Purim 5768 (2008). Tucson, Arizona. We took turns reading the Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther) in English, while others acted out the story in pantomime. Full of alcohol and levity, the actors gesticulated wildly and crudely. The readers narrated the story with zany voices and inflections, inserting innuendo and comedy wherever possible. I was tasked with reading chapter seven of the Megillah, including the narrative climax of the story: the discovery of Haman’s plot against the Jews and his subsequent execution. I came to Esther 7:9:
Then Harbonah, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “What is more, a stake is standing at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high, which Haman made for Mordecai—the man whose words saved the king.” [Note 1]
I read Harbonah’s words in a high falsetto, more Mickey Mouse than man. He was a eunuch after all, so what better way to signal his castration—and to win some laughs in the process—than to read his speech in an exaggerated, emasculated voice?
Whenever I think about the episode described above, I feel deep guilt and shame. Guilt, because my thoughtless actions might have made one of our friends and guests feel embarrassed, unwelcome or threatened. Shame, because I should have known better than to draw on the stereotype of the high-voiced, effeminate eunuch—a stereotype grounded in both homophobia and transphobia—in the pursuit of cheap laughs. After all, ours was a community of “refugees,” whose gender, sexuality, politics, and status as patrilineal Jews or children of interfaith families had made us feel unwelcome in the mainstream Jewish community. Our association was unofficial, but if there was an unspoken covenant, I surely broke it.
I don’t remember when I first realized how problematic and offensive my “joke” had been. Nobody voiced an objection at the time (which, of course, does not mean that it hadn’t bothered anyone). I suspect that the spark of recognition and self-awareness arose during a subsequent consideration of the derision, abuse and violence to which trans people are subjected, but I can’t point to a single moment of insight. I just know that such a moment occurred, and when it did, I knew I needed to acknowledge what I had done and make public teshuvah.
The problem with transphobia, as with any kind of prejudice or bigotry, is that it reduces a human being—a complex, nuanced subject replete with unique characteristics and experiences—to a set of finite, generalized qualities that can be easily objectified, dismissed, abused or annihilated. Yet this is not so in the Book of Esther, in which many of the “eunuchs” are referred to by name and occupation:
- “Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigthan, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas, the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus” (1:10);
- “Hege [aka Hegai], the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women” (2:3);
- “Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the concubines” (2:14);
- “Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold” (2:21);
- “Hathach, one of the eunuchs whom the king had appointed to serve [Esther]” (4:5); and
- “Harbonah, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king” (7:9).
Although not the main characters of the narrative, these individuals do compose the supporting cast of the Book of Esther and consequently participate in many of the narrative’s key scenes. Hege, for example, “treated [Esther] and her maids with special kindness in the harem” (2:9), and he successfully coaches Esther on what she must do to win King Ahasuerus’s favor. For his part, Hathach delivers covert messages between Esther and her cousin Mordecai, performing a critical role in exposing and averting Haman’s genocidal plot against the Jews (4:5–16). And as mentioned previously, it is Harbonah who informs King Ahasuerus of Haman’s plan to murder Mordecai and, in doing so, sets the stage for Haman’s execution (7:9).
If it seems strange that eunuchs would enjoy such a degree of access to and prominence in Persian courtly life, the explanation (as it so often does) lies in the original Hebrew. “Eunuch” and (the more euphemistic) “chamberlain” are the two most common English translations of the Hebrew saris (סריס), which in turn is derived from the Akkadian/Assyrian term ša reši, meaning “the one at the head.” [Note 2] Both “eunuch” and “chamberlain” are accurate translations, since the term saris apparently refers to a particular figure who was common in the ancient Near East: a castrated male who performed high-level service in the palace, government bureaucracy or even military. [Note 3] Thus, the title of saris is a mark of both biological difference and occupational status, with the former serving as a precondition for the latter. As we know from both the Book of Esther and other surviving records from the ancient Near East, the queen and the royal harem were often entrusted to the care of eunuchs, whose lack of reproductive capacity—and real or perceived lack of sexual interest—was understood as guaranteeing the security of the royal bloodline, if not the king’s exclusive sexual license to the queen and the royal harem.
