Purim – the holiest day of the year

Let us investigate the lessons to be learned from Purim, and see how they might apply to the Day of Atonement.

An Israeli boy rides his bike on an empty motorway during Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli boy rides his bike on an empty motorway during Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Secular holidays, and even Christian holidays, frequently devolve into occasions of wild behavior and debauchery. Jewish holidays, on the other hand, are designed to inculcate Jewish values and the principles of the faith. It is thus quite surprising, and even disappointing, that the rabbis instituted a holiday – to base oneself on its reputation – involving unbridled behavior and drunkenness.
The source of this attitude is the Talmudic statement (Megilla 7b) that “it is the duty of a man to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.’” However, there are also sources which proffer a more serious nature to the holiday. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Torah Or, Megilat Esther), based on the Zohar, says that Purim and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), have a common strand. Yom Kippur means “like Purim,” implying that Purim is even holier than Yom Kippur, as well as that Purim has an element of solemnity and awe like Yom Kippur.
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What are the common principles which unite these apparently disparate holidays? Let us investigate the lessons to be learned from Purim, and see how they might apply to the Day of Atonement.
First, Purim emphasizes that Judaism does not seek to negate worldly pleasures, but rather to sanctify them. The Jerusalem Talmud (Kidushin 4:12) states that in the world to come, man will be required to justify his failure to indulge in all permissible pleasures which were available to him in his lifetime. The source of this statement may be traced to the Book of Genesis.
Most people recall quite clearly verse 2:17 which prohibits eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. However, they don’t recall that the immediately preceding phrase states that God had commanded: “Of every tree of the garden you must surely eat.”
To draw close to God through prayer and fasting on Yom Kippur is fine, but to do so as part of our routine existence, in which miracles, even if they occur, are of the concealed variety, represents an even higher level. That is why the Purim period, which starts with physical deprivation (Fast of Esther) and progresses to material pleasures (the Purim feast) is considered to be on a higher plane than Yom Kippur, which starts with a festive meal, and proceeds to a day of spirituality.
The second area of superiority relates to the Jewish precept of repentance. Although Yom Kippur is the universally recognized day of repentance, the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9) elucidates that one can only repent on that day for sins against God. Sins against one’s fellow man must be handled prior to the Day of Atonement, and according to some views (Rif on Ein Yaakov) one may not even initiate his repentance on Yom Kippur until all interpersonal accounts have been settled. An excellent way to start the process of reconciliation is to send mishloach manot (gifts of food) on Purim, which is part of the prescribed behavior for the holiday.
This is a second way in which Purim shows its superiority, since its proper fulfillment is a prerequisite for the proper observance of the Day of Atonement.
The spirit of Purim can help solve a chronic problem in Israeli society, namely the rift between religious and secular citizens of the country. Both of the religious imperatives of Purim should be acceptable to non-religious Israelis as well. I believe that all shades of the religious spectrum will readily accept the pleasure principle accentuated by Purim, and the importance of peaceful and loving inter-personal relations are most certainly agreeable to all. In recent years, even the political parties have begun to adopt this approach to improving relations among the various segments of the population.
The Bayit Yehudi Party has made a point of including secular Israelis in its list, even in prominent positions, while to the Left, the Yesh Atid Party has members whose views range from atheistic to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) – with many intermediate views between those poles. Interestingly, the Yahad Party allows fervent Zionists to sit next to traditional haredim, perhaps indicating a softening of the antagonism between those different weltanschauungs. In these times of fear and despair regarding our enemies from without, perhaps Purim can inject a morsel of hope in our handling of the enemy within.
The author graduated from Yeshiva University and holds a PhD from New York University. He served as a Reserve Chaplain in the United States Air Force and is the father of four sons and lives in Jerusalem with his wife. He is also the author of The Ethics of Genesis.