"The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him.
Adonai laughs at him; for he sees that his day is coming" Psalm 37:12,13
Purim, Festival of Lots, the only time when ribaldry and license were encouraged as examples of proper behavior, arrives on the 14th day of Adar. Adar is the month that precedes Nisan, when Jews celebrate the liberation from slavery in Egypt. Purim is also about deliverance from great peril and has many parallels with Pesach. The drama of the humbling of Egypt and its Pharaoh, the destruction of his pursuing army in the waters of the Reed Sea, as told and retold at the Seder, is the same theme as the downfall of the tyrant Haman: salvation and the miracle of Jewish survival. Though one festival is celebrated with farce, noisemaking, and the command (at least traditionally) to get drunk, and the other with the solemn drama of an ordered ritual meal, storytelling and prayer, each has its own special book, its own unique telling of a miracle.
Purim is the Scroll of Esther, called the Megillah (meaning "scroll"). There are five "scrolls" read on the various festival and holy days, (Ecclesiastes or Koheleth - Succoth; Song of Songs - Pesach; Ruth - Shavuot; Lamentations - Tisha B'Av) but only the Scroll of Esther is required by our tradition to be heard in its entirety by everyone.
Modern scholarship has suggested that the origins of Purim are based on a spring festival involving considerable revelry and mock battles between opposing forces; also, that the story of Mordecai and Esther is not historical but was originally two separate tales of court and harem intrigue that were combined into one, and that the festival actually predated the scroll . (See "Four Strange Books of the Bible": Elias Bickerman, Shocken Books, 1967). Modern scholarship notwithstanding, Haman, at least before Hitler, remained the prototype of all who sought to exterminate the Jewish people. The story of his downfall and of the heroism of Esther and Mordecai seemed so miraculous that the rabbis declared that when the Messiah came only the Torah and the Scroll of Esther would retain their value. As a result, though it appears to be a simple tale of sex, intrigue, and violence, there is a considerable body of midrashic additions to the Megillah that seeks to explain and comment on the histories, motivations, and actions of the characters (See Josephus - Antiquities; Talmud Bavli - Megillah; Midrash Rabbah - Esther; Louis Ginzberg - The Legends of the Jews, The Jewish Publication Society). Midrash is a body of literature that consists of rabbinic interpretation of biblical texts, often adding new details or explanations not present in the actual writings. Over time, these stories and interpretations were often treated as if they were part of the actual texts, cetainly in popular retelling of the tales.
It begins in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus, (Achash-verosh) ruler over the vast Persian-Mede empire. This king has just finished showing off his wealth and splendor to his nobles and military officers in a marathon banquet or series of banquets lasting 180 days. He then throws a feast for the citizens of his capital/fortress city, Shushan (Susa). After seven days of drinking, the obviously intoxicated king summons his queen, Vashti, ordering her to appear before his guests wearing the royal crown and display her beauty. The Talmud and other rabbinic commentators have understood this to mean that she was to appear naked, though this is not stated. Vashti refuses to come and the king sulks and indulges a self-righteous fit of anger and resentment. Unable to deal with his wife himself, he summons his councilors, who advise him that Vashti's refusal was not only an offense to his royal personage, but also a crime against the welfare of the state, that when it became known to the general population, would cause every woman to despise and disobey her lawful master. The king is advised to replace Vashti and she disappears from the story, and the majority opinion of the rabbis is that she paid with her life.
After his anger has cooled, the king remembers his former queen and what he had done to her. How soon after? Immediately upon becoming sober perhaps, but we are not told. Is he remorseful? We are not told that either. His ministers, perhaps to escape being blamed for the lack of a queen, advise Ahasuerus to gather beautiful virgins to sample and to replace Vashti with the woman who pleases him.
We are now introduced to the hero and heroine of the Megillah: "There once was a certain Jew in Shushan whose name was Mordecai..." This verse, recited aloud by the congregation (traditionally) before the reading of the Megillah, introduces Mordecai. Called Yehudi (either Jew or Judean), he is given a genealogy that includes the father of King Saul of ancient Israel, which will be explained shortly. Mordecai has reared and adopted his beautiful niece Hadassah, also called Esther. It is believed that the name Esther is derived from a Semitic-Babylonian goddess of love called Astarte or Ishtar. Mordecai is also thought to be derived from Marduk, a principal deity of Babylon. The rabbis were not ignorant of these pagan antecedents, in fact comparing Esther to Venus, the morning star that lights up the sky until the sun rises.
Esther is taken, along with the other virgins, into the harem of Ahasuerus. She is required to be purified with sweet oils and ointments for twelve months before she is sent to the king's bed. Presumably she is also instructed in the sexual arts, for "the king loved her above all the women," and she is installed as queen in place of Vashti.
