Oftentimes a medrash can remain unexplained far beyond its primary school inculcation. “Classic Medrashim” are often taken for granted without explanation or, considerably worse, confused with the raw text itself. Today we will attempt to explain the mechanics of one such “classic medrash” pertaining to Megillat Esther:
יאמר ממוכן תנא ממוכן זה המן ולמה נקרא שמו ממוכן שמוכן לפורענות אמר רב כהנא מכאן שההדיוט קופץ בראש
Memukhan is Haman. And why was he called Memukhan? Because he was destined [mukhan] for punishment. R. Kahana said: From here we see that an ordinary man always pushes himself in front.
Memuchan, a relatively minor character, is the royal advisor in Chapter 1 who convinces the King to expel Vashti and issue a new patriarchal family law. The medrash states that Memuchan was actually Haman himself, who we only meet by name in Chapter 3.
Chazal happen to have a particular habit for conflating Biblical characters, and I would not be surprised if readers could think of some other examples off the cuff. While elucidating this phenomena as a whole lies beyond the scope of this piece, the mechanics of this particular instance are fairly straightforward. The connection seems to be based on a litany of textual and thematic parallels which unite the distinct characters of Memuchan and Haman in a very literary sense. These common denominators, we theorize, are what motivated Chazal to exegetically connect the two characters which becomes manifest in their medrashic conflation.
Let’s begin. Once you start noticing, it’s difficult to stop.
Both characters are royal advisors who amusingly blow a small local problem considerably out of proportion into an unnecessarily national scope. In response to Vashti’s rebuff of her husband, Memuchan suggests a solution which cracks down on all the wives of the kingdom, because “!לֹא עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ לְבַדּוֹ”. Similarly, Haman, in response to Mordechai’s rebuff of himself, immediately jumps to genocide, because, “וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו, לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּו“. Let’s recall the degree of that 2-verse escalation:
ה וַיַּרְא הָמָן--כִּי-אֵין מָרְדֳּכַי, כֹּרֵעַ וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לוֹ; וַיִּמָּלֵא הָמָן, חֵמָה. ו וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו, לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּוֹ--כִּי-הִגִּידוּ לוֹ, אֶת-עַם מָרְדֳּכָי; וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הָמָן, לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל-מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--עַם מָרְדֳּכָי.
5 And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him, then was Haman full of wrath. 6 But it seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.
The type of mind that would think it reasonable to jump from v5 to v6 would also suggest something like decisively ratifying new imperial domestic laws in response to the queen forgoing to attend a party. The rhetorical extent of both laws are לְמִגָּדוֹל, וְעַד-קָטָן from 1:20 and מִנַּעַר וְעַד-זָקֵן from 3:13.
Both characters approach the king from a stance of service, advising for the king’s sake. Memuchan lengthily elaborates on the potential damage the incident may cause to both the King’s image and the domestic tranquility of the entire empire.
Haman, similarly, opens his entreatment to the king noting the troublingly subversive tendencies of the Jewish nation. Both characters tactically frame their entire propositions relative to the King’s personal benefit. Within their speeches they both astutely utilize some subtly assuaging flattery:
כ וְנִשְׁמַע פִּתְגָם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה בְּכָל-מַלְכוּתוֹ, כִּי רַבָּה הִיא;
20 And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his kingdom, great though it be…
וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין-שֹׁוֶה, לְהַנִּיחָם
…therefore it equals not the king to suffer them
Both characters operate within the very legalistic contours of their respective situations. Both the text leading up Memuchan’s spotlight moment as well as Memuchan’s solution are steeped in lawyer jargon.
יג וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ, לַחֲכָמִים יֹדְעֵי הָעִתִּים: כִּי-כֵן, דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ, לִפְנֵי, כָּל-יֹדְעֵי דָּת וָדִין. יד וְהַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו, כַּרְשְׁנָא שֵׁתָר אַדְמָתָא תַרְשִׁישׁ, מֶרֶס מַרְסְנָא, מְמוּכָן--שִׁבְעַת שָׂרֵי פָּרַס וּמָדַי, רֹאֵי פְּנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, הַיֹּשְׁבִים רִאשֹׁנָה, בַּמַּלְכוּת. טו כְּדָת, מַה-לַּעֲשׂוֹת, בַּמַּלְכָּה, וַשְׁתִּי--עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָשְׂתָה, אֶת-מַאֲמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, בְּיַד, הַסָּרִיסִים.
