Megila millennium

We should remember the many other Purims that have been celebrated around the world since that time.

Children of foreign workers on Purim 390 (photo credit: Reuters))
Children of foreign workers on Purim 390
(photo credit: Reuters))
No one seems to have noticed that we are on the eve of the two-and-a-halfthousandth anniversary of the story of Purim. Incredible that we still read and celebrate that story every year – twice a year in Israel.
It all started with the rise of Ahashverosh to the Persian throne.
Now Ahashverosh was Xerxes, the son of Darius I, and his Persian name was Hashavarasha, as recorded in cuneiform script on the door lintels of his capital at Persepolis. The Persian name is very close to the Hebrew Ahashverosh; we transliterated it more recognizably than did the Greeks, who called him Xerxes.
He ruled for 21 years, from 486 to 465 BCE (486 + 2013 = 2,499), and we know all that because the great Greek historian Herodotus, known to the Romans as the “father of history,” was a contemporary of Xerxes, living from 485 to 425 BCE at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, on the western borders of the Persian Empire. He saw the Persians in action, he took note and wrote it all down for us at the time and at the place, and we still have his Histories.
Ahashverosh could only hold his inaugural feast in his third year (Esther 1:3) because he spent the first two putting down a rebellion in Egypt. Two years later he was trying to conquer Greece, in revenge for the defeat of his father Darius in that country. But the son was also unsuccessful, as described by Herodotus, and so began the story of Purim.
At the king’s first feast, Queen Vashti was replaced (this was after the second failed attack on Greece) by Esther, and the dastardly Haman rose to power to threaten the Jews with death if they did not pay their exclusive poll tax to wipe out the national debt, which had been created by Darius’ and his son Xerxes’ unsuccessful wars in Greece.
Should we celebrate the two-and-a half- thousandth anniversary of Purim? Certainly, and we should remember the many other Purims that have been celebrated around the world since that time, and marvel at the fact that we cling faithfully to these miracles of history for years and years and continue to act on them, from generation to generation.
ONE OF the most famous miracles was called “Purim Fettmilch” or “Purim Vinz,” and it took place in Germany, in Frankfurt-am-Main, over a period of four years. At that time, Frankfurt was the center of Jewish life in Germany and, since 1603, the rabbis of southern Germany had been meeting there each year to co-ordinate their communal activities. In Frankfurt all the Jews lived in one long street of 193 houses (they all had to live there), the rich with the poor, the beggars and the first Rothschilds.
It started with 110 Jews in the Judengasse but by 1610 their number had risen to over two thousand. Each night and all of Sunday the gates were locked and at other times, when they were allowed to go in and out, the Jews had to wear the yellow patch.
Many of the local tradesmen were heavily in debt to the Jews and in 1612 they brought a complaint to the City Fathers to have the standard rate of interest reduced from 12 percent to 8 percent, and requested that the poorer Jews, for whom they had no use, be expelled from the town. Surprisingly the complaint was rejected by the burghers of the city and also, on appeal, by the emperor, who realized that a lower interest rate would kill commercial trade.
But disaffection increased and two years later many of the traders and the local riff-raff stormed the ghetto street and looted its shops and houses.
They were led by a master of the local guilds called Vincenz Fettmilch.
The looting continued for several hours and the burghers did not stop it, but forcibly moved the Jews to the safety of the cemetery, while the looting continued unchecked for another 14 hours, until finally the mayor brought in the troops. By then two Jews had been killed and the whole Jewish community had lost all their property and all their records.
The emperor could not ignore this breakdown of law and order and he had Fettmilch and his gangsters accused, found guilty and beheaded.
Eventually the Emperor Matthias (1612-1619) had the Jews escorted back to the ghetto to the accompaniment of fife and drum, and had his coat of arms fixed to the ghetto gates as a sign of his personal protection.
This was on 20th Adar 5376 (1616) just after Purim, and that date has been celebrated as the Purim of Fettmilch and Vinz ever since.
THAT KIND of miracle has been recorded all over the Jewish world over the last 2,500 years. A great salvation happened in about 175 BCE in Alexandria, when the Jews of Egypt were threatened by Pharaoh Ptolemy Physkon (called “the fat one” by friends and enemies alike) for backing Queen Cleopatra II against him. He employed elephants to wipe out the Jews but, at the last minute, the beasts turned on their keepers and the imprisoned Jews were saved. Josephus tells us (Contra Apion II:53-54) the miraculous escape was celebrated with a feast in Alexandria ever after.
Again, it happened in Casablanca during World War II, when the local Jews were saved from anti-Semitic persecution and Nazi occupation just in time as the French and British allied forces liberated Morocco from the Germans in 1943. It is still commemorated there and called the “Hitler Purim.”
Whichever miracle it is or was, whether the hanging of Haman and his 10 sons, 2,500 years ago, which saved the Jews of the Persian empire, the greatest of the then-known world, or the saving of the ghetto of a Catholic town 400 years ago, or the rescue of the Jews in the then-capital of Egypt 2,100 years ago, it was recognized as a miracle at the time, and it is justifiably still celebrated with recitation and feasting today.
The author is a Senior Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.