Self-Defense and Revenge

The saving of the Jews described in the megillah is described as an event that included the Jews killing those who hated them. We can see this as an example of self-defense or as an example of revenge. We will learn about the different aspects of this event and address situations in our own lives that involve elements of defense and revenge, as well as the relationship between personal ethics and social norms.

Resource Ages: 12-14


He had them written in the name of King Achashverosh […] to this effect: The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions  […] so that the Jews should be ready for that day to avenge themselves on their enemies.

Esther 8:10–13

וַיִּכְתֹּב בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ […] אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ לַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל עִיר וָעִיר לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת כָּל חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם טַף וְנָשִׁים וּשְׁלָלָם לָבוֹז.

 […] וְלִהְיוֹת הַיְּהוּדִים עֲתִידִים לַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהִנָּקֵם מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם.

And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. 

Throughout the provinces of King Achashverosh, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples.

[…] So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.

Esther 9:1–2,5

וּבִשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר חֹדֶשׁ הוּא חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם בּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הִגִּיעַ דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ לְהֵעָשׂוֹת בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר שִׂבְּרוּ אֹיְבֵי הַיְּהוּדִים לִשְׁלוֹט בָּהֶם וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁלְטוּ הַיְּהוּדִים הֵמָּה בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם׃

נִקְהֲלוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּעָרֵיהֶם בְּכָל מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֳחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ לִשְׁלֹחַ יָד בִּמְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתָם וְאִישׁ לֹא עָמַד לִפְנֵיהֶם כִּי נָפַל פַּחְדָּם עַל כָּל הָעַמִּים׃

[…] וַיַּכּוּ הַיְּהוּדִים בְּכָל אֹיְבֵיהֶם מַכַּת חֶרֶב וְהֶרֶג וְאַבְדָן וַיַּעֲשׂוּ בְשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם כִּרְצוֹנָם׃

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What happens when belief systems of societies and individuals come into conflict?
  • When is it appropriate to challenge the beliefs or values of society?
  • How do beliefs, ethics, or values influence different people’s behavior?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What’s the relationship between self-defense and revenge? 
  • How can we direct anger toward effective and appropriate actions? 

Background for Teacher

Once Queen Esther had received Ahashverosh’s support, for herself and for her people, she faced a problem: there was no way to cancel the letter signed with the king’s seal that Haman had sent out and there was no way to cancel the order...

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Once Queen Esther had received Ahashverosh’s support, for herself and for her people, she faced a problem: there was no way to cancel the letter signed with the king’s seal that Haman had sent out and there was no way to cancel the order to kill Jews. In light of this situation, Mordechai and Esther sent out an additional letter, which was also signed with the king’s seal, which gave the Jews permission to defend themselves against their enemies and to act as they wished toward those enemies. This letter used the same language as that used in the letter sent out by Haman: “to kill, to destroy and to annihilate.” The letter stated that the goal of that killing was to defend the Jews against “all of the armed hordes of people or provinces that threaten them.” Alongside this, the megillah also mentions an additional goal: “to extract vengeance from their enemies.” We can see that the megillah takes a dual position regarding the killing done by the Jews, describing it as both an act of defense and an act of revenge.

When the day that Haman had set for the Jews’ destruction arrived, the Jews stood up to defend themselves and killed their enemies. The megillah states that the Jews killed 75,000 people across the empire and Esther even asked for and received an additional day of permission for the Jews in the city of Shushan to kill. Alongside these descriptions, which could be understood as acts of vengeance that cross the lines of ethical behavior, the megillah repeats and emphasizes three times that the Jews did not seize any plunder or do any looting, even though they were permitted to do so. In addition, the language of the permit given to them by Ahashverosh allowed them to also kill small children and women. However, the megillah refers to the Jews killing their enemies (אויביהם), language that indicates that they killed only those who were truly their enemies. Through the use of this language, the megillah may be hinting to us that this killing was not carried out as vengeance or, heaven forbid, any sense of enjoyment.

