:10, II Chon. 13-16). His name is spelled exactly the same as the Aramaic word for “myrtle,” ALEPH-SAMECH-ALEPH. Yet, I have not found any sources that intimate a connection between King Asa and Queen Esther, or King Asa and the myrtle.]

In line with this, Rabbi Ashkenazi explains that when the Scroll of Esther writes “…Hadassah — she is Esther, his cousin…” (Est. 2:7), the Scroll meant to clarify that Hadassah and Esther are one and the same, just like when it says “…the pur [lottery], it is the goral [lottery]…” (Est.3:7, 9:24) the Scroll meant to clarify that the words pur and goral are synonymous. [For more about the synonyms pur and goral, see “Playing the Lottery” (March 2019)].

Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam of Sanz-Klausenberg (1905–1994) argued that Esther was named so because of Istahar (as explained above) and her family followed the Jewish practice of modifying foreign words/names when adopting them, so Istahar became Esther. However, he explains that her cousin Mordechai was a linguistic purist, and was therefore particular to only speak a form of Hebrew that was not infused by foreign loanwords or names, so he always insisted on calling her by her Hebrew name Hadassah. [For more about these two approaches to how words from other languages should be treated in Hebrew, see my book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrewpublished by Mosaica Press.]

Either way, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823–1900) explains that the dynamic of Esther’s two names represents the lessons derived from the Story of Purim: even when the Jews are in a state that Hashem’s presence has been “hidden” from them (Esther), they still righteously cleave to Him and are loyal to the performance of His will (Hadassah).

Before concluding, I just wanted to mention that Rabbi Shlomo HaAdani (a 16th century Yemenite commentator to the Mishnah) writes in Melechet Shlomo (Pesachim 2:6) that there is a bitter herb that was customarily called Esther HaMalkah. Rabbi Yitzchak Epstein (Ha'Idud L'Chidud, Purim 5778) cites that some have speculated that the herb was called so because there was a tradition that in addition to the seeds that Esther ate whilst in Achashverosh’s palace (see Megillah 13a), she also ate this herb.

Okay, one more interesting tidbit, Dr. Herbert C. Dobrinsky writes in A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs (p. 387) that in some Sephardic communities, women who are named Esther are especially careful to observe Taanit Esther.[1]

[1]רסיסי לילה (אות נב ס"ק ל"ז במהדו' הרב ברכה), משמחי לב בירדוגו (אסתר ב:ז), רב פנינים בירדוגו (דרוש ב' לשבת זכור עמ' קיד), מגילת ספר לר' דוד אופנהיים (עמ' רנד), מגילת אסתר דברות חיים רבותינו לבית צאנז (עמ' נו), ספר המגיד (אגרות קודש אגרת ד' אות ל'), שרשי לבנון (עמ' 18), הגר"ח פאלאג'י (מועד לכל חי סי' לא אות מה).

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