St Esther, celebrated by the Catholic Church on 1 July, is no other than the protagonist of the biblical Book of Esther, Queen Esther, Ahasuerus’ wife. Esther is a Book of the Bible which has come down to us in two different versions, one Hebrew and one Greek, and which is accepted in the Jewish canon as well as in both the Catholic and Orthodox Christian canons. In the Catholic canon the Hebrew version is accepted with a few additions in Greek. By contrast, the Book of Esther is not included in the Protestant biblical canon.
The story narrated in the Book of Esther, generally considered by biblical critics as lacking any historical basis, is set in the fifth century B.C., in the times of the Babylonian Exile, even though the text was written in a much later period, in about 100 B.C. Esther was a Jewish orphan of the tribe of Benjamin who was adopted by her uncle Mordecai, an official at the court of King Ahasuerus. “Beautiful and lovely”, she was chosen by the king as his wife after he had repudiated his previous queen, Vashti. However, the king did not know that Esther was Jewish and, following Mordecai’s advice, Esther did not tell him. When the wicked Haman, a minister of Asahuerus, decided to exterminate the Jews in hatred of Mordecai, the latter turned to Esther, begging her to intercede with the king. However, presenting oneself to the king without his invitation was prohibited, on pain of death. Esther decided to take the risk, fasted for three days and presented herself to the king with her handmaids. She was very beautiful and out of love for her the king consented to her request: the Jews would be saved while Haman would be killed, together with his children. Mordecai was to replace Haman as Asahuerus’ minister. The happy ending of the story is still today celebrated by the Jews on the feast of Purim.
Like the other figures in the Old Testament, all canonized by the Church at a very early date – and among these saints Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rachel and Rebecca come to mind – Esther was thus taken up in the Christian martyrology and represents another bridge between the two religions, apart from the sacred books they have in common. Yet unlike the matriarchs, who as saints have not found great favour with the devout, Esther enjoyed great popularity as a saint too, although in a rather particular context quite different from that of those centuries, perhaps the fifth to the sixth, which saw her canonization.
Let us go back to Spain in the 15th century, when successive acts of violence from the end of the 14th century impelled Spanish Jews to convert to Christianity. Many of the Jews, converted at sword’s point while others accepted Christ on the wave of the religious disputes stirred up by the Church and by the crown, in what may be considered a true and proper theological catastrophe for Spanish Judaism. In many of the new Christians, the conversos, conversion was simply a veil that concealed the persistence of Jewish beliefs and practices. In later generations, those of their children and grandchildren, an attraction was rekindled for the religion which their forebears had abandoned. The result was the widespread dissemination of Crypto-Judaism which involved entire communities and deeply troubled the Spanish Inquisition, which came into being precisely in order to safeguard the fidelity of the conversos to their new religion. In Spain, and after the forced conversion in 1497 also in Portugal, the religion of the Marranos – the pejorative term used to designate the Christian Crypto-Jews – was in reality as far from Judaism as it was from Christianity. The longed-for Judaism was lived through the frameworks imposed by Catholicism. Marrano observance was conditioned both by fear of the Inquisition and by the gradual loss of knowledge, as little by little generations passed. Fragments of information were wrested from the biblical texts, in an attempt to retrace the forgotten ways of Judaism. Among the thousands of paths taken by this restructuring of identity, the cult of St Esther was affirmed and disseminated. The first Marrano in history was identified with the protagonist of the Book of Esther, the woman who concealed her Jewish identity in order to become the king’s wife and who lived, like the Marranos, in religious duplicity without losing the right to be venerated by the Jews as a saint. Furthermore, in her defence of persecuted Judaism, not only the heroic virtues of holiness emerged, as for Catholics, but perhaps also the hope of a happy outcome of history, of a Purim of salvation, for the persecuted Marranos.
Among these persecuted Marranos, every trace of the festival of Purim, as well as of other festivals with the exception of Yom Kippur, was lost. What remained, typical of Marranism, was the increased importance given to fasting which at times took place even twice a week. The celebration of Esther took place a month before the Jewish Passover in the month of Adar and was characterized by the strict observance of her fasting, usually for a single day but sometimes even for three days in imitation of the queen. Great importance was also attached to her prayer. It was a prayer full of loneliness and fear, which in the biblical text she addressed to the Lord before presenting herself to the king, a prayer which had become very popular among the conversos, to the point that one of the daughters of a Judaizing Portuguese whose effigy was burned in Mexico in 1592, even managed to recite it upside down. Esther’s popularity in the Marrano world explains the attention which the Iberian Inquisition addressed to Esther’s fast, considered in the Inquisitorial texts to be an unequivocal sign of adherence to Judaism. Thus the story of Queen Esther, canonized by the Church, had become more than suspicious in the conflict between the Inquisition and the Marranos. And the different dates on which Esther was celebrated – 1 July for the Church and in the Jewish month of Adar for the conversos – showed how wide was the chasm which divided these two worlds, despite the fact that they had the Book of Esther in common and that they both venerated its protagonist.
Anna Foa taught modern history at Rome’s University of La Sapienza. She has been mainly concerned with the social and cultural history of the first modern age, of the Inquisition, and of the history of the Jews. Among her books are Ebrei in Europa dalla Peste Nera all’Emancipazione (Laterza, 1992), [English edition: The Jews in Europe after the Black Death, 6 November 2000], Giordano Bruno (Il Mulino, 1998), Eretici, storie di streghe, ebrei e convertiti (Il Mulino, 2004) [Heretics, stories of witches, Jews and conversos], Diaspora. Storia degli ebrei nel Novecento (Laterza, 2009) [The Disaspora. History of the Jews in the 20th century, Portico d’Ottavia 13. Una casa del ghetto nel lungo inverno del 1943 (Laterza, 2013) [Portico d’Ottavia 13. A house in the ghetto in the long winter of 1943], Andar per ghetti e giudecche (Il Mulino, 2014) [Going through ghettos and giudeccas]. She has taught history and, together with Anna Bravo and Lucetta Scaraffia, has published for Laterza a history manual for secondary schools, I nuovi fili della memoria. Uomini e donne nella storia [New lines of memory. Men and women in history].
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 26, 2019
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