13 Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times--for so was the king's manner toward all that knew law and judgment; 14 and the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king's face, and sat the first in the kingdom: 15 'What shall we do unto the queen Vashti according to law, forasmuch as she hath not done the bidding of the king Ahasuerus by the chamberlains?'
Indeed, Memuchan’s entire solution is to ratify a new law complete with an inalterability clause:
. יט אִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, יֵצֵא דְבַר-מַלְכוּת מִלְּפָנָיו, וְיִכָּתֵב בְּדָתֵי פָרַס-וּמָדַי, וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר: אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תָבוֹא וַשְׁתִּי, לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וּמַלְכוּתָהּ יִתֵּן הַמֶּלֶךְ, לִרְעוּתָהּ הַטּוֹבָה מִמֶּנָּה. כ וְנִשְׁמַע פִּתְגָם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה בְּכָל-מַלְכוּתוֹ, כִּי רַבָּה הִיא; וְכָל-הַנָּשִׁים, יִתְּנוּ יְקָר לְבַעְלֵיהֶן--לְמִגָּדוֹל, וְעַד-קָטָן.
19 If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus, and that the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she. 20 And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his kingdom, great though it be, all the wives will give to their husbands honour, both to great and small.'
Haman’s whole claim against the Jews is that they subscribe to a different set of laws.
ח וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן, לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם-אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ; וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל-עָם, וְאֶת-דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים, וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין-שֹׁוֶה, לְהַנִּיחָם.
8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.
And, like Memuchan, his entire solution is to ratify a new law through official channels, here using the King’s ring and seal. The legal language continues to parallel Chapter 1:
יד פַּתְשֶׁגֶן הַכְּתָב, לְהִנָּתֵן דָּת בְּכָל-מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה, גָּלוּי, לְכָל-הָעַמִּים--לִהְיוֹת עֲתִדִים, לַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. טו הָרָצִים יָצְאוּ דְחוּפִים, בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה, בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת, וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה.
The dispersal and publicizing of the new laws are also essentially identical, with both chapters emphasizing the thorough propagation of the decrees and their translation into local languages:
כא וַיִּיטַב, הַדָּבָר, בְּעֵינֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְהַשָּׂרִים; וַיַּעַשׂ הַמֶּלֶךְ, כִּדְבַר מְמוּכָן. כב וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים, אֶל-כָּל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ--אֶל-מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה כִּכְתָבָהּ, וְאֶל-עַם וָעָם כִּלְשׁוֹנוֹ: לִהְיוֹת כָּל-אִישׁ שֹׂרֵר בְּבֵיתוֹ, וּמְדַבֵּר כִּלְשׁוֹן עַמּוֹ.
21 And the word pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan; 22 for he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people.
יב וַיִּקָּרְאוּ סֹפְרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם בּוֹ, וַיִּכָּתֵב כְּכָל-אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה הָמָן אֶל אֲחַשְׁדַּרְפְּנֵי-הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֶל-הַפַּחוֹת אֲשֶׁר עַל-מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וְאֶל-שָׂרֵי עַם וָעָם, מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה כִּכְתָבָהּ וְעַם וָעָם כִּלְשׁוֹנוֹ: בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ נִכְתָּב, וְנֶחְתָּם בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ. יג וְנִשְׁלוֹחַ סְפָרִים בְּיַד הָרָצִים, אֶל-כָּל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ--לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים מִנַּעַר וְעַד-זָקֵן טַף וְנָשִׁים בְּיוֹם אֶחָד, בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר; וּשְׁלָלָם, לָבוֹז. יד פַּתְשֶׁגֶן הַכְּתָב, לְהִנָּתֵן דָּת בְּכָל-מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה, גָּלוּי, לְכָל-הָעַמִּים--לִהְיוֹת עֲתִדִים, לַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
12 Then were the king's scribes called in the first month, on the thirteenth day thereof, and there was written, according to all that Haman commanded, unto the king's satraps, and to the governors that were over every province, and to the princes of every people; to every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language; in the name of king Ahasuerus was it written, and it was sealed with the king's ring. 13 And letters were sent by posts into all the king's provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey. 14 The copy of the writing, to be given out for a decree in every province, was to be published unto all peoples, that they should be ready against that day.
