Purim, Persia and Some Hints from Herodotus?

While the length of the Persian period of rule has been the subject of controversy¹, and the identity of King Achashverosh the subject of some debate2, there is no dispute that the Purim story takes place during the period of Persian domination — specifically during the First Persian Empire (known as the Achaemenid Empire). Much of what we know about the period of Persian dominance over the ancient Near East and Asia during the Achaemenid Empire comes to us from the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-425/413 BCE), who describes in great detail various aspects of Persian Achaemenid- era governance, administration, and culture. Are there hints within the writings of Herodotus that may help us elucidate portions of the Purim story as told in Megillat Esther? Let’s look at three possibilities:

I. Did the Feast of Achashverosh Begin as his Birthday Party?

At the outset of the Purim story, the Megillah relates: 

בִּשְׁנַ֤ת שָׁלוֹשׁ֙ לְמׇלְכ֔וֹ עָשָׂ֣ה מִשְׁתֶּ֔ה לְכׇל־שָׂרָ֖יו וַעֲבָדָ֑יו חֵ֣יל ׀ פָּרַ֣ס וּמָדַ֗י הַֽפַּרְתְּמִ֛ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י הַמְּדִינ֖וֹת לְפָנָֽיו׃

“In the third year of his reign, he [Achashverosh] made a feast for all his officials and servants—the army of Persia and Media, the nobles and the officials of the provinces being present.” (Megillat Esther 1:3).

Why the feast? Is it possible that Herodotus’ description of prevailing Persian culture can shed some light here? Lavish banquets were prevalent in the Achaemenid Empire, particularly to mark special occasions. Herodotus writes the following description:

“Of all the days in the year, the one which they celebrate most is their birthday. It is customary to have the board furnished on that day with an ampler supply than common. The richer Persians cause an ox, a horse, a camel, and an ass to be baked whole and so served up to them: the poorer classes use instead the smaller kinds of cattle. They eat little solid food but abundance of dessert, which is set on table a few dishes at a time: this it is which makes them say that “the Greeks, when they eat, leave off hungry having nothing worth mention served up to them after the meats; whereas if they had more put before them, they would not stop eating” (Herodotus Histories I. 133).

Does this excerpt from Herodotus perhaps shed some light on the Megilla’s narrative? The Yalkut Shimoni3 offers the following explanation for the reason that Achashverosh made his feast: 

 ״בשנת שלש ‏למלכו עשה ‏משתה… וי״א גינוסיא שלו היה ושלח אגרות ולכל המדינות ולכל עיר ועיר ולכל שרי המדינות לבוא ולעשות לפניו שמחה, באו לפניו קכ״ז גדולים בני מלכים מן קכ״ז מדינות שהיה שליט בהם.״

“In the third year of his reign he made a feast… There are those who say it was his geinuseya and he therefore sent letters to every city and to all the officers of the provinces to come and rejoice before him. There then came before him 127 noblemen and princes from 127 provinces that he ruled.”

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, the feast of Achashverosh marked his “geinuseya”. There is, however, some dispute about what גינוסיא means. The Talmud Bavli (Avoda Zara 10a) offers an explanation:

״ויום גינוסיא ‏ ‏של מלכיהם וכו״: מאי ויום גינוסיא של מלכיהם אמר רב יהודה יום שמעמידין עובד׳ כוכבים את מלכם והתניא יום גינוסיא ויום שמעמידין בו את מלכם לא קשיא הא דידיה הא דבריה ״

“One of the gentile festivals listed in the mishna is the day of festival (geinuseya) of their kings. The Gemara asks: What is meant by: The day of geinuseya of their kings? Rav Yehuda says: This is referring to the day on which the gentiles appoint and crown their king. The Gemara asks: But isn’t it taught in a baraita: Two gentile festivals are the day of geinuseya and the day on which the gentiles appoint their king? (This baraita would appear to indicate that these are two separate occasions.) The Gemara answers that it is not difficult: This, the day of geinuseya, is referring to the coronation of the king himself, whereas that, the day on which the gentiles appoint and crown their king, is referring to the coronation of his son, when a son is crowned during his father’s lifetime.” 

“​​ומי מוקמי מלכא בר מלכא והתני רב יוסף (עובדיה א,  ב) ״הנה קטן נתתיך בגויים שאין מושיבין מלך בן מלך (עובדיה א,  ב )  בזוי אתה מאד שאין להן לא כתב ולא לשון אלא מאי יום גינוסיא יום  הלידה”

“The Gemara asks: And do the Romans actually appoint as king the son of the king? But didn’t Rav Yosef teach: The verse relating a prophecy about Edom, associated with the Roman Empire: “Behold, I made you small among the nations” (Obadiah 1:2), is a reference to the fact that the Romans do not place on the throne as king the son of the king… (The Gemara therefore rejects the explanation of the baraita that distinguishes between the coronation of a king and coronation of the king’s son.): Rather, the Gemara concludes, what is the day of geinuseya? It is the king’s birthday.”4

In short, is it possible– based on the Talmudic sources and Herodotus’ recitation of prevailing Persian culture– that the feast of Achashverosh began on his birthday, as a kickoff to a far more extensive celebration commemorating the third year of his reign?

