This article first appeared in United Synagogue’s Daf Hashavua
One of the most enigmatic heroines in the Tanach is Esther. She has two names, no close family, conceals her national identity and may or may not be beautiful. Yet she is one of the seven named prophetesses, highly regarded as the heroine of the Purim story and is a favourite Purim costume for little girls worldwide. Let’s look at the passage in the Gemara (Megilla 13a) discussing Esther: “She is called Hadassa and she is called Esther. If Esther is her name, why is she called Hadassa?” The Rabbis say that a person’s name represents their essence, so if Esther had two names, each of them must tell us something significant about her.
The name Esther is generally taken to come from the root meaning “to hide” – Esther knows how to hold her tongue and not reveal her nationality to Achashverosh. The Gemara also points out that it is close to Ishtar – the Babylonian fertility goddess, so that the local people would recognise the owner of the name as beautiful, like the moon. On the other hand, Hadassa means “myrtle” and the Gemara says that her appearance was average – like that of a myrtle – not tall and not short. More unusually, another rabbi says that she was actually green like a myrtle! It seems unlikely that this is meant to be taken literally, but rather to be interpreted figuratively – perhaps that she was sallow. The rabbi’s comment continues, that God “extended to her a strand of chesed,” in other words, people found her appealing. In fact, according to the Megillah itself, Esther is “beautiful [of] form and fair to look at.” Hadassa also refers to tzadikim, righteous people, as described by the prophet Zechariah.
Either way, although good looking, she would not have won the king’s beauty contest on her appearance alone, but she was blessed with “chein,” that indefinable quality which inspires affection in everyone the owner meets. She won over Hegai, the guardian of the harem, who provided her with every beauty necessity without her asking for it, then captured the heart of the king. Even having fasted for three days, at which point she probably did look green, she was still appealing enough that Achashverosh welcomed her unscheduled visit.
Regardless of her external appearance, Esther’s strength was internal, as symbolised by her name. Once she had accepted the mission to try to save the Jewish people, she did so with all her might. The Maharal of Prague points out a number of reasons why it was relevant that Esther, as the redeemer, was an orphan. Despite the care of Mordechai, she would undoubtedly have sometimes felt lonely and turned to God to comfort her, just as the Jewish people cried out to Him when they went into exile in Babylon. She had such a close connection that she was able to break through the shallow glitter of the king’s palace and use her hidden, Esther, wisdom and sensitivity to become the catalyst for the redemption of the Jewish people, fulfilling her destiny as Hadassa, a righteous person.