YOUTH DRESSED in Purim costumes.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The popularity of Purim is wildfire. Purim spiels, Purim deals, Purim meals... all are part of the celebration.
No one can imagine the Jewish year without it. But it had its ups and downs. It was nearly squeezed out of the calendar more than once and there were times when it was in danger of being abolished, sanitized and (probably worst of all) completely ignored.
What saved Purim and strengthened its hold is, perhaps paradoxically, antisemitism. The more that Jews were persecuted, the more they needed a lighthearted response, and Purim provided the answer.
The Purim story is not the same as the story of Purim. The Purim story is the narrative of the weak-kneed king, the villainous Haman and Zeresh, and the heroic Mordechai and Esther.
The story of Purim is something different – the rise and fall of the festival, its rejection and rehabilitation.
It took considerable effort before the Book of Esther was admitted to the scriptural canon. A biblical book that doesn’t mention God? Events that seem to have nothing to do with Eretz Yisrael? Preposterous, some said! Every now and then the scholars even questioned its historicity – maybe the events never happened, maybe Mordechai and Esther never were, maybe it’s just fiction, maybe it’s a folk tale that was Judaized to save it from being jettisoned!
The historian Graetz thought it was invented in Maccabean times to raise the morale of the Jewish people. Julius Lewy thought it chronicled the struggle for status of a foreign colony in the Persian realm.
Others noted that ancient peoples celebrated the end of winter with fables about their gods, and maybe that’s how Purim came to be. Unfriendly gentiles accused Purim of breathing a spirit of Jewish clannishness, dual loyalty and vengefulness.
The Jews themselves turned “The Day of Mordechai” (as it is called in Second Maccabees) into Purim. They endowed the Purim events with such importance that by the time of the Mishnah the festival was a decisive part of Halacha and the exegetes endorsed its veracity. Haman was seen as the embodiment of Amalek, a sign that humanity must always be vigilant against the Amalek-spirit (Ex. 17:14-16).
Late in the Second Temple period, Purim was so firmly established that even the Temple priesthood had to hear the megillah. Significantly, the Dead Sea sect did not ascribe much value to the festival. Historians linked the conflict between Haman and Mordechai with earlier tussles between them in Judea in relation to rebuilding the Jewish temple and state.
FOLK FROLICS crept in, with a tug-of-war between dignity and indecorum. Christians thought that Jews who noisily blotted out the name of Haman and hanged Purim effigies were symbolically attacking Jesus. Cecil Roth thought that this was the beginning of the medieval blood libels.
The suffering Jews of that period derived comfort from the thought that Purim was evidence that God would never let them down. Wandering minstrels and play-acting brought light to the ghetto gloom, as Israel Abrahams shows in his Jewish Life in the Middle Ages.
In the 19th century, the Reform movement accused Purim of fostering a spirit of revenge, though later Reformers became more sympathetic. Contemporary Jewry (even Reform!) is unanimous that Purim is a symbol of Am Yisrael Hai (“The Jewish people are alive.”)
Children enjoy the fancy-dress and play-acting of Purim.
All ages relish the Purimspiels, the gift-giving, the hamantaschen, the hilarity. Megillah readings attract large crowds: celebrations range from Rehavia in Jerusalem where restaurants sponsor megillah readings, to central Sydney in Australia where one year the Great Synagogue collected people from all over the metropolis in a London double-decker bus and brought them together to hear the megillah.
There are serious adult themes that inspire modern Jews when they think of Purim – God’s protecting hand, the heroism of dedicated individuals, the complexity of the “dual loyalty” theory, the psychology of the persecutee who says gam zeh ya’avor (“This too will pass”), and women’s contribution to Jewish survival. Immanuel Lewy said, “Haman denounces Mordechai as morally inferior, because in reality he fears his moral superiority” (“Congress Weekly”, 19.3.1951).
Historians constantly find new fascination in the political machinations and palace intrigues of the story. One of the best books is Yoram Hazony’s The Dawn: Political Teaching s of the Book of Esther.
Jews who were depressed about antisemitism could always find hope in the Talmudic view that descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak (Gittin 57b, Sanh. 69b), evidence that repentance is always possible.
Jews who were uncertain about the history of Purim were certain of its future; the rabbis said that even in messianic times there would always be a Purim. The messianic age will know no sorrow, but it will always be possible to laugh.The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.
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