II. Why Does Esther Invite Achashverosh and Haman To Two Separate Banquets?

One of the more enigmatic questions of the Purim story is why Esther saw fit to invite Achashverosh and Haman to a banquet, only to invite them yet again to a second banquet before entreating the king to save her people. Here too, might the writings of Herodotus, and his descriptions of Persian culture, shed some light on the Purim story? According to Herodotus, Persians would debate decisions of consequence twice– once while drunk, and once while sober. The order of such consideration was irrelevant. In the words of Herodotus:

“It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine”.5

The Talmud (Megillah 15b) offers twelve reasons why Esther chose to invite Haman to each of the banquets. The reason posited by Rabban Gamliel is that she wished to arouse the king’s jealousy and suspicions6. It may be that, following the first banquet, Achashveirosh began to contemplate the need to eliminate Haman.  

Between the first and the second banquet, the king has trouble sleeping. Why, he wonders, has Esther invited Haman to the banquet? Are they conspiring together to kill him7? And, if so, is there anyone who would tell him, or has prior loyalty perhaps gone unrewarded? He, therefore, says the Talmud, arranges to have the king’s chronicles brought and read aloud to him (Megillah 15b). Have the king’s suspicions regarding Haman been sufficiently aroused that Achashverosh must consider– for the second time– the possibility that Haman must be eliminated?

For a delightful, astute and more psychological analysis of Esther’s use of suspicion and jealousy as tools to bring about Haman’s downfall, see Rabbi David Fohrman’s The Queen You Thought You Knew: Unmasking Esther’s Hidden Story. As Rabbi Fohrman observes:

 “Esther is planting the seed of an exceptionally dangerous idea in the mind of the king. As Rashi, grandfather of medieval commentators, suggests8, Esther is insinuating without quite saying it, that perhaps something is going on between her and Haman” (p. 45).

And, by the time the second banquet takes place, Esther has confirmed the king’s worst fears– Haman, in fact, is trying to take the queen from him. As Rabbi Fohrman, in The Queen You Thought You Knew, notes:

“Esther has taken the king’s suspicions of adultery and gently diverted it. All the energy and sublimated rage the king has felt over the possibility that Haman was seducing her is now free to express itself as fury over the discovery that Haman was trying to kill her,” (p. 64).

As a member of the royal court for several years, surely Queen Esther would have been well aware that the Persian king took his private meals either alone, or in the company of his wife and/ or mother9. And, if we credit Herodotus’ account of the Persian decision-making process, Esther would have been aware of the Persian custom that decisions of major impact had to be considered twice– once while drunk and once while sober. Surely the elimination of Haman, and the resultant annulment of a royal decree that had been issued in the king’s name and bore the royal seal– particularly a decree to massacre an entire people throughout the vast empire– would have been such a fundamental decision. Is it therefore conceivable– and perhaps likely– that Esther carefully orchestrated the “double banquet” strategy, both to engender the king’s jealousy and suspicion that would bring about Haman’s ultimate downfall, and also to provide Achashverosh with the two bites at the decision apple that was ingrained in Persian culture10? We leave it to you, dear reader, to ponder the possibility and form your own conclusion. 

III. The Persian “Pony Express”

הָרָצִ֞ים רֹכְבֵ֤י הָרֶ֙כֶשׁ֙ הָֽאֲחַשְׁתְּרָנִ֔ים יָ֥צְא֛וּ מְבֹהָלִ֥ים וּדְחוּפִ֖ים בִּדְבַ֣ר הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ׃   

“The couriers, riders of swift mules, went forth in urgent haste by order of the king…” (Megillat Esther, 8:14).

In this manner, the Megillah relates, the rescission of Haman’s evil decree was swiftly communicated throughout the vast empire. According to historians, the Achaemenid Persians could deliver messages from one end of the massive Persian empire to another11 in a matter of days, through an elaborate system of couriers on horseback (known as pirradazis in old Persian). Herodotus reported that a message could be sent from Susa (Shushan, in what is now western Iran) to Sardis (in what is now Western Turkey) in between seven and nine days by following the Royal Road, a highway of sorts between these two vital cities of the Persian empire, spanning approximately 2,600 kilometers– a journey, according to Herodotus12, that would have taken three months on foot! This ancient Persian message delivery system was based on expert horsemen operating on a relay system- much like the Pony Express13. While Herodotus may not be the most reliable source for documenting Persian customs, let alone for interpreting the Megillah, his observations hold out tantalizing hints to consider our traditional understandings and perhaps even to suggest new avenues for understanding and appreciating the miracle that was Purim. 