Today, as we read these verses in light of the ethical norms of the culture and era in which we live, we may have some reservations, recoiling or rejection of this description, as they don’t match the current cultural condemnation of acts of vengeance and violence that we are accustomed to. But, acts of vengeance are not seen as unethical in every era and culture. The idea of vengeance is based on an understanding of justice when the revenge is carried out against a wrong that has been done to a victim. However, in the ethics and law of our time, there is broad agreement that since such actions are carried out outside the boundaries of the law and justice system, they contain an element of danger that may lead to a chain reaction of acts of vengeance and social disruption.

After the Second World War, there were groups of Jewish avengers, like the Nakam Group that was led by Abba Kovner (1918–1987, poet and leader of the partisans in the Vilna Ghetto), who aimed to take revenge on the Nazis. Among other things, they planned mass poisonings of Germans and set out to kill Nazi criminals. Most of those actions were never actually carried out and, at that time, there were also many Holocaust survivors and families of those who had been murdered who opposed acts of vengeance against Nazis. Situations such as Holocaust survivors’ desire for revenge present us with challenging ethical questions that we may not be able to judge or to answer from our own vantage point.

In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
  1. What’s the difference between revenge and self-defense? Under what circumstances would a response to being harmed be considered an act of self-defence? Under what circumstances would it be considered revenge? How can we know if a given case is one of revenge or self-defense?
  2. What is the motivation for acts of revenge and what is the motivation for acts of self-defense? Is that always correct? In your opinion, is there a type of reaction that is preferable? Explain. 
  3. According to the megillah, what led to the event in which the Jews killed many people? How does the megillah refer to the people whom the Jews killed? What can we learn from this about the Jews’ motivation for killing those people?
  4. Do you think that the killing described in the megillah was an act of revenge or an act of self-defense? Explain and bring proof from the verses that you studied. (Pay attention to the difference between the language of the king’s order and the language that the megillah uses to describe what actually happened.) 
  5. The letter that Mordechai and Esther wrote to the Jews stated that the Jews would also be allowed to seize their enemies’ property. The megillah notes three times that the Jews did not touch any of that property. By doing this, what does the megillah want to tell us about the moral standards of those who participated in the killing? Do you think that a person can engage in acts of violence — such as killing — and also behave in an ethical manner? Explain.
  6. How do you feel about the killing done by the Jews? How would you want the megillah to end the story of the Jews’ coping with the threat of destruction that they faced? 
  7. Among the Jews in Ahashverosh’s kingdom, there may have been some who distanced themselves from the battle. How do you think a person can act when society’s system of beliefs does not match their own? What would you say to such a person, living at the time of the megillah, who did not want to participate in the battle? 
  8. What do you think we celebrate on Purim? Are we celebrating the Jews’ revenge against their enemies or their ability to defend themselves against their enemies? Or are we celebrating the fact that they were saved? Do you think that the megillah provides a clear answer? Explain. 
  9. The common understanding in our society is that acts of revenge are neither ethical nor appropriate. Explain this view. Do you think that there are still situations in which revenge is a possible response? Why? How can we relate to stories of Jews taking revenge against Nazis after the Holocaust? There are Holocaust survivors who have said that their revenge is that they continue to live and do not let the Holocaust damage their spirit to live. What type of revenge is this? 
  10. In the case of the story of the megillah and in the case of Holocaust survivors, the following question arises: Is the attacking of enemies solely self-defense or is it a form of revenge? Discuss: Is it even possible to distinguish between the two? Is there a clear dividing line between self-defense and revenge? In war, is it really possible to decide and to set boundaries? Is the answer clearer after the war has ended?
  • Was the Jews’ killing of their enemies a defensive act or an expression of a desire for revenge? Ask the students to consider the two options and the motives for each option by creating a comic strip or a chat conversation between two Jews of that time, one of whom wants revenge and the other of whom is focused on defense. Have the students show how each character would explain and justify their position. To conclude, have them add a viewpoint from the present day. 
  • Divide the students into groups. Each group will discuss a different situation and decide if that situation is one of revenge or self-defense. Take situations from current events (such as a local event related to the Jewish community or that has been in the news) and from students’ daily lives (such as insults on social media, etc.). Ask the students to prepare a presentation of the different opinions raised in the group discussion and their thought process surrounding the question. You can make them a set of slides in which they can fill in the groups’ conclusions, with headings such as: the case, for and against, explanation, alternative option and illustration. In classes in which the students do not have computers, you can pass out a worksheet for them to fill in and they can present what they have learned orally.
  • Learn about Abba Kovner and the Nakam Group: After the Holocaust, many groups were formed with the aim of taking revenge against the Nazis. There were extremists such as Abba Kovner, who called for the killing of six million Germans (most did not differentiate between the Nazis and innocent Germans). The more moderate of those calling for revenge expressed opposition to that idea. Among the more moderate camp was Antek (Yitzchak) Zuckerman, who had been one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising who wrote the following:

