Meaning of Hebrew Name: “Lots” (as in “casting lots” – not as in “lots of something”)
English Name: Purim
Western Calendar Month: February/March
Jewish Calendar Date: Adar 14
Establishment of Purim: Fifth century BC; Esther 9:20-22
The scene: a king tossing and turning for fear that his lovely queen is conspiring against him with his chief advisor. A queen so worried over the king’s plan to put to death her people that she barges into his inner chamber unannounced, looking lovelier than ever. Two advisors to the king are getting ready for a showdown – the town (Persia) is only big enough for the one of them. Haman, hell-bent on the destruction of the Jews, is besmeared with waste matter and wincing in pain by the end of this battle. Mordecai, his Jewish enemy, is clad in purple robes, majestically seated atop the royal horse, freshly bathed and coiffed by Haman himself. The difference could hardly be more pronounced.
If the scene sounds only half-familiar, that’s because it is. Although Megillat Esther (“the Scroll of Esther”) lines up with the basics of the plot described above, the colorful embroideries came later; they were added in the tractate Megillah of the Talmud and in other commentaries.
Jewish literature contains a wealth of such embellishments. Why? More than any other story in Jewish history (except, perhaps, for Passover and Hanukkah), the story of Esther inspires further storytelling and bears repeating. The great Jewish traditions of storytelling and humor come to the fore on Purim, the feast day commemorating Esther’s and Mordecai’s defeat of Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jews of ancient Persia. The great commandment on Purim is that we “proclaim the miracle” by reading Megillat Esther, banqueting together, sending gifts, and giving portions to the poor. The revelry takes other forms too, from dressing up in wild costumes to watching the Purimspiel (Purim play), which brings the story of Esther to life.
Megillat Esther starts with the unlikely fate of a Jewish girl living in the Persian Empire.1 King Ahasuerus (Xerxes2) takes Esther, the cousin of the Jewish advisor Mordecai, to be his new queen after deposing Queen Vashti. On Mordecai’s advice, Esther hides her Jewish ancestry from Xerxes until the wicked counselor Haman hatches a plot against the life of the Jews, obliging her to speak out for her people.
The most famous lines of the story come when Mordecai persuades Esther to go to the king unannounced, a capital offense:
Then Mordecai told them [the messengers] to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:13-16)
By their wit and wile – though behind the scenes orchestrated by God – Esther and Mordecai foiled Haman’s plot. Following Haman’s execution and the deliverance of the Jews, Esther and Mordecai established a feast for future generations to celebrate their people’s survival for “their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration” (Esther 9:22).
And Mordecai recorded these things and sent letters to all the Jews… obliging them to keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies… that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:20-22)
Thus Purim was born. Purim is so called because Haman cast lots (purim) to determine the most propitious date for implementing his planned genocide, but the verses about the casting of lots are brief and vague. We read in Esther 3:7: “They cast Pur (that is, they cast lots).” The medieval rabbi Rashi comments: “Whoever cast it, cast it, and the verse does not specify who. This is an elliptical verse.” He interprets the phrase that follows – “that is, the lot” – this way: “Scripture explains: and what is the pur? That is the lot. He cast lots [to determine] in which month he would succeed.”3 Because of Esther’s faithfulness in relying on God’s guidance and her courage to speak to the king on behalf of her people, Haman was foiled, the day of his dreamed-of success of annihilation of the Jewish people became the day of the Jews’ deliverance from death to life – Purim.
The Purim feast is a time of conviviality and merrymaking. It must take place on the day of Purim, not on the evening before (Megillah 7b) on account of the mandated “days of feasting and gladness” (Esther 9:20-22). The rabbis explain: “[We read in connection with Purim] gladness and feasting and a good day; ‘gladness’: this teaches that it is forbidden on these days to mourn; ‘feasting’: this teaches that it is forbidden on them to fast; ‘a good day’: this teaches that it is forbidden on them to do work” (Megillah 5b). Fasting, mourning, and work are all swept aside on this day of celebration and revelry.4
Most important of all, however is not eating and drinking but reading Megillat Esther and thereby “proclaiming the miracle.” This most commonly takes place in synagogue, where the Scroll of Esther (an individual scroll, usually without being combined with any other portion of Scripture5) is read aloud in a raucous, buzzing atmosphere. Congregants cheer and laugh or stamp their feet and shout and boo whenever the name “Haman” is mentioned. (This is done on the basis of Exodus 17:14, where God tells us to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” and so of his descendant Haman.)
