What Does the Purim Story Have to Do with Righteous Gentiles?

Precious little, you would think. But actually, thanks to one figure in the story, quite a lot.

From The Triumph of Mordecai by Botticelli, c. 1475. National Gallery of Canada.

From The Triumph of Mordecai by Botticelli, c. 1475. National Gallery of Canada.

Observation
March 19 2019
About the author

Andrew N. Koss, an associate editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.


The main event of the upcoming holiday of Purim is the reading of the Megillah, which tells the story of how brave Esther and pious Mordecai saved Persian Jewry from the genocidal schemes of the wicked Haman. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the public reading of the scroll is followed by reciting a poem whose unknown author lived no later than the 11th century. The concluding lines are usually sung to an up-beat tune:

Cursed is Haman, who sought to destroy me;
Blessed is Mordecai the Jew.
Cursed is Zeresh, wife of my tormentor;
Blessed is Esther, who protected me—
And also Harbonah, who is to be remembered for the good!

The reference to Haman’s wife Zeresh, who plays only a supporting role in the book of Esther, can be chalked up to poetic license—a female villain in counterpoint to the story’s heroine. But what of Harbonah, a decidedly minor character mentioned only once in the entire book, and whose appearance in the poem’s final verse breaks the stanza’s metrical form and rhyme scheme? And what of the epithet “to be remembered for the good”?

In the Megillah itself, Harbonah comes onstage near the story’s denouement, just after Queen Esther has exposed to her husband the nefarious plan of his vizier Haman:

And Harbonah, one of the chamberlains [sarisim], said before the king, Behold also, the gallows fifty cubits high, which Haman had made for Mordecai, who had spoken good for the king, standeth in the house of Haman. Then the king said, Hang him thereon.

In other words, Harbonah is there to make sure that Haman gets his proper comeuppance by being hanged on the gallows built for his nemesis Mordecai. As for his epithet, our anonymous poet’s authority is Rabbi Pinḥas, who states in the Jerusalem Talmud that on Purim one should say, “Harbonah, to be remembered for the good.”

Harbonah’s intervention, even if rather cautiously targeted at one who had already earned the king’s disfavor, was certainly commendable. But the question remains: why this special treatment? A closer look may reveal a facet of the Purim story with enduring relevance.

 

Let’s proceed by way of another biblical text, one not usually associated with Purim but chanted in the synagogue just before the holiday begins. The passage—Isaiah 55:6-56:8—is the prophetic reading for afternoon services on fast days, including the Fast of Esther that normally falls on the eve of Purim. Here are the crucial verses:

Neither let the son of the alien, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from His people; neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dried-up tree.

For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep My Sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast to My covenant;

Even unto them will I give in Mine house and within My walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.

Here the prophet Isaiah is offering reassurance to two classes of people. The first is the nekhar, or alien, a word that in this context clearly refers to a Gentile (as it does elsewhere in the Bible). While such a person—the reference may be to a convert or to one taking on the intermediate status of a God-fearing non-Jew—might fear that not being born a Jew places an insurmountable barrier between him and God, the prophet assures him to the contrary.

The second is the saris, usually translated as “eunuch,” whose despair comes from childlessness. To him the prophet promises “a place and a name,” in Hebrew yad va-shem—a phrase, sometimes rendered “everlasting memorial,” that gives its name to Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum. Don’t worry, Isaiah is saying, you may think that your lack of progeny means that your name won’t live on. But God promises it will live on forever.

What has this to do with Harbonah? He is both a Gentile and a saris, although the word as it appears in the book of Esther is usually translated as “chamberlain” since in many ancient Middle Eastern societies eunuchs were employed as court functionaries. Whether or not the sarisim of Esther were of the castrated sort, it’s worth a guess that Isaiah’s message would apply doubly to the only Gentile character in the book of Esther who comes across in an unambiguously positive light. Setting aside the supervillain Haman, consider only the emperor Ahasuerus, understood variously as a well-meaning dupe, a drunk, and a quasi-villain who casually gives the go-ahead to Haman’s plan for genocide and reconsiders only on discovering that his queen is among its prospective victims. The book’s other Gentiles are generally neutral characters.

Harbonah, by contrast, speaks out just once but does so to stand up for the Jews, motivated, it would seem, by a sense of justice: the punishment devised for Mordecai should be meted out to the deviser Haman. And this brings us back to the reading from Isaiah and the promised reward of non-Jews who choose God:

Also the sons of the alien, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants, every one that keepeth the Sabbath from violating it, and holds fast to My covenant;

Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon Mine altar; for Mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

The house here is the Temple, and the mountain the Temple Mount. Although nothing in the book of Esther suggests explicitly that Harbonah joined himself to God or kept the Sabbath, by standing up for God’s people he, too, found himself an “everlasting name.” This is the meaning of the rabbinic phrase “to be remembered for the good,” and the reason it was important to our poet to make room for Harbonah prominently at the end of his poem.

 

It was Yad Vashem—the institution whose name derives from the same passage in Isaiah—that first popularized the term “righteous among the nations” to refer to those Gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, often risking their own lives in the process. While Isaiah apparently had in mind Gentiles who related to God in a righteous way, and not necessarily through their relations specifically with Jews, the singling-out of Harbonah focuses our attention on those who exert themselves to protect Jews. In commemorating such people, Yad Vashem has given them, too, “a place and a name” in the original sense of that phrase.

The book of Esther, it has often been remarked, is a quintessentially diasporic text. It takes place entirely outside the Land of Israel and deals with themes that are staples of the diaspora experience: anti-Semitism, Jews passing as Gentiles, the need for a special kind of politics, the issue of Jews who obtain influence in non-Jewish societies, and so forth. The phenomenon of the righteous Gentile is part of this experience, too.

And here is where the enduring relevance of the Harbonah story comes in. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, the vexed question of Polish collaboration in the Holocaust was once again in the headlines, the subject of a diplomatic fracas between Jerusalem and Warsaw. Surely the recent efforts by the Polish government to distort or cover up the historical record are deserving of sharp criticism, and the hundreds if not thousands of Poles who aided in the extermination of the Jews deserve ignominy no less than did the thousands of ancient Persian subjects who volunteered to help Haman.

But the exhortations of both Isaiah and the Jerusalem Talmud would also seem to apply, collectively and individually, to the thousands of Poles who saved Jews, often exposing themselves to considerably greater danger than those who acted similarly in Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Nor is the message of these passages limited to acts of heroic selflessness during the Shoah. Think, for instance, of Zidan Saif, the Druze policeman who gave his life defending a Jerusalem synagogue against terrorists in 2014—or, in the realm of power politics, of those many Gentiles, from Arthur Balfour to Harry Truman to Daniel P. Moynihan, who at decisive moments in history have spoken up for the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

To be sure, the names of these latter figures would be remembered regardless of what good they have done the Jews. Part of the message of singling out Harbonah, then, lies precisely in the fact that unlike them, he is a minor character. Today, not everyone who writes a small check to Christians United for Israel, or shares an article on Facebook criticizing the anti-Semitism of Ilhan Omar or Jeremy Corbyn, can be known to posterity. But in the midst of the Purim celebrations of Jewish redemption, they, too, deserve to be remembered for the good.

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