The Book of Esther: Is Purim a politically correct holiday? - review

"The Book of Esther – A Commentary and History" is a timely, interesting and well-written discussion of the holiday of Purim and its meaning through history.

 COMMUNITY READING of the Book of Esther on Purim in Jerusalem, 2021. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
COMMUNITY READING of the Book of Esther on Purim in Jerusalem, 2021.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Unlike Passover, which is accompanied by weeks of preparation, cleaning and study, the holiday of Purim seems to burst out of nowhere, emerging from the midwinter gloom, burning brightly for one day before flaming out until the following year.

Many of us are taken by surprise by its sudden appearance and, preoccupied with its revelry and rejoicing, have little time for an in-depth study of the story as related in the Book of Esther.

However, if we did have the time and foresight to ponder the events of Purim, we might consider a number of serious questions and issues about the holiday. To wit: When did the Purim story take place? How did it come to be part of the biblical canon? What is the place of humor in the Purim story? Has the Purim story, with its killings and hangings, become politically incorrect in the 21st century? Is Purim more of a holiday for Diaspora Jews, or does it resonate for Jews in Israel as well? What is the place of gender roles in the story of Purim? Why is God absent from the story?

Answering the many questions and issues about Purim

Rabbi Benjamin J. Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, who has previously authored commentaries on Song of Songs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Ruth, considers these and other weighty questions in the newly released The Book of Esther – A Commentary and History.

The work is divided into three sections. In the first, Segal presents the Jewish and cultural framework of the Book of Esther and discusses various theories as to the origin of the text. Some ascribe the text to Greek sources, he writes, noting that one commentator mentioned that the Greeks portrayed the Persians as indulgent and decadent, and the Book of Esther, with its descriptions of King Ahasuerus’s extravagances, follows this path. Others, he adds, have noted international literary motifs in the story, such as that of a harem woman who hides her past, which is echoed in Esther’s experiences in the court of Ahasuerus.

 JEWISH CHILDREN dress in Purim costumes, including Queen Esther and generic female royalty, in London, 2021. (credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS) JEWISH CHILDREN dress in Purim costumes, including Queen Esther and generic female royalty, in London, 2021. (credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)

In discussing the Jewish literary influences on the Book of Esther, Segal explains that the book uses Hebrew verb forms that were no longer used when the book was written, such as the conversive vav, which reverses the tense. Furthermore, the very first words of the Book of Esther – “And it came to pass in the days of” – appear frequently in the Bible, as does the phrase “On the third day,” found in Esther 5:1, which is no found no less than 25 times in the rest of the Bible.

The characters also echo previous biblical themes. Haman is a descendant of Amalek, the nation cited in the Chumash as an evil people. Interestingly, Segal also notes numerous parallels between the Purim story and Joseph’s experiences in Egypt. In both cases, an Israelite rises to high office, and the lead character is transported on horseback through the city, among other similarities.

The book’s second section consists of the Hebrew text of Esther with an accompanying English translation and commentary, prepared by Segal, with copious footnotes and explanations. He makes some interesting points. In his description of the first chapter of Esther, Segal writes, “The opening chapter is exceptional in its lack of Jewish concern or interest. Indeed, the long sentences and frequent asides are unlike biblical style; moreover, the environment and names all reflect Persia.”

Discussing the fourth chapter of Esther, in which Mordecai, after learning of Haman’s plan, rends his garment and dons sackcloth and issues, he writes, “Chapter four challenges the traditional reader, for surely here the author could or should have mentioned God, Who would seem to be integral to the notions of fasting, mourning and sackcloth.” He adds that Mordecai’s admonition to Esther that if she does not help the Jews, “Relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter,” in one sense implies God’s assistance, and in another avoids mentioning His name.

The book’s third section, which consists of five articles, was, for this reviewer, the most interesting segment. In one segment, Segal explores the literary techniques used in the Book of Esther and discusses the unity and veracity of the text. He notes that the root for “king” appears more than 250 times in the text of Esther and analyzes why this is the case. Ultimately, Segal concludes that the large number of references communicates the new reality confronting the Jewish people – the challenge of living in a diaspora. “This is a world foreign to earlier Israelite culture,” he writes.

IN DISCUSSING the literary methods, Segal points out the use of irony and reversals in the Purim story – “Haman erects a stake for Mordecai and then is impaled on it” – as well as exaggerations and hyperbole. All of this leads him to confront a basic issue that scholars have discussed – is the story told in the Book of Esther fact or fiction? Some of the grounds for using the term “fiction” are weak, writes Segal, who states that the frequent use of irony does not indicate that it is fiction. Rather, he suggests, the Book of Esther is a historical reading and presentation that does not hide its moments of creative interpretation.

What is the message of the Book of Esther?

Noting the absence of God in the story, Segal writes that it cannot be a matter of “happenstance,” as almost all earlier Israeli texts regard God as controlling history. Segal suggests several possibilities. Perhaps the best-known idea is that the story of Esther shows that God works in hidden ways in the world.

Another, he says, is that the absence of God in the Purim story may reflect theological development. Whereas some books from the Second Temple period focus on religious concerns, he writes, others, such as the Song of Songs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, exhibit complex theological tendencies. Esther could be included in that genre. Writes Segal, “This literature thus includes a range of understandings of God’s involvement in history.” Quoting one commentator, Segal writes, “The author conveys his belief that there can be no definitive knowledge of the working of God’s hand in history.”

How does the Purim story relate to the Diaspora? Does it affirm Jewish life outside of the Land of Israel, or does it provide a negative view of life there? Segal cites two different points of view. One holds that the events described in the book illustrate that the Jewish people can indeed survive and succeed in the Diaspora. He brings other points of view that Esther criticizes Jews who accept life in the Diaspora and illustrates its dangers.

Segal addresses the issue of violence in the Book of Esther and suggests that 75,000, the number of the enemies of the Jews killed on the 13th of Adar (Esther 9:16), is a hyperbolic number, which was common in battle reports from antiquity. Does Esther promote vengeance? Segal suggests that the answer is negative and writes, “clearly, this Jewish collective action stopped at self-defense and never denigrated into revenge,” adding that “there is no hint in the Book of Esther of a seething, ongoing determination to get back at an enemy for real or imagined harm as is associated with the terms ‘revenge’ and ‘vengeance.’” Nevertheless, the fact that he discusses this issue is a valuable point in today’s climate of political correctness.

The Book of Esther – A Commentary and History is a timely, interesting and well-written discussion of the holiday of Purim and its meaning through history. Readers who have the time to peruse its pages will gain a greater appreciation of this much beloved holiday before it ends all too quickly. 

The Book of Esther: A Commentary and HistoryBy Benjamin J. SegalGefen Publishing House174 pages; $18.45