Rabbi Jachter's Halacha Files

(and other Halachic compositions)

Tzav - Purim

15 Adar Bet 5768

March 22, 2008

Vol.17 No.27

Why Did Mordechai Refuse to Bow Down to Haman - Part 1

by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The apparent catalyst of Haman's plan to eradicate us was Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman. The question remains, though, why Mordechai refused to do so. Halacha does not forbid bowing to a king or, by extension, an important official in the king's court. In Tanach, we find a number of instances when prominent Jews bowed to kings, such as the prophet Natan bowing to David (Melachim 1:1:23) and Yosef's brothers bowing to Yosef (Bereishit 42:6). Yaakov even bowed to Eisav seven times. Why, then, did Mordechai imperil the entire Jewish people by refusing to bow to Haman? We will explore this intriguing issue based on an essay by Rav Yaakov Meidan of Yeshivat Har Etzion that appears in a book entitled Ester Hee Hadassah.

Mordechai's Debate with the Dayanim

The Pasuk (Ester 3:3) states, "And the king's servants said to him (Mordechai), 'why do you violate the king's orders?'" (Ester 3:3). The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 953) interprets the words "the king's servants" as referring to Dayanim. According to this Midrash, the Dayanim warned Mordechai that he was endangering Bnei Yisrael via his reckless actions. The text of the Megillah does not explain the reason for Mordechai's actions, but it implicitly approves of his approach. This is apparent from Ester 3:4, which states, "And as they told him every day, he refused to listen to them." Rav Meidan notes that this Pasuk employs strikingly similar language to Bereishit 39:10, which records Yosef's refusal to accede to the demands of Potifar's wife as, " And even as she spoke to him every day, he did not listen to her." By employing this language, the Pasuk seeks to compare the two events and teach that Mordechai appropriately followed the model of Yosef to resist powerful people and observe the Torah despite the enormous danger involved. This Midrash, though, does not explain why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. Various other Midrashim present at least four different approaches to this issue.

A Religious Confrontation- Midrash Ester 7:6

Ester Rabbah (7:6) presents what is probably the most popular approach to this issue. This Midrash states that Haman wove an image of an idol on his clothes so that anyone who bowed to him was bowing to his Avodah Zarah. The Ibn Ezra (commenting on Ester 3:3) and Tosafot (Sanhedrin 61b s.v. Rava) accept this interpretation of Mordechai's action. According to this answer, Haman was religiously motivated, and the struggle between Mordechai and Haman was of a religious nature, similar to the resistance of the Chashmonaim to the Greek repression of Torah life. Rav Meidan notes that according to this Midrash, Haman parallels Tomas de Torquemada, the fifteenth-century spiritual leader of the Spanish Inquisition who influenced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to torment the Jews of Spain. If, in fact, Haman's motivation was religious, it is obvious why Mordechai refused to bow to him. Halacha forbids engaging in idolatry even to save one's life. The problem with this interpretation is that it is difficult to explain the position of the other Dayanim. Why would they vigorously encourage Mordechai to worship Avodah Zarah if Halacha forbids it even under these circumstances? Perhaps they felt that one should not refrain from idolatry if it would endanger the entire Jewish community. Indeed, the Midrash HaGadol (Shemot 9:8) presents this approach as that of the prophet Yechezkeil in his discouraging Chananyah, Mishaeil, and Azaryah from refusing to bow to Nevuchadnetzar's monument.

Haman as a God- Rashi

Rashi (to Ester 3:2) adopts a different approach to this issue. He (as well the Ralbag and Midrash Lekach Tov) believes that Haman fancied himself a god. Haman perceived himself as a competitor to the Ribbono Shel Olam (as well as Achashveirosh) and reinforced this belief by ordering all to bow to him as they would bow to Hashem (LeHavdil). Haman, according to this understanding, resembles Mao Tse Tung, the leader of Communist China in the mid-twentieth century. Mao had pictures of himself hung throughout China, and all its citizens were expected to bow to him.

According to this interpretation, the struggle between Mordechai and Haman was not of a direct religious nature. Hence, the argument of the Dayanim is readily understood. They felt that since technically Haman was not defined as Avodah Zarah, it was wrong for Mordechai to endanger the entire Jewish people. Mordechai, on the other hand, felt that Haman was the equivalent of Avodah Zarah and therefore forbidden to bow down to even to save lives. Interestingly, Rav Meidan observes that the destruction of the statues of Lenin and Stalin in post-communist Russia constitutes partial fulfillment of the vision of the Aleinu prayer, "VeHaEililim Karot YiKareitun," "The foreign gods eventually will be utterly destroyed." The same may be said regarding the destruction of the statues of Saddam Hussein.

A Personal Struggle- Yalkut Shimoni 956

A small minority of Midrashim criticize Mordechai for his actions and believes that he erred in his refusal to bow to Haman. One example of this approach is the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 956) that states that Mordechai refused to bow to Haman because Haman technically was his slave. The Midrash relates that Mordechai and Haman were once on a boat together and Haman had no food. Mordechai, according to this Midrash, agreed to give food to Haman on condition that Haman become his slave. According to this approach, Mordechai recklessly endangered the entire Jewish people because of personal pride. This Midrash seeks to teach a poignant lesson about how personal animosities and pride can wreak havoc on an entire community.