    Here, people with power, people with qualifications, sit day and night and extensively debate revenge […] I was in favor of acts of revenge, but there was talk about acts that I would absolutely have no part of, like poisoning wells, rivers. Even after everything that the Germans did to us, Jewish humanism was not annihilated. I would not have anything to do with “blind” actions, against the masses, acts of collective revenge. There was a need to implement acts of retaliation against individuals. Selectivity and court judgements were required.

    (Bli Shum Mikre Mavet: Siporim M’Kibbutz Lochamai Ha-Getaot, published by Bavel and Beit Lochamai HaGetaot, 2007, in Hebrew)

    Discuss Zuckerman’s approach: Can you understand or justify the desire to take revenge against the Nazi murderers? In your opinion, is this approach different from that of Abba Kovner, who wanted to take revenge against the whole society, with no distinctions? Why do you think that the “avengers” did not trust the court that was established after the war to try Nazis for war crimes and wanted to execute judgement on their own?

    It is worth adding that there are testimonies regarding survivors who were given weapons and told that they could kill Nazis, but who refused saying, “That is not our way as Jews.” Do you agree that this is not the Jewish way?

  • Learn about power and ways of accumulating power through acts of vengeance or holding onto the role of the victim.
  • Study the midrash about the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea:
    As Israel was passing through the sea [and the Egyptians were drowning in it], the ministering angels were singing before the Blessed Holy One.
    The Blessed Holy One said to them: “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea and you are singing before me?”
    (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 39b)

    What does this midrash teach us about vengeance and mercy?

  • Take a close look at this painting by Arthur Szyk of the hanging of Haman. This picture appeared in a megillah that the artist illustrated. You can add information about the artwork: The man who is sitting has the likeness of the artist and the words that he is writing as he gazes upon ‘Haman the Nazi’ are: “And Haman was hung on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordechai.” These words link the Jewish people’s distant past with their more recent past. The illustrated megillah was made only a few years after the Holocaust. More information about Szyk’s megillah can be found in this article from the Jerusalem Post.

    Discuss: Why did the artist adorn Haman with swastikas? How does the story told in the megillah about the Jews killing their enemies differ from many other events in Jewish history? What might this teach us about what Jews felt in their hearts and their wishes during periods in which they were persecuted? How do you feel about those wishes? Do wishes necessarily indicate actions that were taken?

  • Study the following source:
    In Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood, there were hooligans who every day would make his life difficult and harass him. One day, Rabbi Meir decided to pray for the death of these wicked people, so that they would stop harassing other people and would finally stop sinning. Rabbi Meir prayed for them to die.
    His wife, Bruriah, said to him, “Does it say in the Book of Psalms that ‘sinners will cease to exist in the world’? No, it says that ‘sins will cease to exist.’ Instead of praying that sinners be removed from the world, you should pray for the sins to stop, for those hooligans who cause you distress every day to finally stop sinning. Pray for mercy, that they should mend their ways.”

    Rabbi Meir prayed for mercy for them and they mended their ways.

    (From the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 10a)

    Discuss the difference between the approaches of Bruriah and Rabbi Meir to those who were harming him. What can this teach us about revenge?