It is by virtue of this special status that the sarisim in the Book of Esther are able to move effortlessly between segregated spheres of activity: between the queen’s chambers and king’s, between the palace and the city. [Note 4] Without agents who could render such fixed divisions permeable, Esther would not know how best to appeal to King Ahasuerus and win his favor. Mordecai and Esther would not be able to share information about Haman’s plot and to devise a method of defeating him. King Ahasuerus would not know of the gallows that Haman is building outside the palace for Mordecai’s execution. Indeed, it could be argued that King Ahasuerus knows little of what occurs in his kingdom—and even his own palace—save whatever his observant, intelligent and not-so-neutral sarisim report to him.
As they so often do, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud take this humanization process even further by imagining character traits, dialogues and events beyond what the (often vague and concise) biblical text reports. Thus BT Megillah 16a builds a little midrash aggada (interpretive story) around Esther 7:9—the verse that I had read aloud so offensively:
Elazar said: Harbonah too was wicked in that counsel [i.e., he was originally a participant in Haman’s plot]. But when he saw that his counsel would not be fulfilled, he immediately defected.
Whereas the Harbonah of the Megillah is a bit part with a single line of expository dialogue, the Harbonah of BT Megillah is a co-conspirator who sells out his boss: the Brutus to Haman’s Caesar.
Similarly, in BT Megillah 13b, we learn the backstory of Bigthan and Teresh, the sarisim who guard the threshold and who scheme to kill King Ahasuerus:
Yochanan said: Bigthan and Teresh were two Tarsian, and they were conversing in the Tarsian language and saying: “From the day this [woman Esther] came, our eyes haven’t seen any sleep. Come, let us put poison in the [king’s] bowl so that he will die.” But they did not know that Mordecai was one of those who sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, and he knew the [world’s] seventy languages.
Bigthan and Teresh are not particularly noble characters, but at least the Talmud provides us with a deeper understanding of their background and their motive for seeking to assassinate the king—information that is glaringly absent from the Book of Esther, which is only interested in the circumstances of Mordecai’s ascension.
Perhaps the most fascinating midrash about the Book of Esther’s sarisim occurs in BT Megillah 15a, which shines a new light on the covert communications between Esther and Mordecai in Esther 4:5–16:
Rav said: Hathach [a saris in Esther’s service] was Daniel. But why was he given the name Hathach [התך]? Because they had cut him [חתך] down from his greatness. And Shmuel said: [Daniel was called Hathach] because all affairs of state were decided [נחתכין, also from the root חתך] by him.
In typical fashion, the rabbis imagine this episode as a cameo appearance by the protagonist of the Book of Daniel, another Jewish hero exiled to a foreign court and committed to deliverance through divine intervention. Rabbinic traditions suggest that Daniel was also castrated and transformed into a saris by his Babylonian captors, creating a further connection between these two books. While the ArtScroll edition of BT Megillah understands “they had cut him down from his greatness” as referring to a demotion in status, I do wonder if perhaps the line is a reference to this act of castration. Are we to understand Daniel’s new name as a mockery of his subjugation or castration? If so, what better way to exact revenge than to serve as an instrument of his people’s salvation?
If the rabbis could look upon lowly servants and see humans, dreamers and agents of redemption motivated by sparks of the divine, how much more tragic is it to make jokes at their expense?
1. All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jewish Publication Society translation.
2. See Brown, Driver and Briggs, eds., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, s.v. סריס; and Koehler and Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 2nd ed., s.v. סריס.
3. The Hebrew Bible records the presence of sarisim in Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian society. Sarisim appear rarely in Israelite and Judaean society, and only in cases where foreign powers have exerted influence (often negative) on domestic affairs.
4. I cannot recall who first brought this interpretation to my attention, but I’m pretty sure it was Alex Weissman. Thanks!