Meidan notes that this Midrash does not seek to portray Mordechai as wicked. Rather, it presents Mordechai as a role model of Teshuvah, as he transformed himself into a leader who, at the conclusion of the Megillah, sought only the best for his people (Ester 10:3). This perception of Mordechai parallels the Midrashim (see Devarim Rabbah 2:8 and Targum Yonatan to Shemot 4:25) that describe Moshe Rabbeinu as one who abandoned the Jewish people throughout his stay in Midyan but performed Teshuvah when Hashem summoned him to return to Mitzrayim to save Am Yisrael.

The Nationalistic Approach- Ester Rabbah 7:8

A fourth approach to our problem is presented in Ester Rabbah (7:8), which records a dialogue between Mordechai and Haman. Haman, says the Midrash, posed the following question to Mordechai: "Didn't your ancestor (Yaakov) bow to my ancestor (Eisav)?" Recall that Chazal assert that Haman was a descendant of King Agag of Amaleik (hence, the Megillah repeatedly refers to Haman as "HaAggagi"), who was the grandson of Eisav. Mordechai, according to this Midrash, responded that his ancestor, Binyamin, was not alive at the time of the Yaakov-Eisav encounter and thus did not bow to Eisav. Therefore, Mordechai claimed that he was following the precedent of Binyamin. According to this Midrash, the argument of the Dayanim is quite powerful. They pointed to Yaakov bowing to Eisav as a precedent for bowing to Haman. Moreover, it is puzzling why Mordechai did not follow this example. Binyamin hardly constitutes a compelling model of a conscious decision to endanger his people because of what appears to be nationalistic pride.

Perhaps the situations of Yaakov and Mordechai differed, and both acted appropriately in their respective circumstances. Yaakov set an appropriate example of swallowing some nationalistic, familial, and personal pride in order to save his nation-family. Indeed, the Seforno (Bereishit 33:4) asserts that had the Biryonim (Zealots) of the late Second Temple period followed the example of Yaakov Avinu, the second Beit HaMikdash would not have been destroyed (see Gittin 56a).

On the other hand, Mordechai perceived that the situation of the Jews of his time differed. He saw the danger of the excessive acculturation of the Jews in his day. Chazal (Megillah 12a) teach that the Jews enjoyed their participation in the feasts of Achashveirosh, which celebrated his rule and the supposed passing of the seventy years after which Yirmiyahu had promised the Jews would return to Eretz Yisrael. The Jews were content with their lives in Galut and apparently did not pine for Eretz Yisrael. Had Mordechai, the leader of the time, followed the precedent of Yaakov and bowed to Haman, he would have further intensified the assimilation of the Jewish people into Persian society.

Mordechai had to set an example of resisting the surrounding culture. Had he not resisted Haman's order, the Jewish people would have been destroyed by assimilation. Hence, Mordechai refusal to bow to Haman in reality saved Persian Jewry of his time. He also made a powerful statement for all generations about resisting excessive acculturation to the lifestyles and ideologies of the surrounding culture.

Modern Applications

Rav Chanoch Teller, in his biography of Rav Aharon Kotler, relates that Rav Aharon once was in a post office in Japan in 1940 when a siren sounded alerting that Emperor Hirohito was in the area. The law in Japan at that time was that anyone who did not bow to the ground when the siren sounded was to be put to death. Rav Aharon Kotler refused to bow down, invoking the precedent of Mordechai. Rav Aharon was beaten severely, but his life was spared. Similarly, my cousin Binyamin Toib z"l of Chadeira visited Rome in 1945 after serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British army in WWII. The Pope passed by, and everyone kneeled to the ground. However, Binyamin refused to kneel. The Pope's Swiss guards approached him and were ready to harm him until the Pope intervened when Binyamin explained that he was Jewish. Mr. Toib followed the example of Mordechai in his refusal to kneel to the Pope, even at risk to his life.


The leadership of Medinat Yisrael also must make difficult decisions regarding when to follow the model of Yaakov bowing to Eisav and when to follow Mordechai's model of refusing to bow to Haman. Sometimes, Israel must swallow some of its pride and bow to international pressure - when it is does not impinge on Israel's security. Other times, it must muster the courage to defy such pressure, for its survival is at stake. One cannot honestly point to either example as the precedent we should follow in all situations. Prudent and responsible judgment must be used to determine when to follow the different examples. Yaakov bowing to Eisav saved our people, and Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman saved our people. We must daven fervently that Hashem grant wisdom and integrity to our leaders to chart the appropriate path during these difficult times.

The same applies to everyone's private life. We on occasion must take bold actions, and at other times we must retreat, swallowing our pride for our greater good. May Hashem grant us the wisdom to act appropriately in such situations.