A freilichen Purim!

Rabbi Dr. Goldmintz is a noted author and educator. Mr. Fagin is a retired attorney, and Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union


1. According to the Seder Olam Rabbah (the basis for rabbinic chronology), the period of Persian rule (i.e, from the defeat of the Babylonian empire by the Persians/ Medes until the beginning of Greek rule) spanned fifty two years, and the reigns of three Persian kings, the second of whom was Achashverosh. According to the chronology now universally accepted by historians (known in the literature as the “conventional chronology”), the Persian period lasted 207 years (from 539 to 332 BCE) , and spanned ten Persian kings. Over the course of centuries, Rabbinic authorities and Jewish scholars have analyzed, and attempted to reconcile, the discrepancy between the traditional Jewish chronology and the conventional chronology. For a comprehensive and erudite summary of these efforts at reconciliation of the divergent chronologies, see Mitchell First, Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology, Jason Aronson, 1997. 

2. For a fascinating and detailed analysis of the identity of Achashverosh, see Yehuda Landy, Purim and the Persian Empire: A Historical, Archaeological and Geographical Perspective, pp. 39-42, arguing persuasively that Achashverosh was the Persian King Xerxes. See also, Mitchell First, Identifying Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources, The Jewish Link, March 4 2015; Mitchell First, Review of Yehuda Landy, Purim and the Persian Empire, Lehrhaus, March 2, 2020. 

3. Yalkut Shimoni, תתרמ“ו, https://www.sefaria.org

4. Talmud Bavli, Avoda Zara, 10a, translation from Sefaria, https://www.sefaria.org/Avodah_Zarah.10a. The Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 1:2) appears to state even more definitively that geinuseya is a birthday: ‏״יום גנוסיא של ‏מלכים ויהי ביום השלישי יום הולדת את פרעה״ ‘The king’s birthday’. It was on the third day, Pharaoh’s birthday”.

5.  Herodotus, Histories I.133

6.  The first invitation extended by Esther to Achashverosh and Haman is to attend the banquet “‏אשר עשיתי לו”– “That I have prepared for him” (Megillat Esther 5:4). Might Achashverosh have wondered whether “him” was a reference to the king, or to Haman? The second invitation is for Achashverosh and Haman to attend the banquet “אשר אעשה להם”–“that I shall prepare for them” (Megillat Esther 5:8). Now, the king’s suspicions may well have been confirmed.

7. Talmud Bavli, Megillah, 15b

8.  See Rashi on Megillat Esther 6:1

9.  See Purim and the Persian Empire, p. 43

10. The question remains, of course, whether Achashverosh was sober at one banquet and inebriated at another. The Megillah doesn’t tell us, but perhaps offers some subtle clues. Esther’s first banquet is characterized as “ ‏משתה היין”– “the wine feast”, a rather explicit reference to the consumption of wine. While the second banquet is likewise referred to as a “wine feast”, it is not at all clear from the text whether Achashverosh had the opportunity to imbibe extensively before his rage at Esther’s recitation of Haman’s genocidal plot caused him to leave the feast and go out to the royal garden. He needed time to think, to ponder, to deliberate– and perhaps, consistent with the prevailing Persian culture– to confirm his suspicions in his own mind and solidify the decision that Haman must be eliminated. The Megillah relates that Achashverosh returned from his garden orchard, אל בית משתה היין״”, to the wine feast chamber, not to the “wine feast” itself (Megillat Esther 7:8). Indeed, the Maharal explains that the king deliberately left the banquet to avoid allowing his anger to subside, as might well have happened had the party continued. Finally, it is worth noting that the careful and highly consequential actions of the king– taken in the immediate aftermath of the second banquet– were hardly those of an inebriate. The Megillah tells us that Achashverosh, on that very day, ordered that Haman be hanged; granted Haman’s estate to Queen Esther; provided his signet ring to Mordechai; and rescinded Haman’s evil decree.

11. Map of the Royal Road from Shushan to Sardis at the edge of the empire. See Landy, Purim and the Persian Empire, P. 95.

12. “Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers. The entire plan is a Persian invention; and this is the method of it. Along the whole line of road there are men (they say) stationed with horses, in number equal to the number of days which the journey  takes, allowing a man and horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow, or rain, or heat or by the darkness of night. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second and the second passes it to the third and so is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light in the torch race, which the Greeks celebrate to Vulcan. The Persians give the riding post in this manner, the name of ‘Angarum’,” (Herodotus, Histories VIII. 88).

13.  See Jobin Bekhard, The Surprising Origins of the Postal System, BBC, June 25, 2020.