June 18, 2024
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Achashverosh’s Tax Imposition at the End of the Megillah

Verse 10:1 reads: “Va-yasem ha-melech Achashverosh mas al ha-aretz ve-iyyei ha-yam.” We have all been wondering for years why the Megillah includes this statement.

Note also the unusual term “ha-aretz” here. Which land is it referring to? Why does it not say that the tax was from Hodu to Kush? Does it mean that only the region of Medeo-Persia was taxed, aside from the “iyyei ha-yam”?

What follows are some suggestions that I have seen to explain the reference to taxation. (Some of this material comes from Erica Brown’s 2020 Maggid edition of Esther.)

-These words were inserted to accord honor to the Persian government and to demonstrate that the Megilla does not deal solely with the triumph of the Jews.

-The taxation symbolizes Achashverosh’s new power and success with the help of Mordechai.

-The taxation symbolizes that the government was now back to normal.

-The taxation symbolizes that there is a more responsible government now, in contrast to the government in chapter one that was overly concerned with arranging a משתה.

-The taxation shows that, to the credit of Mordechai, the king’s revenue now would be generated through peaceful taxation rather than from bribery and extortion.

-The taxation is there to teach that a government has more to gain by orderly taxation than by massacre and plunder of the Jews.

-The taxation reflects a reversal of a tax remission perhaps alluded to at verse 2:18.

-“Aretz” and “iyyei ha-yam” were close and far areas that were not under the rule of Achashverosh. But these areas feared him and were willing to pay taxes. This shows just how far the king’s authority reached due to Mordechai’s talents. (Ibn Ezra)

-“Aretz” and “iyyei ha-yam” were close and far areas that were newly conquered by Achashverosh, due to Mordechai’s efforts. The verse gives the credit to the king out of honor to him. (Malbim)

-By ending with taxes, the Megilla demonstrates that Achashverosh was wicked from beginning to end.

-The word “u-farashat” appears in verse 10:2. One scholar observes: “The only other appearance of the word parasha (“story”) in Esther—or in the whole Hebrew Bible—is in 4:7, where Mordechai tells Esther ‘the story [=parashat] of the money that Haman had offered to deposit in the royal treasury in exchange for the destruction of the Jews.’ Now things have altogether reversed themselves, and the story of the money that was paid to destroy the Jews for Mordechai’s refusal to bow has become the story of the king’s successful imposition of taxes and of Mordechai’s power and grandeur.”

-The taxation alludes to the attempt of Achashverosh=Xerxes to raise revenue to compensate for his losses in his war against the Greeks that ended in his defeat.

(It always bothered me that there was no mention in the Megilla of Xerxes’ war with the Greeks. This would at least be an allusion. This war took Achashverosh=Xerxes out of the country from the spring or summer of his fifth year through part of his seventh year. That is why it took him so long to choose a new queen.)

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I discussed the word מס in a previous column. I pointed out that the word occurs 23 times in Tanach (in either its singular or plural form). All the other times, which all date earlier than our book, the word means something like “forced labor.” (It is likely a word of foreign origin. See my forthcoming article in Hakirah.) Even as late as Eichah 1:1, “forced labor” is probably the meaning. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, and the Anchor Bible. (We have no evidence that the Jews exiled to Babylonia were used for forced labor, but perhaps the author of Eichah thought they were.)

As seen from my discussion above, almost all sources (rabbinic commentaries and scholars) are willing to give מס its later expanded meaning, “tax,” at Esther 10:1. (Many don’t even realize there is an issue and just assume that the word has already taken on its later meaning.)

But if מס meant “forced labor” all 22 prior times, including at Eichah 1:1, there should be a presumption that this is its meaning at Esther 10:1, unless we have indications to the contrary. The Soncino commentary is one source that gives מס the “forced labor” meaning at Esther 10:1. At the top, the translation of the Jewish Publication Society of America of 1917 had been “tribute.” On the bottom (p. 243) is the comment of the Soncino edition: “Since the Hebrew word everywhere else means ‘forced labour,’ a better translation is ‘imposed forced labour.’ ” (Perhaps the image of Achashverosh ordering widespread “forced labor” is an even greater image of strength than his ordering a tax.)

But וישׂם sounds like the placement of a tax. Moreover, no clues are given in the verses as to what such a forced labor might have been for. In contrast, if מס merely meant a tax, no clues are required, as we understand that kings always need revenue. Therefore, the later meaning, “tax,” is the preferable one here. See also Tosafot, Chagigah 8a, וישׂם.

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The Hebrew spelling of “Achashverosh” in verse 10:1 differs from the spelling in the rest of the book. Here it is spelled without any vavs. (“Achashverosh” is spelled with two vavs 24 times, and four times with one vav.) To explain the unusual spelling at verse 10:1, it has been suggested that the words in this verse were copied from a different source. This also might explain the reference to “ha-aretz ve-iyyei ha-yam” instead of the reference to the large empire the way it was described earlier, as spanning from “Hodu” to “Kush.”

A midrashic explanation of “ha-aretz ve-iyyei ha-yam” is that Achashverosh’s empire consisted of 100 provinces and 27 “iyyei ha-yam.”

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Erica Brown remarks poignantly that by the time we are at the end of the Megilla: “Haman is no longer with us, but taxes are here to stay.”

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You are all invited to listen to my recent podcast on identifying Achashverosh and Esther in secular sources at the site Seforim Chatter: Seforimchatter.buzzsprout.com.

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Correction to a previous column: Two weeks ago I discussed the etymology of the word “commute.” It has the meaning “change” (as in reducing a sentence) and I implied that our use of the word in our daily travel was based on changing our location. But Daniel Klein (author of S.D. Luzzatto commentaries in English translation) pointed out to me that this is not the true etymology of the word. The word “commute” in the context of a regular traveler was originally used in the sense of “to change one kind of payment into another” and especially “to combine a number of payments into a single one.”


Mitchell First is an attorney who pays his taxes and is hoping to avoid forced labor. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, visit his website: rootsandrituals.org. Due to COVID, he no longer buys a regular monthly commuting ticket.

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