Ahasuerus (Achashverosh) was the king of Persia and Medea during the Babylonian exile. Convinced by his evil prime minister, Haman, to have all the Jews in his empire killed, he changed his mind after being petitioned by his queen, Esther, who was secretly Jewish. He comes across as a frequent drinker with a loose temper and a mind that is easily swayed. The Purim story, including his role, is recorded in the Book of Esther (Megillah), which is read every year on Purim.

Ahasuerus in Scripture

The story, as related in the Megillah,1 begins in the third year of Ahasuerus’s reign with a 180-day party for representatives of the 127 provinces over which he ruled.

That wine-heavy party was followed by a weeklong drinking fest exclusively for residents of the capital city, Shushan.

On the final day of the party, the king ordered that Vashti appear in (only) her crown so that everyone could ogle at her beauty. When she refused, he drunkenly followed his advisors’ suggestions—to have her replaced and issue a decree obligating all wives to adhere to their husbands’ orders.

Upon sobering up and realizing what he had done, Ahasuerus began the search for a new queen. He ordered that maidens from all the provinces be presented to him, but none found favor in his eyes, until he laid eyes upon Esther, a Jewish orphan who had been taken to the palace against her will from the home of her cousin, Mordecai. The king loved Esther and appointed her queen, even though she did not reveal to him her nationality.

One day, two of Ahasuerus’s guards, Bigtan and Teresh, plotted to kill him. They spoke in their native tongue, but were overheard by Mordecai, who, as a leading member of the Sanhedrin, was required to know all 70 languages. Mordechai told Esther to tell Ahasuerus what he had overheard, and his life was thus saved. The episode was recorded in the king’s diary, but nothing more was done about it.

Shortly thereafter, the king promoted the evil Haman to prime minister. Following the king’s orders, everyone bowed to Haman, except for Mordecai who insisted on bowing to G‑d alone. Enraged, Haman offered the king a huge sum of money in exchange for permission to wipe out the Jews. The king, who was none too fond of the Jews himself, agreed to endorse the genocidal plans for free, and the two men sat down to drink.

Meanwhile, Mordecai sent urgent messages to Esther, asking her to intercede on her people’s behalf. After Mordecai assured her that the entire Jewish nation would fast and pray along with her, Esther accepted the dangerous proposition.

It had been more than a month since Esther had been summoned to the king, and approaching the monarch unbidden was a capital offense. Yet when Esther drew near, Ahasuerus extended his scepter, indicating that he was pleased.

Esther then invited the king and Haman to be her guests at a drinking party, at which she invited them to yet another banquet (are you spotting a pattern?).

Leaving the party on a high, Haman’s spirits crashed when he saw Mordecai, who, as usual, refused to bow to him. Following the advice of his wife, Zeresh, he decided to erect a giant gallows upon which to hang Mordecai.

That night, Ahasuerus tossed and turned, unable to sleep, and asked that his records be read to him. Upon hearing that Mordecai had saved his life and never been rewarded, he resolved to correct the injustice. Just then, Haman entered the royal chamber to ask permission to hang Mordecai.

Without giving names, the king asked Haman what reward should be given to someone he wished to honor. Assuming the honor would be directed toward him, Haman shared his fantasy of being paraded around the city on the king’s horse, dressed in the king’s clothing, including the royal crown.

He was sorely disappointed when the king ordered him to give that very honor (sans the crown) to his mortal enemy, Mordecai. From that humiliating ordeal, Haman was taken directly to his second soiree with the royals. During that banquet, the queen finally revealed how Haman was out to kill her people.

Enraged, the king went for a walk in his garden, and soon returned to find Haman on Esther’s couch begging for his life. Suspecting that Haman was acting improperly with the queen, the king ordered Haman hanged and that his estate be given to Esther.

He then appointed Modecai his new prime minister and authorized him to legislate that the Jews be allowed to defend themselves and neutralize their enemies. He even gave them an extra day to finish the job in Shushan (where there was apparently a bumper crop of antisemites).

Thus, Ahasuerus presided over a stunning reversal, in which the Jews went from being a persecuted minority to being well represented in his monarchy.

Indeed, it was just a matter of time before they would be allowed to return to the Holy Land and rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, something he had not allowed.2

The Sages on Ahasuerus

In rabbinic literature, there are some who identify Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes (ארתחששתא).3

There is a difference of opinion whether inviting his faraway nobles to a feast before the residents of his own city is to be viewed as wise or foolish.4

The sages point out the irony of Ahasuerus having killed his wife (Vashti) on the advice of his friend (Haman), only to go ahead and kill his friend (Haman) on account of his wife (Esther).5

Although the idea of annihilating the Jews was suggested by Haman, it is said that the king more than welcomed it, as he hated the Jews even more than Haman did.6

Ultimately, despite his power, riches, and grand opulence, it is clear that Ahasuerus is never truly in charge, and that G‑d is working through him, orchestrating things just for the sake of His beloved Jewish nation.