Purim: the defeat of Haman and a chance to feast

Purim is the time for fun – for eating, drinking, carnivals, plays and gifts of food to friends and the poor. We celebrate it like a Feast of Fools, when we are permitted to masquerade in guises.

ESTHER ENTERS what was essentially a massive beauty contest and wins: A beauty pageant in Helsingborg, Sweden, 1955 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ESTHER ENTERS what was essentially a massive beauty contest and wins: A beauty pageant in Helsingborg, Sweden, 1955
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Everyone knows all about Purim, right? No, actually there are a bewildering number of facts and theories that make this one of Judaism’s most complex festivals.
Let’s start with the facts. It falls on the 14th of Adar. This year it corresponds to March 10, and Shushan Purim for Jerusalem and walled cities, a day later.
On Purim we read the Scroll of Esther, Megillat Esther, which recounts her victory over the evil tyrant Haman.
Purim is the time for fun – for eating, drinking, carnivals, plays and gifts of food to friends and the poor. We celebrate it like a Feast of Fools, when we are permitted to masquerade in many guises.
Those are all facts we learned as children in Hebrew school. Now here are a few aspects of Purim you may not have known.
You could almost call Megillat Esther a Godless book because His name is not mentioned even once in the megillah. The rabbis who fixed the canon of official Hebrew Scriptures debated well into the fourth century whether it should even be included with the other Divine books. Not only is God never mentioned, but there are no open miracles or prayers. Although it is a triumph for the Jews, it ends with quite a horrifying bloodbath in which more than 75,000 Persian enemies are massacred.
The name of the king in this story is Ahasuerus, whom scholars believe to be the Persian ruler Xerxes I (486-465 BCE). They believe the tale to have been written after 200 BCE by an anonymous author. It must have been written by a man, because it emphasizes that Queen Vashti was vanquished for refusing to obey her husband, and her downfall was to pose a lesson to all other wives in the kingdom who might even consider being disobedient.
Esther, at the urging of her cousin Mordechai, enters what was essentially a massive beauty contest and wins, concealing her Jewish identity. When Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman, the evil chancellor plans the first antisemitic pogrom in history. Esther’s triumph in saving her people is celebrated with Purim.
Her Persian name, Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew), means the morning star. Psalm 22 begins: “For the Leader upon Ayalet Hashahar” – that is, upon seeing the morning star. She was compared to the morning star because it is seen faintly at dawn, then grows bigger and brighter until it achieves full radiance, just as, with a modest beginning, Esther eventually managed to redeem Israel.
At the end of the Purim story, we learn: “For Mordechai was great in the king’s house, and his fame went forth throughout the province.” According to Sefer Ha’aggadah, the book of Jewish folklore and legend, a coin was minted in his honor. On it was depicted sackcloth and ashes on one side and a golden crown on the other.
Thus, too, Purim was turned from a fast into a feast. “Purim” means “lots,” because Haman had selected the date for the Jews’ extermination by casting lots. The German halachic scholar Jair Bacharach (1639-1702) concludes, on the basis of this and other biblical passages, that a lottery is a legitimate means of allowing God’s providence to operate in favor of a winner (Responsa Havot Yair 61): “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).
There are several lessons to be drawn from Purim. To relieve the pressure of antisemitism, and particularly in Israel, which has had to bear ongoing trauma and tragedies, we need a day of relief. Also, a healthy society needs to be able to laugh at itself occasionally.
Customs like blotting out Haman’s name with noisemakers and eating three-cornered cakes called hamentashen or oznei Haman (Haman’s ears) help to satisfy a desire for vengeance against frightening enemies beyond our reach.
Finally, a people almost wiped out just for being Jewish needs to celebrate life. We must give charity on Purim at least to two people, enabling them to celebrate also, and we also give gifts – mishloah manot.
So, on Purim, a day for fun, let’s make merry and be happy. L’haim!
The writer, who has lived in Jerusalem for 48 years, is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah.
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