The Talmud1 states that King Achashverosh (also spelled Ahasuerus) of the Purim saga “ruled the globe (kippah).” Some interpret this to mean that his empire extended across the whole world. But should it be taken literally?

We know he ruled over the sprawling Persian Empire. But just how big was his kingdom?

The very opening verse of the Book of Esther states that his kingdom included 127 medinah, which can mean states or principalities. According to rabbinic tradition,2 “the world” at that time consisted of 252 states, meaning that Achashverosh ruled over almost half of all countries!

That same verse also states that his kingdom ranged “from Hodu till Kush.” Where are these two places?

There’s a dispute in the Talmud3 as to whether they were right next to each other or at opposite ends of the Persian Empire. “Hodu” refers to India, but what is “Kush”?

According to the view4 that “Kush” is near “Hodu,” “Kush” may perhaps refer to the Hindu-Kush region in Central Asia.But according to the opinion that “Kush” is far from “Hodu,” it refers to Nubia, an ancient kingdom south of Egypt.

Now, an empire from India to Nubia is vast, but it is hardly the entire globe!

So could there be another way to understand the meaning of the statement that Achashveros “ruled the globe”?

Check Out Your Kippah

A key clue is in the word the Talmud uses: “kippah.” We all know what a kippah is: in modern parlance, it’s the head covering worn by Jewish men. While a kippah covers the upper part of a person’s skull; it does not cover its entirety. Thus, when the Talmud says that Achashverosh ruled over the kippah, it quite likely means that his kingdom covered the “upper part” of the world’s sphere.5

This dovetails with the Midrashic statement that “Achashverosh ruled over half [the world’s provinces].”6 The Targum (Aramaic elucidated translation) of the Book of Esther likewise has Haman telling the king that “some of them [the Jews] reside in the provinces of the king.”7

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1835-1909) was a towering scholar, one of the greatest Sephardic authorities of all time. In his commentary to the Talmud, he clearly spells out his view:

The world we are referring to here is not the entire globe, but the civilized world at that time … He ruled over the Asian continent that was replete with many large states, as well as an abundance of smaller ones. But certainly Achaverosh’s kingdom did not extend to Europe, Africa or China, or America that had not yet been discovered. When we speak of Achashverosh ruling the globe, this is because he [mostly] ruled Asia, which is where most of the world population lived at the time.8

Living in Bagdad, where he served as chief rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Chaim explains that the entire Middle East was once densely populated, verdant, and flourishing and that it had already greatly declined by his day (around 150 ago), when much of it had been reduced to arid desert.

In fact, India and Nubia were the furthest extremities of the Achaemenid Empire over which Achashverosh ruled, as best we can tell – as illustrated by this map. If so, rabbinic tradition would be entirely consistent with modern-day scholarship.

Another great Sephardic scholar, Rabbi Yosef Chaim David Azulai (1724-1806) of Jerusalem, likewise concluded that the Kingdom of Achashverosh only covered Asia and a small part of Africa. He adds that “there were Jews living in Spain and Africa which were not under the rule of Achashverosh.”9

Direct and Indirect Control

Even over the 127 provinces that Achashverosh did rule, it is quite possible that his direct control was somewhat limited.

Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (1793-1872)10 presented a very strong case that many of the provinces under the Persian Empire during the Purim story were semi-autonomous. While they were subservient to the Persians and paid certain taxes, they were largely independent:

There were variations as to the status of the provinces under Achashverosh’s rule. Over some areas, he was only the overall ruler, but there was a vassal king that ruled there, and the people abided by his command, while in other areas he was the direct ruler.

In this way, he explains the conundrum over why, in the ninth chapter of the Book of Esther, Mordechai sent out two letters to the Jews announcing the new festival of Purim. In his view, initially the festival was declared only in the provinces that were under direct Persian rule, as those were the only ones in danger of destruction.11 Upon reflection, however, Mordechai came to the view that it should be celebrated by all those living in the Persian Empire – hence the second letter that was sent to “all the Jews… in the Kingdom of Achashverosh.”12

This view supports a much earlier source, that of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167). According to Ibn Ezra, the Persians only had indirect influence over parts of Europe, such as Greece, Cyprus, Crete and the many other islands in the area. In the final verses of Esther, we read that Achashverosh imposed taxes on “the lands and the isles of the sea.”13 These refer to “those lands that were not in his kingdom, but which feared him. And the remote island nations [which he did not control, but who paid taxes].”14

Furthermore, the great Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg (1762-1839) suggests that the Persians were averse to seafaring, as they were afraid of the turbulent seas. They therefore kept to dry land whenever possible.15 This would neatly explain why the Persian empire did not spread into Europe.

So Why Does the Whole World Celebrate Purim?

If only the Jews in the main part of the Persian Empire were under threat of Haman’s decree, why do Jews in Europe and America and every other part of the world observe the festival of Purim?

This is a question asked by some of the most prominent Torah scholars, including the aforementioned Rabbis Azulai and Sofer.

Two main answers are offered:

Contagion – Had Haman’s decree succeeded in the Persian Empire, this would have inspired and emboldened other antisemitic rulers to do the same to the Jews in their jurisdiction.16

Spiritual revelation – Due to the momentous events that occurred on Purim, the day became sanctified. Each year, a Divine revelation appears which uplifts Jewish people across the globe. Thus they too have cause to celebrate.17

While the interpretation that Achashverosh was a global ruler stands, we now have another equally legitimate view that views Achashverosh was a powerful monarch, who presided over an immense empire that incorporated most of the civilized world at that time. Through the prism of this specific issue, we gain a sense of the rich tapestry of Torah scholarship, and how the great sages throughout the ages grappled with fascinating questions with insight and ingenuity.