The story of Megilas Esther takes place almost seventy years after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash, during the Jews exile in Babylon, prior to the return to Zion and rebuilding of the Second Temple. Mordechai himself was exiled with his brethren when the First Temple was destroyed, and later returned to rebuild the Second Temple. He was one of the 120 great sages who comprised the Great Assembly, Anshei Kenesses Hagedolah.
The background to the story involves two distinctly different forms of kingship prevalent at the time. One was for the people to appoint a king to lead them according to their wishes; the other was when someone forced his kingship on the people. These two kingships differed in several ways. When a king was chosen, the people controlled the limits of his dominion and he had to obey the law of the land, often taking a vow to obey them. He was considered a public servant, in charge of defense and maintenance of public property, the populace being subject to him only regarding payment of taxes, but the taxes and state treasury belonged to the people, not to the king. He could not establish new rules without the assent of the nation’s legislators, and could not even move the location of his royal offices elsewhere without their consent. On the other hand, a king who ruled by force could do as he liked, changing laws at will, levying taxes and using the state treasures for his personal desires. With this in mind we will be able to better understand many of the events in the megila.
Before Achashverosh became king, the Babylon Empire ruled most of the civilized world at the time. He was a regular citizen who became rich and used his wealth to seize control of Persia and Media, later vanquishing the tremendous Babylonian empire and ruling the whole civilized world. To establish his right to royalty, he married Vashti, the rightful heir to Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom. He thus became ruler both by right and by force.
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פרק א א-ב
(א)וַיְהִ֖י בִּימֵ֣י אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ ה֣וּא אֲחַשְׁוֵר֗וֹשׁ הַמֹּלֵךְ֙ מֵהֹ֣דּוּ וְעַד־כּ֔וּשׁ שֶׁ֛בַע וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים וּמֵאָ֖ה מְדִינָֽה׃
(ב)בַּיָּמִ֖ים הָהֵ֑ם כְּשֶׁ֣בֶת ׀ הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֗וֹשׁ עַ֚ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַלְכוּת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּשׁוּשַׁ֥ן הַבִּירָֽה׃
Esther – Chapter 1, 1-2
(א) וַיְהִ֖י בִּימֵ֣י אֲחַשְׁוֵר֑וֹשׁ ה֣וּא אֲחַשְׁוֵר֗וֹשׁ הַמֹּלֵךְ֙ מֵהֹ֣דּוּ וְעַד־כּ֔וּשׁ שֶׁ֛בַע וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים וּמֵאָ֖ה מְדִינָֽה׃
(1) And it came to pass in the days of Achashverosh – In those days when Achashverosh was a regular citizen he suddenly became famous and he was Achashverosh who ruled from Hodu to Cush, one hundred and twenty seven provinces. Unlike other conquerors that slowly vanquish more and more territory, he became king of a mighty empire almost overnight.
(ב) בַּיָּמִ֖ים הָהֵ֑ם כְּשֶׁ֣בֶת ׀ הַמֶּ֣לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֗וֹשׁ עַ֚ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַלְכוּת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּשׁוּשַׁ֥ן הַבִּירָֽה׃
(2) In those days, immediately after gaining control of the empire, when King Achashverosh sat on his royal throne, he began ruling by force rather than by law. To emphasize his complete control he moved the capital city, which from then on was in Shushan the capital, thus stressing his disconnection from previous kings, and even from his dependence on his wife’s royal ancestry.