Why is Miriam designated as a prophetess? Purim is coming up—is Esther also a prophetess?

"Mirjam" by Anselm Feuerbach, via Wikimedia images
“Mirjam” by Anselm Feuerbach, via Wikimedia images

Thoughts of both Purim and Passover, and their arrival, bring us hope that spring is just around the corner. The recounting of the stories of palace intrigue, both in Achashveyrosh’s Persia and Pharaoh’s Egypt, will remind us that history not only has its villains in Haman and Pharaoh, but also its heroes and heroines. We will read the story in the Megillah of Haman’s manipulation of King Achashveryrosh with the express purpose of annihilating all of the Jews in the land. We will tell the events at our Passover seders of Pharaoh’s decree to throw all of the Hebrews’ male babies into the water, while forcing the Hebrews to remain as slaves in his land. We will enjoy hamentaschen on Purim and partake of matzah and maror (bitter herbs) on Passover.

Recently, a woman in my congregation asked me why Miriam was designated as a prophetess by the Torah as she picks up a timbrel in her hand, leading the women in prayer as the waters engulfed Pharaoh and his chariots in the sea. At the same time, one could argue that Esther, queen of Achashveyrosh, played a significant role and should have received the title of prophetess in her own time and in her own Megillah.

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) answers both my congregant’s question and the question regarding Esther. Seven women were designated prophetesses. Miriam’s prophecy began: “Because she prophesied when she was the sister of Aaron [only] and said, ‘My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel.’ When he was born the whole house was filled with light, and her father arose and kissed her on the head, saying, ‘My daughter, thy prophecy has been fulfilled.’” Esther is designated a prophetess in the Megillah by the rabbis’ reading of the words, “Esther clothed herself in royalty” (Esther 5:1), suggesting that “the holy spirit clothed her.”

I would suggest that Miriam’s prophecy occurred not simply because she envisioned such a prophecy, but because she would act on her prophecy. In the Talmud (Sotah 12a) a sage taught that Miriam admonished her parents for being worse than Pharaoh, separating from each other so as not to bring a boy into the world who would be immediately cast into the Nile. If it were not for Miriam’s actions, Moses would not have been conceived. Miriam’s careful watching over her baby brother Moses as he floated down the Nile in the basket “to learn what would befall him,” and her gutsiness in coming out from amongst the reeds to arrange a wet nurse with the daughter of Pharaoh (Exodus 2:4) might also be considered a form of acting upon her prophecy.

In Esther’s world, Mordechai reminds her of what the role of a prophetess truly is when she refuses his request that she meet with the king to save not only her life, but that of her people. He states: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4:13–15). It was then that Esther acted upon her uncle’s admonishment of her, fasting for three days and nights and then entering unannounced into the palace’s inner chamber to begin her wining and dining of the king to win his favor for the people and for herself.

Miriam and Esther are our eyshet chayil, or “women of valor,” from biblical and Talmudic times. We gain inspiration from these prophetesses in not only hearing the words of prophecy, but how they acted upon them as the Jewish world was changing before their eyes. From the recent Pew Research Center survey and its prophetic narration of Jewish demographics in America to the impactful teaching of the Shalom Hartman Institute with regard to world Jewry and Israeli Jewry, it is not only the leadership of American Jewry that needs to act upon the latest Jewish studies and think tanks; every Jewish person needs to understand his or her role in the changing narrative of Jewish history that is so much different than in previous generations. As Mordechai stated to Esther and as Miriam stated to her father, Amram, we cannot allow history and outside forces to dictate the future of Judaism and Jewish life; it is our personal responsibility either by our action or inaction, no longer guided by the simple eating ofcreated at: 2014-02-18 a hamentaschen or matzah and maror.

Rabbi Earl Kideckel is the rabbi at Temple Beth Torah, a Conservative congregation in Holliston.

For more on Judaism and feminism, check out this recent post and explore the Jewish Women’s Archive.