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Are Mordecai and Esther Named for Pagan Gods?

Are Mordecai and Esther Named for Pagan Gods?

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I grew up hearing the story of Purim and its heroes, Mordecai and Esther. I was especially struck by how Mordecai was courageous and stood up for his Jewish beliefs by refusing to bow before the wicked Haman. And now I read that they bore the names of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Istahar. Is there any truth to that? I could see why Esther would need to do that, living as a crypto-Jew in the palace. But why would Mordecai, a righteous, observant Jew, be named after a Babylonian deity?

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Just to make your question even stronger, let’s note that both Mordecai and Esther had other, Hebrew, names as well.

Esther

Scripture tells us that “Hadassah is Esther.”1 There is a discussion in the Talmud of which of the two was her real name.2

According to one opinion, Esther was her proper name, and she was called Hadassah, “myrtle,” since Scripture compares the righteous to myrtles, saying, “And he stood among the myrtle trees . . .”3

Others say that Hadassah was her true name and she was called Esther because she concealed (מסתרת) her identity.Alternatively, Rabbi Nehemiah says that the non-Jews named her Esther on account of her beauty (either a reference to the moon4 or Venus5).

Mordecai

Although not spelled out clearly in Scripture, Mordecai had (at least) two Hebrew names:

According to one tradition in the Talmud, Mordecai was Petachyah, one of the administrators of the collection chest in the Holy Temple.6 Others are of the opinion that Mordecai was the prophet Malachi, a name derived from the word melech, “king,” which was given to him when he was appointed viceroy.7

Back to the Question

As noted, the Talmud itself cites an opinion that the name Esther was of non-Jewish origins. Considering that she had two names, why was that one favored by Scripture—and why is it the name we use until this very day?

Also, what about Mordecai coming from Marduk? The Talmud makes no mention about that. Perhaps this is an indication that his name doesn’t really originate from the Babylonian creation god Marduk. But be that as it may, I’ll try to address the question.

Name Change

The names “Mordecai” and “Esther,” while resembling the names of pagan gods, are not identical to them. Norman Fredman suggests that this is because of the Torah’s admonition that “the name of the gods of others you shall not mention; it shall not be heard through your mouth.”8

Fredman asserts that due to this verse, Scripture often either mocks or slightly changes the pronunciation of pagan names: “The slightly mispronounced names Esther (from Istahar) and Mordecai (from Marduk) would thus be part of an old and ongoing tradition. The use of word plays to emphasize the Jewishness of Esther and Mordecai is as old as the Jewish people, as old as the Torah comment that sees in Babel, not bab-illu, the gate of god, but ballal—confusion . . .”910

Uprooting the Inclination of Idolatry

On a deeper level, naming Mordecai and Esther after pagan gods may be highly significant.

There is a wondrous Midrash which, after explaining that G‑d created two evil inclinations, one for idolatry and one for immorality, states that G‑d uprooted the inclination for idolatry. In response to the query of when this took place, Rabbi Banoya says: “These are Mordecai and Esther.”11

Expanding upon this idea, the Talmud relates how the the sages of the Great Assembly, of which Mordecai was a member,12 beseeched G‑d to nullify the inclination for pagan worship. After praying and fasting for three days, they saw a vision of a fiery lion leaping out of the Holy of Holies. After capturing and destroying it, the sages figured that it was an opportune time to pray to rid the world of the inclination for immorality as well. G‑d granted their prayer. However, after three days, with the urge for procreation gone from the world, they couldn’t find even a single chicken's egg, so they had to allow matters to revert to their original state.13

Note that of all the members of Great Assembly, the Midrash singles out Mordecai (and Esther) as the one who rid the world of the urge to worship idols.

In the Talmud and Kabbalah, we find that in order to combat and uproot and negative forces, we sometimes need to utilize these very same negative forces. Thus, for example, the Talmud explains that the reason why the prophet Obadiah was chosen to pronounce the downfall of the Edomite kingdom was because he himself was an Edomite convert, and "the handle for the axe to cut the tree comes from the forest itself."14

In this vein, I would suggest that if Mordecai and Esther were to be the ones responsible for the uprooting of the inclination of idolatry, they needed to have at least some slight connection to it.

This connection was manifest in their very names. However, once Mordecai, as part of the Great Assembly, already uprooted this inclination for idolatry, we make no mention of the association between his name and the pagan Babylonian gods.

This also explains the peculiar wording of the Midrash. The Midrash (cited earlier) goes on to explain that what caused the inclination for idolatry to be uprooted wasn’t just Mordecai and Esther, rather it was in the merit of the Jews’ self-sacrifice and devotion to G‑d in the face of Haman’s decree (for more on this, see Why Do Jews Go Berserk on Purim?). And yet, when the Midrash asks, “When did this place take place?” Rabbi Banoya answers, “These are Mordecai and Esther.” Not “In the days or generation of Mordecai and Esther,” but Mordecai and Esther themselves! So while the uprooting of this evil was indeed in the merit of all the Jews of that generation, the power to do so lay in the very names of Mordecai and Esther.

Footnotes
2.
Talmud, Megillah 13a.
3.
Zechariah 1:8. Although the verse is describing a vision in which Zechariah saw the Divine Presence surrounded by the prophets Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah, it describes the Divine Presence as being surrounded by myrtle bushes.
4.
See Rashi ad loc.
5.
See Yalkut Shemoni, Esther 1053, and Dictionary of the Talmud by M. Jastrow.
6.
Talmud, Menachot 65a.
7.
Talmud, Megillah 10b, 15a, and Talmud, Chulin 139b.
9.
See Cassuto to Genesis 9:9.
10.
Norman Fredman, “Esther Hamalka, The Royal Mistress, and Mordecai HaYehudi, the Jewish Judge,” Dor Le’Dor, vol. VI, no. 3 (World Jewish Bible Society, Spring 1978).
11.
Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah 7:13.
13.
Talmud, Yuma 69b; Sanhedrin 64a.
14.
Talmud Sanhedrin 39b. See also Tanya, ch. 31.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Yehuda Shurpin (Author) April 4, 2016

Re: Month of Taamuz With regards to why some of the Jewish months are named after pagan deities see Tammuz—Time for Transformation Reply

Shmuel G. Florida March 30, 2016

But...Jewish months are named after pagan gods! The name of the Jewish month Tammuz is directly related to the idol Tammuz. Rashi explains that Tammuz is the name of the first of the summer months because in Aramaic it literally means “heat.” He also notes that the Tammuz idol that was placed in (or near) the Holy Temple was fabricated with eyes made of lead. When heated up, the idol’s eyes would shed tears of lead, which would run down its face.
So the question remains. If the Torah’s admonition states “the name of the gods of others you shall not mention; it shall not be heard through your mouth"... why do we name the Jewish months this way? Reply

Anonymous March 30, 2016

Definition of Mordechai Mordechai may have an additional meaning. morde in Pharsi literally means someone that has died. Chai means life. Reply

arthur yanoff March 29, 2016

different names this difference in names reminds me of my childhood. in our house we often used our Hebrew or Yiddish names. outside we mostly adopted our secular names. an almost intrinsic awareness of separation. purim also deals with separation. Reply

Anonymous March 29, 2016

Fascinating and I had no idea! Thanks for posting! Reply

Isaac Parker Verona, WI March 29, 2016

A little speculative, but not bad. Reply

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