Despite the apparent chaos of the Megillah reading, the Mishnah and the Talmud set down elaborate rules for the proper proclamation of the miracle. We must read the Megillah from beginning to end (some rabbis disagree about where to start); we mustn’t take long breaks; we mustn’t read it backwards… even the parchment and ink of the scroll must be up to snuff!
In light of these various rules, some so obvious as to go without saying, it behooves us to remember the spirit of “proclaiming the miracle.” One rabbi comments: “When the text says, thou shalt not forget, the injunction against mental forgetfulness is already given. What then am I to make of ‘remember’? This must mean, by utterance [lit. “with the mouth”]. Proclaim the miracle” (Megillah 18a). It is not enough not to forget; remembrance goes a step further: we must fasten our minds on the history and tell it out loud. Only then do we pay God sufficient homage for rescuing His people from the clutches of Haman.
The famous Jewish commentator Maimonides placed the book of Esther on an equal footing with the Torah, as one of the imperishable books of the Hebrew Bible. His love of Purim was in no way exclusionary – rather, he stressed that all Jews should be able to take part. We see in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah his concern that all members of the community, rich and poor, do their bit in celebrating Purim:
Similarly, a person is obligated to send two portions of meat, two other cooked dishes, or two other foods to a friend, as implied by Esther 9:22, ‘sending portions of food one to another’…. Whoever sends portions to many friends is praiseworthy. If one does not have the means to send presents of food to a friend, one should exchange one’s meal with him.6
On Purim, Jews greet one another by sending portions of food, often in the form of gift baskets full of sweets and nuts and fruits, called mishloach manot in Hebrew or shalach manos in Yiddish. In this manner, the feast of Purim spills out of the home into the community at large. No delicacies or lavish spending necessary – two poor friends can just trade food and thus “send portions,” a way for the less fortunate to fulfill the commandment. Maimonides adds that one must give alms on Purim to those who don’t even have enough to eat for themselves.
One is obligated to distribute charity to the poor on the day of Purim. At the very least, to give each of two poor people one present, be it money, cooked dishes, or other foods…. We should not be discriminating in selecting the recipients of these Purim gifts. Instead, one should give to whomever [sic] stretches out his hand. It is preferable for a person to be more liberal with his donations to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast or in sending portions to his friends. For there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts.7
Giving alms far outweighs the preparation of a lavish feast or gratuitous consumption. Feeding the hungry and helping the poor in their distress is a commandment that must be carried out at all times; even on a day of carefree revelry, we must remember the fatherless and widows in their affliction.
Torah Portion: Exodus 17:8-16 (the Israelites defeat the Amalekites, from which tribe Haman is descended).
No haftarah portion, as the central non-Pentateuchal reading of Purim is, of course, Megillat Esther.
Purim, like most biblical Jewish holidays, is not what it was in ancient times; rather, the encrustations of centuries of tradition and interpretation have lent the holiday an evolving character all its own. Many of these traditions derive from the Talmud, the chief Jewish interpretive work of the post-exilic period.
All kinds of embellishments were made to the story of Esther in the Talmud, including angelic interventions and even scatological details. Esther gets a divine makeover from angels to please Ahasuerus: “R. Joshua b. Korha said: Esther was sallow, but a thread of grace was drawn about her” (Megillah 13a). Haman was a former “slave sold for loaves of bread,” bought by Mordecai during one of the wars of the Jews against the Amalekites (Megillah 15b). When Haman led Mordecai before Ahasuerus, he had to give him a haircut because Esther closed all the bathhouses, and Mordecai wouldn’t come into Ahasuerus’ presence untrimmed. When mounting his horse, Mordecai asked Haman for help and kicked him on his way up. Haman’s daughter, seeing Haman leading the horse, mistook him for Mordecai and dumped a chamberpot on him; realizing her mistake, she fell off a roof for shame.8 All of these myths lighten the story and infuse Purim with a dose of hilarity.
According to one rabbi, “It is the duty of a man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai’” (Megillah 7b). So “mellow” did the Jews become on Purim that the rabbis tell a cautionary tale about drinking to excess: “Rabbah and R. Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow [i.e., drunk], and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera’s throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honour come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion” (Megillah 7b).
Not only abundant drink, but also abundant food sets Purim apart. Of Purim’s delicacies, kreplach (tri-cornered dumplings filled with meat) and hamantaschen (tri-cornered cookies with a fruit filling) take the cake (pun intended). These beloved foods may represent any number of things: the shape of the lots; Haman’s triangular ears; a dunce-ish hat Haman wore (an invention of the Purimspiel), which we gobble down in revenge; or even God, hidden inside the events of Esther!
