"But Mordechai Did Not Bow"

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by David Strauss


Why did Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman? Bowing down to a man in high office is not forbidden, as we see that Yosef's brothers bowed down to him (Bereishit 42:6), and the prophet Natan bowed down to David (I Melakhim 1:23). If bowing down to Haman was not forbidden, why did Mordechai endanger his own life and, as it became clear after the fact, also the lives of all of Israel?

Indeed, the midrash tells us that the judges of Israel of that period warned Mordechai: "Know that you will cause us to fall at the sword" (Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 1054). Following in their footsteps, we too ask: Why did Mordechai behave in a manner that put all of Israel in jeopardy?

One Must Allow Himself to Be Killed Rather Than Transgress

The predominant approach among Chazal and the commentators explains that Mordechai's refusal to bow down to Haman was due to the prohibition of idol worship. This explanation justifies Mordechai's readiness to put himself at risk, and even in mortal danger, as idol worship is one of the three cardinal sins, about which it is said: "One must allow himself to be killed, rather than transgress" (Sanhedrin 74a).

In order to explain why bowing down to Haman is considered idol worship, the midrash relates that Haman embroidered on his clothing the image of an idol, and effectively demanded that Mordechai bow down to his god (Esther Rabba 7:6). According to this approach, it stands to reason that Haman rose in power as a priest, and that the source of his influence upon the king might even have been religious. The struggle between Mordechai and Haman was then a religious struggle, similar to the struggle of Matityahu the Hasmonean and his sons against the Greek idol and its altar. Haman made himself a forbidden image, and Mordechai therefore refused to bow down to him.

Another explanation is found in Rashi (Esther 3:2), who writes that Haman "made himself into a god." According to him, Haman was not a priest, but rather a statesman and general. He saw himself as a potential leader of the entire kingdom, a fitting replacement for Achashverosh, and because he was concerned about his honor, he demanded that everyone bow down to him. The demand that everyone must bow down to him is what made him a competitor for the honor shown to the King of the universe. This is what turned this bowing into idol worship, even if no clear religious intention stood behind it.[1]

If indeed Mordechai's behavior is to be seen against a religious background, it would be difficult to ignore its similarity to the actions of Chananya, Mishael, and Azarya in the days of Daniel:

Nevuchadnetzar the king made an image of gold… in the plain of Dura, in the province of Bavel… Then a herald cried aloud, “To you it is commanded, O peoples, nations, and tongues, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and all kinds of music, you will fall down and bow to the golden image that Nevuchadnetzar the king has set up; and whoever does not fall down and bow shall be cast in that same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace…”

Shadrakh, Meshakh and Aved-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nevuchadnetzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. Behold, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us; He can deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and out of your hand, O king…” (Daniel 3:1-17)[2]

In fact, many midrashim address the similarity between Mordechai, who did not bow to Haman, and Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, who did not bow to the image of Nevuchadnetzar (see Yalkut Shimoni, Shir Ha-Shirim 988). This similarity is reflected in the Aramaic translation of the book of Esther (3:2), which relates that Haman set up a bust in his image and ordered people to bow down to it. The inspiration for this explanation appears to have come from the image of Nevuchadnetzar.

This comparison rests on the Biblical text itself, for there are many points of similarity between the story of Haman and the story of Chananya, Mishael and Azarya: the sweeping royal decree to bow down to the image (or a person); the fact that only a single individual (Mordechai) or three isolated individuals (Chananya, Mishael and Azarya) refused to comply with the order; the death penalty that was decreed against the non-compliers; the miraculous rescue; the appointment of the heroes of the story to important offices in the kingdom; and more. All these similarities can lead us to understand that – like Chananya, Mishael and Azarya – Mordechai also refused to bow down to Haman because of the halakhic prohibition of idol worship.[3]

We find a surprising expression of this comparison in the gemara (Megilla 12a) that attributes the edict of extermination issued against the Jews of Mordechai's generation to the fact that “they bowed down to the image.” And when did they bow to the image? Rashi explains: "In the days of Nevuchadnetzar." In other words, Haman's decree was issued in the days of Achashverosh because the Jews in Nevuchadnetzar's generation – decades earlier – bowed down to an image.[4] Is this possible? Surely this was a different generation!

We cannot answer this question unless we assume that there is a close connection between Nevuchadnetzar's image and that of Haman. Following the decree involving the image of Nevuchadnetzar, and before the decrees of Haman, King Cyrus permitted all the Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael. But the majority of the people preferred to remain in exile, even though they knew that Nevuchadnetzar's decrees might be reinstated in one way or another. It is easy to judge favorably a person who unwittingly finds himself in a situation in which he is compelled to sin, but it is much more difficult to judge favorably a person who willingly remained in a place where he would likely be compelled to sin.