Both stress the urgency of actualizing the new laws.
Memuchan illustrates for the king how quickly Twitter will pick up on his emasculation.
יח וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה תֹּאמַרְנָה שָׂרוֹת פָּרַס-וּמָדַי, אֲשֶׁר שָׁמְעוּ אֶת-דְּבַר הַמַּלְכָּה, לְכֹל, שָׂרֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ; וּכְדַי, בִּזָּיוֹן וָקָצֶף.
18 And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say the like unto all the king's princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath.
Haman’s law also earns a particularly hasty dissemination:
טו הָרָצִים יָצְאוּ דְחוּפִים, בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה, בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת, וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה.
15 The posts went forth in haste by the king's commandment, and the decree was given out in Shushan the castle; and the king and Haman sat down to drink; but the city of Shushan was perplexed
Bonus Textual Parallel
יז כִּי-יֵצֵא דְבַר-הַמַּלְכָּה עַל-כָּל-הַנָּשִׁים, לְהַבְזוֹת
ו וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו, לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּוֹ
If that doesn’t prove it, nothing will.
So, we have demonstrated that the text offers many significant connections between Haman and Memuchan which we offer as the rationale behind Chazal’s conflation of their characters. Both are politically savvy, bombastically minded, and shrewdly practical royal advisors who offer stylistically identical advice in similar contexts to parallel affect. The point is that Chazal knew the text cold and based the medrash off all this concrete exegesis.
By extension, this means that in order to appreciate any interpretive medrash which potentially operates the same way, one who reads midrashim must also necessarily know the text cold, to follow Chazal’s careful thought process instead of accepting seemingly fantastical midrashim which originate from nowhere. This is not to claim that all midrashim necessarily harness this style of exegesis or are based on literary parallels, but where it works, it certainly works.
Unfortunately, the purpose of the medrash is harder to pinpoint. Is there something homiletic about the connection itself, or were Chazal just trying to elucidate something about either or both characters? Do Chazal really think they’re the same person, or are they just saying something about the text? Is there anything to the explanation of the name Memuchan besides tying up an exegetical loose end? How exactly does R. Kahana’s homiletic appendix connect to the conflation of characters?
The last question, at least, I’ll attempt to answer. Rashi on R. Kahana’s statement explains that Memuchan is introduced last of all the royal lawyers in 1:14, indicating his lower stature. However, Memuchan/Haman eventually becomes promoted in Chapter 3 to second-in-command. This corresponds nicely with the characteristics of both characters we have been developing. Haman/Memuchan, lowest in the court, is ambitious and clever enough to take advantage of the unfolding situation with Vashti to gains the King’s favor. After he’s promoted, his ambition and arrogance serve to fuel his genocidal intentions which lead to his downfall. R. Kahana’s statement, therefore, extracts a lesson about ambition and arrogance from the Memuchan/Haman conflation. Perhaps.
Bonus Historical Context Note!
According to the Jewish Study Bible (Adele Berlin and that crew), the amount of money which Haman pledges to cover the genocide he’s so adorably excited about (10,000 kikar of silver) basically equaled the amount of money the Persian empire would collect from all its constituencies over the course of an entire year, which is a lot of money for the king to graciously proffer for the genocide of a nation whose identity he fails to ask about. (Look again, it’s true! He actually doesn’t ask which nation it is!) So, to put it in comparable modern terms, the scene would go something like this:
Haman: I have this idea, Mr. President. It’s expensive, but don’t worry, I’ll pay 4 trillion dollars of my own money to cover it.
Obama: Haman, I’ll hear no such thing. I got you covered, just take this check for 4 trillion down to the treasury and do your thing.
Like some other numbers in the Megillah, this one makes most sense as a comic exaggeration, and a pretty funny one when you think about it.
A חג שמח to all!