Esther has been instructed by Mordecai to conceal her Jewish identity, and her guardian enters the king's service to watch over Esther; he "sits in the king's gate", as the text declares. There he overhears a plot against the life of the king, and foils it by informing Esther of the coming danger. Though he is not rewarded, Mordecai's act is recorded in the king's book of "the deeds of the day."
In Chapter Three of the tale, Haman makes his appearance, having been just elevated above all the king's officers to a special position of honor. Haman is called an Agagite, a descendant of Agag, King of Amalek, traditional enemy of Israel. We already know that Mordecai is descended from King Saul's family, so the audience for this story is thereby made aware that the private vendetta of the two characters is really an ancient blood feud, a struggle between Israel and evil, set to be reenacted in the kingdom of Ahasuerus.
The Shabbat immediately preceding Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, The Sabbath of Remembering. The Torah portion for the day includes Deuteronomy 25:17-19:
"Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt;
how he encountered you on the road and attacked your rear, the feeble and
the weary, and had no reverence for God. When Adonai has given you relief
from all your enemies around you in the land that Adonai your God gives
you for an inherited possession, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek
from under heaven. You shall not forget."
Haman's office required lesser mortals to bow before him, which Mordecai refuses to do. (The Midrash explains that Haman wore the image of an idol on his clothing.) When Mordecai's insult is reported to Haman, his rage is pathological and he resolves to destroy all the Jews, not only Mordecai. In the month of Nisan, as Pesach is being celebrated, Haman and his diviners seek an auspicious time to attack the Jews, by casting lots (called pur in the Hebrew text, from which we derive Purim).
In a chilling scene that is totally believable, the lives of the Jews are sold. Haman receives the king's permission to kill "a certain people" scattered and dispersed in the empire, whose ways are different and who don't keep the king's law. Ahasuerus does not bother to ask who Haman intends to kill, nor does he care, giving Haman his ring and thereby full authority to issue, in the king's name, decrees that are irrefutable and unchangeable. Haman's command to kill and despoil the Jews on the 13th of Adar is published throughout the empire. When Mordecai hears of it, he puts on ashes and sackcloth and cries aloud in the city. Her uncle's strange behavior is relayed to Esther, who is soon made aware of the looming threat. When Mordecai demands that she avert the disaster and appeal to her husband, Esther protests that the penalty is death for approaching the royal throne without first being summoned, and that she has not been called to his bed for a month.
Mordecai rebukes Esther, telling her that her position will not shield her from the coming slaughter, that she may have been raised to royalty for this very time, and that if she does nothing, her line will perish, but that help will come from "another place". This is the only time that there is reference to Divine help. The author of the Megillah appears to have deliberately avoided the use of God's name throughout. Some commentators insist that a sense of Divine Providence is present, but I find it hard to see. The absence of God is telling, almost contemporary.
Accepting the rebuke, Esther instructs Mordecai to have the Jews of Shushan fast with her for three days, and then she will go to Ahasuerus unsummoned and ready to die. According to certain Midrashic sources, the fast demanded by Esther fell on Pesach, a festival, and therefore a time when it is forbidden to fast. Mordecai's protests are stopped when Esther declares that if there is no Israel alive to celebrate the holy days, of what use are they?
After three days of fasting, Esther approaches the throne and Ahasuerus extends his golden scepter to her, meaning that she is welcome and permitted to draw near without risking her life. Esther invites the king and Haman to a dinner party. At the banquet, Ahasuerus, understanding that his queen had not risked her life to dine with him, asks whether she has a favor to ask of him. Esther merely asks both men to come the next evening to another feast, as if she had decided that the time was not right to denounce Haman - or perhaps she wanted to allay any suspicions her powerful enemy might harbor.
Haman has none, for he is delighted and full of himself over this singular honor shown him by the queen. However, when he leaves the presence of the royal couple, he sees Mordecai, who neither bows nor makes way for him. As Haman later recounts his day to his wife and cronies, his meanness of spirit cannot be contained when he remembers Mordecai, declaring that to them that his triumphs mean nothing to him whenever he sees Mordecai the Jew sitting in the king's gate. To mollify him, they advise him to construct some type of gibbet, 50 cubits high, to hang or impale Mordecai. Now, 50 cubits is approximately 80 feet, so it would appear that this fantastic, exaggerated cross tree or gallows is another element of the story intended as comic relief, in an otherwise grave tale.
On the night Haman constructs the instrument of Mordecai's downfall, the king has insomnia. Causing his chronicles to be read to him, he discovers that Mordecai had saved his life, yet had not received any reward or recognition. Coincidentally, Haman has entered the royal apartments to seek permission to hang Mordecai. Ahasuerus asks Haman to suggest a suitable reward for one whom the king desires to honor. Haman naturally thinks this is his honor and suggests that the king's own royal garments be placed on the man and that he be mounted on the king's horse and paraded through the city streets by a leading prince, who is to proclaim that this is what is done to the one who the king honors. Naturally, to his mortification, Haman is forced to do all this for Mordecai.