Dressing up has also become part and parcel of Purim celebrations, originating with the Italian carnivalesque attire Jews wore during Purim in the Renaissance. Why do we dress up? Perhaps because God “disguised” Himself in the book of Esther, never being named but pulling the strings all along. Perhaps because Haman changed costumes so often, going from a slave to a chief advisor to a hanged man. Dressing up also reminds us of Mordecai’s many “costume changes” in the book of Esther – from regular courtly dress, to ashes and sackcloth, to a royal purple tunic. By gussying ourselves up in over-the-top costumes, we act out the fast-changing fortunes of the Jews and of Haman in the Book of Esther.
Purimspiel, or the Purim play, which originated in Eastern Europe and has spread worldwide, makes light of the story. Performers and audiences alike clad in over-the-top costumes draw on the rich storehouse of details mentioned in Jewish literature for humor and color. During Purim plays and throughout Purim, we practice various cruelties on Haman. In olden times, Jews would burn effigies of him, though attacks from Christians led to the adoption of a substitute practice: beating objects with the name of Haman written on them. Noisemaking, a longstanding feature of folk cultures, is meant to drive away evil spirits like Haman’s. Many Jews even go so far as to write Haman’s name on the soles of their feet so they can “stomp on him” during Purim. In brief, a rich tapestry of traditions from around the world makes Purim the brightest and most colorful of Jewish holidays.
Some Purim traditions stray from biblical ideals: drunkenness and stomping on one’s enemies, for example. Yet when we return to the contents of the book itself, Purim invites reflection on God. For far too long, Esther has been wrongly viewed as an unspiritual, even unsavory, book of the Bible. Martin Luther infamously complained: “I am so hostile to this book [2 Maccabees] and to Esther that I could wish that they did not exist at all; for they judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety.”9 In contrast, the rabbis of the Talmud so esteemed the book of Esther that they ferreted out sometimes fanciful references to it in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the Talmud traces Psalm 22 and its famous words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog,” to Esther in her distress, even though David wrote the psalm.
Aside from disparaging its content, some have leveled accusations against the book’s authenticity, claiming that Megillat Esther is nothing more than a myth or tall tale. These attacks on the veracity of Esther have subsided in recent years, as scholars once more reassert the overall legitimacy and historicity of the story (something Jews traditionally never had reason to doubt).
Others have criticized Purim on different grounds, attributing to it an overweening sense of national pride and wiliness. These claims rest on the bogus belief that when Esther and Mordecai outwitted the genocidal Haman, they portrayed cunning and guile rather than bravery. Unfortunately, many objections to the story of Esther and the celebration of Purim have often been bound up with anti-Semitic sentiment. Indeed, many churches avoid the book of Esther altogether, sometimes venturing the lame excuse that the word “God” does not appear in the book of Esther and so it must be of no religious significance.
Above all, many find in Megillat Esther an indication that the events of history are orchestrated behind the scenes for good by the one character not named in the book: God Himself. Though unmentioned, many see Him as front and center – in the events of Esther’s and Mordecai’s time, and in the preservation of the Jewish people throughout history. We are reminded in the book of Esther that God orchestrates the details of our lives even when we cannot see His hand. Like Job, we can say: “I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:8–10). And perhaps, like Esther, we have been purposely placed in unusual circumstances (for such a time as this) to be a light of His love to others.
What traditions do you celebrate on Purim? Do you dress up and watch a Purim play? Do you read the book of Esther? We’d love to hear your answers to these questions and your reflection on this most joyous of holidays. Either send us a message or click on the chat tab on the bottom right-hand of the page to get in touch. Chag Purim Sameach!
1. The synopsis in this section is based purely on the Scriptures, not on rabbinical commentaries as above.
2. See transcript of Christine Hayes, “Lecture 24 – Alternative Visions: Esther, Ruth, and Jonah [December 6, 2006],” Open Yale Courses, accessed July 24, 2017, Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) (30-second mark): “There’s no x in the Hebrew alphabet – this is Ahasuerus, which is Xerxes.”
4. Some rabbis debated whether there was an obligation not to work on Purim.
5. Megillah19a: “Rab Judah said in the name of Samuel: If one reads the Megillah from a volume containing the rest of Scriptures, he has not performed his obligation,” i.e., because he does not sufficiently proclaim the miracle. [Exception: if it’s about even with the admixed material.] Because of this teaching, many Megillot (scrolls of the book of Esther) have been copied, some decorated with intricate illustrations.
7. Ibid., 2:16.
8. All of these details drawn from Megillah 16a.
9. Table Talk, XXIV