I noticed that the book of Esther uses, often very awkwardly, the present tense to describe things that usually are written in the past tense (I didn't notice this much use of the present tense in other biblical books).

Here are some examples:

  • 1:1: הַמֹּלֵךְ (who is ruling): It should have just said אשר מלך, or שמלך. Rashi says that it means that he ruled because of himself, and he wasn't from the royal line, so this one isn't really a problem, but I included it to show the pattern.

  • 2:11: מָרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ (Mordechai is walking): It should have said התהלך.

  • 2:19: וּמָרְדֳּכַי יֹשֵׁב (and Mordechai is sitting): It should have said יָשַב.

  • 2:20: אֵין אֶסְתֵּר מַגֶּדֶת (Ester is not telling): It should have said אסתר לא הגידה.

  • Ibid.: אֶסְתֵּר עֹשָׂה (Ester is doing): It should have said עשתה.

  • 3:2: כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים (are kneeling and bowing): It should have said כרעו והשתחוו.

  • 6:2: וַיִּמָּצֵא כָתוּב (and it was found written): See Megilah 15b-16a with Rashi.

  • 7:8: וְהָמָן נֹפֵל (and Haman is falling) It should have said נפל.

  • 9:4: וְשָׁמְעוֹ הוֹלֵךְ (and hearing of him is going): It should have said הלך.

  • 9:21: לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים (to be doing): It should have said לעשות.

These tenses are so important that if one changed present to past he doesn't fulfill his obligation even bedi'avad (Mishnah Brurah 690:51)!

What is the reason for so much use of the present tense?

(Conversely, there was one past tense that I thought should be present (6:8): וְסוּס אֲשֶׁר רָכַב עָלָיו הַמֶּלֶךְ (a horse on which the king rode): Shouldn't it be on which the king rides (consistently)? What does it matter if the king rode on it once?)


2 Answers 2


I'm fascinated by the midrashic answers presented for this! Are there more?

From a scholarly perspective, the increased use of the participle in place of the narrative waw-consecutive imperfect (wayiqtol) form is a classic feature of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH).

To unpack that a bit... What Modern Hebrew treats as the "present tense" (words like molekh, yoshev, maggedeth) are in Biblical Hebrew technically (present) participles. That's why they behave like nouns as well as verbs: they have only singular/plural, like nouns (and not like verbs, which have first/second/third person), and they can take the definite article (like the first example you gave: hammolekh, "the ruling one" or "the one who rules").

"Normally", in classical Biblical Hebrew, when you're telling a story you use a narrative verb with something called the waw-consecutive. That means the verbs all have a waw (vav) which shows that they are consecutive actions: they follow one after the other. So for example, ויאכל וישת ויקם וילך, wayyo'khal wayyesht wayyaqom wayyelekh means: "He ate, then he drank, then he got up, then he left".

As Hebrew evolved into LBH, which led into Mishnaic Hebrew (MH), the waw-consecutive form began to be replaced with other verbal forms, especially the participles, which became more and more prominently used as verbs.

Check out this article by Aaron Koller, for example, who writes (pg. 269):

It will suffice to say here that there are many examples of (especially pre-dicative) participles in which the participle is fully verbal. In Late Biblical Hebrew such usage increases; there are examples in which yiqtol forms from Standard Biblical Hebrew are replaced in Late Biblical Hebrew by participles. This pattern of increasingly verbal use of the participle continues in Qumran Hebrew and perhaps the Hebrew of Bar Koseba. Within Mishnaic Hebrew, the participle is a major component of the verbal system, serving for present and future tenses as well as other uses.

Later in the article, he actually analyzes some midrashim on Esther, which pick up on the use of participles to derive fascinating reads. So I guess the conclusion is that there are multiple layers here, and while there may be a simple historical-linguistic-grammatical explanation, that doesn't prevent us from being able to derive plenty of meaning.


Perhaps this can be explained by the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov quoted in the beginning of this article:

"הקורא את המגילה למפרע לא יצא", שכאשר קורא את המגילה באופן שחושב שזהו מאורע שאירע בעבר, למפרע, אזי לא יצא, כיוון שהתורה היא נצחית, וכל ענייניה ישנם גם בהווה.‏

One who reads the Megilla out of order does not fulfill his obligation. Meaning that one who reads the Megilla in a way that he thinks that this is something that happened in the past (L'Mafrea) he has not fulfilled his obligation. Since the Torah is eternal and everything is happening presently.

  • Why, then, isn't the entirety of Tanach written in present tense?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 3:02
  • @DoubleAA The Ball Shem Tov's saying is about reading out of order, not about tense. i.e. why would they even ask such a strange question about out of order? In order to teach us something.
    – Ariel
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 3:29
  • It is not a problem that the entire Tanach is not present tense. The whole Megilla is also not present tense. If it was it would interfere with the proper meaning. But you do find several other places like this in Tanach for example in the beginning of Shemos "...וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה" "And these are the names of the sons of Israel who are coming to Egypt..." And according to chassidus this teaches us that we are to see ourselves presently going into exile. Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 3:33
  • 1
    Perhaps related (Chapter 8, section 4, starting at the bottom of p. 133).
    – Fred
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 3:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .