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Was Esther Mordechai's niece or cousin?

  

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Rebecca: Hi. It says in the Megillah that Mordechai and Esther are cousins, but most people think and say that Mordechai is Esther’s uncle. Why is that? How are they related?

Rabbi Gurkow: Esther was the daughter of Avichayil, who was the uncle of Mordechai, which makes them cousins, as you correctly stated. Mordechai adopted her after his uncle's death.

Rebecca: But why do so many instinctively say that he was her uncle?

Rabbi Gurkow: Probably because of the difference in their age. It is much more logical to assume that an orphaned infant raised as one’s own child is of a lower generation—i.e. a niece—and not the same generation, such as a cousin. Be that as it may, it is probably a misunderstanding of Esther 2:15, where it reads: “...Esther the daughter of Avichayil the uncle of Mordechai...”, which, when quickly skimmed over, reads “Esther... Uncle Mordechai” and hence the confusion.

[There is an opinion in the Talmud1 that she was his wife, not (only) his adopted daughter. This is based on the reading of the Hebrew word “bas” (daughter) as “bayis” (house): bayis means a wife in Talmudic terminology.]

Rebecca: OK. Thanks for the insight.

You may also be interested to read "If Esther married a non-Jewish king, why are Jews against intermarriage?".

All names, places, and identifying information have been changed or deleted in order to protect the privacy of the questioners. In order to preserve authenticity, the chat sessions have been posted with a minimum of editing. Please excuse typographical errors, missing punctuation, and/or grammatical mistakes which naturally occur in the course of informal chat sessions.

Footnotes

  • 1. Megilah 13a

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Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Megillah
A scroll. Usually a reference to the Book of Esther, one of the books of the "Written Torah", which is read--from a scroll--on the holiday of Purim.
Esther
1. Jewish wife of Persian King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BCE. Foiled the plot of Haman, the prime minister, to exterminate all the Jews. The holiday of Purim commemorates this miraculous salvation. 2. One of the 24 Books of the Bible, which chronicles the abovementioned story.
Mordechai
Cousin of Queen Esther, and Jewish leader in the 4th century BCE. Played a large role in saving the Jews after Haman, the Persian prime minister, plotted to exterminate them all. The holiday of Purim was established to commemorate this miracle.
Rebecca
Second of the Jewish Matriarchs. Wife of the Patriarch Isaac, and father of Jacob. b. 1675 BCE, d. 1553 BCE.