The biblical character of Harbonah can be easily overlooked. He appears only twice in the book of Esther, and plays a trifling role. In his first appearance, he is mentioned as a chamberlain to King Ahasuerus; later in a more significant but still not critical context, when he points out to the king the existence of available gallows. Erected originally by Haman to hang Mordecai, they are now used by the king to hang Haman.
For centuries however, Jewish communities have ended the public reading of the book of Esther, and launch of annual Purim celebrations, by remembering Harbonah with the words “and Harbonah too should be remembered for good”.
So who is he and how has he come to be traditionally ‘remembered for good’? A careful analysis of the biblical text itself reveals some information. In the first verse in which he appears, (Esth 1:10), Harbonah is one of “the seven chamberlains who attended King Ahasuerus”.
The biblical Hebrew word translated to chamberlain is ‘sarisim’ in plural, and ‘saris’ in the singular. The word ‘saris’ can refer to the Hebrew word for castration: sarisim were eunuchs who historian Orlando Patterson says “played a key role in the political, administrative, and sometimes even military life of most of the major bureaucratic empires”.
A perfect example is Hegai, whom the book of Esther describes as a ‘saris’ responsible for the king’s harem – from a king’s perspective, the most trustworthy and safest appointment.
It is therefore likely Harbonah was a eunuch with close proximity to Ahasuerus, though proximity should not be confused with influence. Also, as Patterson notes, eunuchs were held in “low esteem” and “their association with obscenity and dirt was well-nigh universal’. Harbonah thus is a social outcast used by the powerful, not an adviser and perhaps even a despised eunuch. Yet the second time he appears in the story (Esth 7:9), he finds the courage to ignore his social disadvantage, and advises on his own initiative.
The seemingly trifling role of Harbonah now emerges as a product of courage.
ω Boruch M Boudilovsky is rabbi of Young Israel of North Netanya