A Methodological Point in Reading Aggadeta

BY: Alex Tsykin

I was recently reading an article by Geoffrey Herman (someone who has greatly advanced the study of Persian influences on the writing of the Gemara) called “Ahasuerus, the Stable-Master of Belshazzar” where he advances the following interpretation of a famous gemara in Megillah. The Gemara says as follows:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף יב עמוד ב

ויקצף המלך מאד, אמאי דלקה ביה כולי האי? אמר רבא: שלחה ליה: בר אהורייריה דאבא! אבא לקבל אלפא חמרא שתי ולא רוי, וההוא גברא אשתטי בחמריה.

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “the son of the stablemaster of my father! father would drink wine in front of one thousand people and would not be satisfies and you are drunk from wine!”

The second insult, that Ahashverosh could not hold his liquor, seems to be a relatively clear insult to his manliness that we can still understand today, but the first is very strange. Herman points out that the stablemaster was the least important member of the Persian court at the time of the Gemara and therefore to be addressed as his son emphasizes that not only was Ahashverosh a usurper but he was of low birth as well. Additionally, there was a very well known myth in Persia about a king who started off as a stablemaster’s assistant and rose to rule by killing the previous occupant of the throne. This myth seems to have informed the Bavli’s statement. If so, the passage from the Gemara should read:

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “(insult about llineage)! (insult about virility)!”

It would seem that Rava did not really mean that Ahashverosh occupied a specific position, for how could he know that? Instead, Rava intended that Vashti insulted Ahashverosh, for she was descended from the old Persian line. This poses two points as food for thought. Firstly, we see here the importance of knowing the cultural background of Chazal. By knowing some Persian legends you understand better a story that they relate. Instead of looking for symbolic value to the office of stable master and his son, you can understand the true intent behind the statement. Secondly, given this understanding of the story (which seems to me quite persuasive), is there any Talmud Torah value left in the literal statement that Ahashverosh was the son of a stablemaster, given that the term has lost the particular cultural valence it once possessed. Perhaps instead we should say “Son of my father’s garbage collecter!”


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