Reeling at this humiliation and his wife's prediction that this signals that the Jews will prevail against him, Haman is summoned to the second dinner with Esther and the king. There, Esther pleads for her life and the lives of her people, naming Haman as her enemy. It is ironic that Haman never considered that the queen could be a Jew, so disaster comes to him quickly and from an unexpected quarter. Pleading for his life, Haman collapses or throws himself onto the queen's couch, which Ahasuerus conveniently interprets as a sexual assault upon his wife (There is a midrash that says that an angel pushes Haman onto the couch). This decides Haman's fate and he is hanged on the gibbet he built to hang Mordecai.
The action now moves swiftly to a conclusion. Since the writer of the scroll knew or believed that a Persian King's edict could not be reversed, a new edict is sent to all the provinces, granting to the Jews the right of organized self-defense and incidentally, the help of royal forces are assured because of the new royal favorite, Mordecai.
Haman's ten sons are killed and then hanged, supposedly on the same gallows, one above the other, according to a tradition. The names of the ten are written in the Megillah in a perpendicular column on the right side of the page to reflect this tradition. The Jews living in the capital of Shushan organize, and kill many of their enemies on the 13th and 14th of Adar. In the provinces of the empire, the Megillah reports that 75,000 of those who hated the Jews were slain on the 13th day of Adar.
For some, the Megillah is therefore about bloody revenge. In Nazi Germany, the Scroll of Esther was cited to prove the Jews were a dangerous element within the nation. I prefer to see the story as wish fulfillment: a people knowing tyrants and oppression wanting to have myths that say that once, by miracles or by courage and self reliance, their enemies were defeated.
The story concludes with an injunction to keep the 14th and 15th of Adar as days of feasting and gladness throughout the generations, celebrated by sending "portions" to one another and gifts to the poor. The Midrash says that therefore, even if all the other Festivals are annulled, Purim will always be celebrated.
In the story, Mordecai recognizes that the survival of the Jews depends on Esther's ability to influence events through her unique position; in other words, action is required of those who are able to help others. Similarly, the Megillah ordains that the celebration of Purim must involve sending help to the poor - gifts of clothes, food, money. The command to give tzedakah on Purim involves a separate obligation, in addition to the general expectation that a Jew is supposed to give tzedakah in pursuit of justice.
For the traditionally observant, Purim begins with a fast, the 13th of Adar, called Taanit Esther (the Fast of Esther). Purim is then celebrated after sundown on the 14th of Adar. Since the Megillah relates that the Jews of Shushan fought their enemies for two days, it was decreed that, in all cities surrounded by walls (like Shushan and Jerusalem) since the time of Joshua, Purim was to be observed on the 15th of Adar, which is called Shushan Purim.
The public reading of the Megillah is like no other ritual, for unrestrained noise and merriment are encouraged in a communal celebration of survival. Every time Haman's name is intoned, the command to blot out the memory of Amalek is obeyed with the cacophony of horns and greggers until the congregants must be asked to stop for the chanting to continue. We are supposed to make merry and, according to the Talmud, to drink until one does not know the difference (ad lo yada) between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordecai'. This often repeated maxim really does not consider how sick you can get in reaching this state of intoxication, and since most of us drive to our synagogues, it is now more harmful than helpful as a guide to holiday observance (though wine as a symbol of happiness inaugurates all Jewish religious ceremonies, and it certainly plays a prominent role in the Purim tale).
We are expected to send shalach manot, gifts of food, to friends and family. This custom and its name is derived from the Megillah (9:19,22), where it is said that Jews sent portions or gifts to one another ( in Hebrew, mishloach manot ) in observance of the festival of the 14th of Adar. Since the word "portions" is in the plural form, it is the custom that at least two kinds of special foods should be sent, one of flour and one including a fruit that does not have to be cooked. We who are descended from the Ashkenazim of Europe are most familiar with hamantaschen (literally, Haman's pockets), the three-cornered cake filled with poppy seeds or other fruits, but there are many variants of baked goods and honey-filled sweets, depending on the national origin of the different Jewish communities. It is also the custom to include chickpeas in the Purim feast because the Midrash relates that the evil Haman had forbidden a ritual slaughterer in the palace, so Esther, in her piety, lived on a diet of chickpeas to avoid eating non-kosher foods.
If all depends on fate, may we all have luck in the lottery of life and O! Today, we'll merry, merry be! Chag Samayach!
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This article was written by Stephen Butterfass for Religious Living on the Web.