Queen Esther’s Agunah Story
You can learn an incredible amount about different people from language. There are, for example, 27 words for “moustache” in Albanian – including a word for what English-speakers would call “no moustache.” It seems that in Albania, moustaches are pretty important. Similarly, the Inuit are famous for having 30 words for snow – clearly they see things in the snow that most of us don’t.
Unique linguistic forms abound, and provide intriguing insights into cultures. According to this book, Pascuense in Easter Island has a word for a slight inflammation of the throat caused by screaming too much (“ngaobera”) and Brazilian Portuguese has a word for the practice of putting a live cricket into a box of newly faked documents until the insect’s excrement makes the paper look convincingly old (“grigalem”). So what’s Hebrew’s claim to fame?
I would have liked to find a word, perhaps, for that hand gesture of squeezing thumb and middle finger in order to indicate to the viewer, “wait.” But no, we Jews are not quite that lucky. Instead, what distinguishes our culture is that ours is the only language in the world that has the word “agunah.”
An agunah is a woman indefinitely stuck in an unwanted marriage, in which the husband is gone but she is still considered married. It is the word for a woman’s perpetual state of limbo, in which she is chained to a man who has complete freedom to move, marry, produce offspring and live a normal life. The cruelty reflected in a society that enables even one agunah to exist — and accepts this situation as a reality to such an extent that it gives her a name — should bring us all enormous shame.
Elana Sztokman is a regular contributor The Sisterhood, which crossposts weekly with Jewesses with Attitude.
How to cite this page
Sztokman, Elana. "Queen Esther’s Agunah Story." 26 February 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/queen-esthers-agunah-story>.
Just my two cents, but first of all, English has lots of different words for snow as well. ("snow" or "flurries" or "a blizzard" or "snowbanks" or "slush" etc.) Secondly I'm no expert, but I'm sure that our society is not the only one that has such women. So to give her a name means that there's a way to talk about her - a beginning point for conversation about the situation's consequences and what to do about it. I think it might be more shameful if she had no name and was therefore undiscussed.