Israel became liable for destruction because they bowed down to Nevuchadnetzar's image, but the decree was suspended as long as they were acting under compulsion. When they did not leave the exile and return to the land of Israel, and then later they once again bowed down to an image in the days of Haman, God decided to punish them for the two sins. Only Mordechai, who stood his ground against Haman's coercion and refused to bow to Haman, was the hope of Israel when charges were brought against them, and it was he who saved them from their evil.

An Issue of Honor

Another explanation of the struggle between Mordechai and Haman does not view the conflict between them as a religious conflict, but as a personal feud.

Like many of his contemporaries, Mordechai did not respond to Cyrus's proclamation and return to the land of Israel. Mordechai's name is derived from the Babylonian god Mardokh. He tried to blend into the surrounding culture, and rose to greatness in the capital city of Shushan, to the point that the book of Esther testifies to the fact that he "was sitting at the king's gate" (Esther 2:19) – that is to say, he served as a judge. In similar fashion, Esther as well – whose name is also derived from that of an idol, and who did “not make known her kindred or her people” – can be viewed as someone who hid her Jewish extraction and was deeply integrated into Persian society.

Against this background, it is possible to explain that Haman's ascent to power and his appointment as viceroy stirred up Mordechai's jealousy. Mordechai, the senior judge, did not see himself as subordinate to Haman, and therefore refused to bow down to him. From this began the quarrel between them, and from this developed all that happened later in the book of Esther.

We do not find many commentators who adopted this approach, which sees the struggle between Mordechai and Haman as a personal feud, but there are midrashim that allude to it. The Aramaic translation relates that Haman had sold himself as a slave to Mordechai in exchange for food during a time of famine, and that when he rose to power, Mordechai showed him his bill of slavery and demanded that he accept his slave status (Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 1056). This understanding seems to underlie the words of Rava (Megilla 12b), who criticizes King David for not having killed Shimi ben Gera, whose descendants included Mordechai. There is no room for such a critique if we view Mordechai as an absolutely righteous man fighting the wars of God, but it is understandable if we see him as one who endangered all of Israel because of a personal vendetta.

The words of Rava notwithstanding, it must be emphasized that this approach does not necessarily find fault with Mordechai's character. Had Mordechai denied his Jewishness or been insensitive to it, rising to power in the royal court and forgetting his people, there would be room for sharp criticism of him. But even if we see Mordechai as someone who was appointed as a judge in the court of Achashverosh and then later got into trouble for personal reasons, thus placing all of Israel in great danger – nevertheless at the critical moment, he did not deny responsibility for what he did. He assumed responsibility for his actions and did everything in his power to rescue the Jewish People. Together with Esther and all the Jews of Shushan, Mordechai returned to his people and his God, and became a symbol of love for his people for all future generations.[5]

A Binyaminite

A third approach, distinct from the two approaches cited above, does not see the struggle between Mordechai and Haman as a religious struggle or as a personal feud, but rather as a national conflict.[6]

A source for this approach is found in the midrash that contrasts Mordechai, who refused to bow down to Haman, to Yaakov, who bowed down to Esav (Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 1054):

"And Mordechai did not bow." They said to him [the Sages of that generation to Mordechai]: Know that you will cause us to fall at the sword! Why did you disobey the edicts of the king?

He said: Because I am a Jew.

They said to him: But surely we find that your forefathers bowed down to his forefathers, as it is stated: "And he bowed himself to the ground seven times" (Bereishit 33:4).

He said to him: Binyamin, my forefather, was in his mother's womb, and did not bow down, and I am his descendant, as it is stated: "A Binyaminite" (Esther 2:5). Just as my forefather did not bow down, so I too will not bow down.

From Mordechai's response to the sages of his generation emerges a hidden critique of Yaakov. It is true that Yaakov bowed down to Esav, but Binyamin, the patriarch of Mordechai's family, did not do so.[7] It is clear that Yaakov's struggle with Esav was not a religious struggle or even a personal feud, but rather a national conflict. According to this approach, the conflict between Mordechai and Haman is to be perceived in similar fashion. Mordechai stands alone in a national struggle, insisting that even in the Persian kingdom the descendants of Yaakov will not bow down to the descendants of Esav and the seed of Amalek. This also follows from the words of Zeresh to Haman (Esther 6:13):

Then his wise men and Zeresh his wife said to him, “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, be of the seed of the Jews, then you shall not prevail against him, but you shall surely fall before him.”

What is the justification for Mordechai's conduct according to this understanding? Was he permitted to endanger himself and all of his people for national pride? Mordechai appears to have understood that the price of submission and willingness to accept humiliation is the loss of inner strength at some critical point. The readiness to accept Haman's delusion of grandeur, without any national or at least communal standing up to the decree of humiliation, would lead to further diminishment of the Jewish image inside each individual. National pride is not unwarranted; it is the glue unifying the Jewish People in the Diaspora. Without it, if the Jews were to bow down to every tyrant of the day, they would indeed become "a people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people" (Esther 3:8).

We do not find that Mordechai's generation was steeped in idolatry. It is therefore difficult to assume that the axis around which the book of Esther revolves is the prohibition of idol worship. On the other hand, we do find that the generation was marked by low Jewish self-esteem and by its readiness to kowtow to every non-Jewish braggart. We already noted that this was the generation that did not return to the land of Israel in the aftermath of Cyrus's proclamation, gave up on the rebuilding of the Temple, and knowingly forfeited the opportunity to return in force and struggle for national independence in the land of Israel. The people of that generation participated in Achashverosh's feast that went on for a hundred and eighty days, and worshipped Achashverosh who ruled from Hodu to Kush. According to the midrash, Mordechai demanded of his contemporaries that they not participate in the drunken revelries in the royal palace, but already then they did not listen to him (Esther Rabba 7:13). When the Jews' low national esteem reappeared in their bowing down to Haman, Mordechai decided to risk his life and sanctify the name of God in order to stop the deterioration and seal the breach.

Against Mordechai's opposition to low self-esteem before the seed of Amalek, the book of Esther presents Haman's readiness to humiliate himself before Mordechai when he led him about on the horse. Surely Haman could have refused to comply with the king's order, just as Mordechai had refused to bow down to Haman, and he could have informed the king that he refused to lead Mordechai's horse through the streets of Shushan as a slave who leads his master. But Haman could not summon the courage to do that, and at that point Mordechai's victory over him became evident.

The sin in the book of Esther does not lie in the prohibition of idol worship and in repentance for this prohibition, but rather in national consciousness. The book begins with the elaborate coronation of Achashverosh, and the beginning of the atonement for the pleasure experienced at that feast was when Mordechai refused to prostrate himself before the seed of Amalek – when he retained his Jewish self-esteem. In Haman's decree, we hear that the Jews are "a people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people" in all the provinces of King Achashverosh (Esther 3:8), but at the end of the book, "the Jews gathered themselves together in their cities in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh" (Esther 9:2), and a Jewish defense legion was established in every community. When Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman, he was criticized by the sages of that generation, but in the end, a Jewish holiday to commemorate the miracle was established in every community for all generations. With his action Mordechai paved the way for Nechemya in the next generation, who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and established there an army and Jewish sovereignty.


[1] The Targum Sheni on the book of Esther (3:3) appears to follow the approach taken by Rashi, as it attributes to Mordechai the following argument: "Is there a smith among men who boasts and brags, while he is born from a woman and his days are numbered… No. But I bow to God who is great, living and existent." According to this explanation we can understand the view of the sages who disagreed with Mordechai, for bowing to Haman was not actually idol worship.

[2] The continuation of the chapter relates how Chananya, Mishael, and Azarya were thrown into a fiery furnace, and miraculously the fire did not take hold of their clothing. When Nevuchadnetzar saw the miracle that had been performed for them, he appointed them ministers in his court.

[3] In truth, we find among the commentaries different opinions as to the circumstances under which Chananya, Mishael and Azarya refused to bow down to the image of Nevuchadnetzar. For a broader discussion, see my article, "U-Mordechai lo Yikhra ve-lo Yishtachaveh – Madu'a," in R. Amnon Bazak (ed.), "Hadassa hi Esther" (Alon Shevut, 5757), p. 151 ff.  

[4] This also follows from the words of R. Shimon bar Yochai: "They only pretended to worship, and God only pretended to exterminate them" (Megilla 12a). In other words, just as Israel did not want to bow down to Nevuchadnetzar's image, but they were forced to do so, so too the punishment – Haman's decrees – did not involve actual etermination, but only a threat.

[5] Some compare Mordechai to Moshe Rabbeinu, who grew up in the royal palace, and after he helped the Jews and was exiled from Egypt, he identified himself in Midyan as an Egyptian and showed no further concern for his brothers until the age of eighty. However, from the time that God revealed Himself to Moshe and gave him a mission, Moshe accepted the assignment and risked his life every moment for the love of God, his Torah, and all of the children of Israel. Like the approach cited above to explain Mordechai's conduct, the explanation that we have offered of Moshe's behavior is not accepted or necessary whatsoever.    

[6] It is possible that Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman for more than one reason. This follows from the words of R. Mordechai Breuer, who explains that the struggle between Mordechai and Haman is twofold: a personal struggle and a national struggle. Haman's leading Mordechai about on the horse decided the personal feud between them, and the cancellation of Haman's edicts decided the national struggle. See R. Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Mo'adot II, p. 600 ff.

[7] We find a similar criticism in the words of Chazal that corresponding to the seven times that Yaakov bowed down to Esav, the seven places where the Mishkan stood were destroyed (Midrash Ha-Gadol, Bereishit 33:3).