day Rabbi Naftali of Ropchitz remained in shul an entire morning,
praying that the rich would give more money to the poor. When
he returned home, the rebbetzin asked him, "Were you successful
with your prayers?"
halfway there," the rabbi answered. "The poor have agreed
What delicious irony!
A sophisticated man slanders
Jews for keeping Jewish holidays. He then rolls the dice of hate
so badly that he becomes responsible for adding another Jewish
festival to the very calendar that he so despises; in fact, he
single-handedly creates Purim, the zaniest festival of them all,
a lively and boisterous day of prayer and parody, law and levity.
Welcome to the sagacious
Haman, a word derived from Mano, "to count,"
in that the only thing that counted for him was selfishly measured
in terms of power or money.
Haman is the epitome of
the Hebrew definition of rosha ("wicked"), [i] a man who exists in a constant state of emotional
turmoil and whose lifes ambition is to wear "royal clothes
and ride the King’s horse." [ii] Using a play on words, our rabbis [iii] find a source in Genesis for Haman: "Have
you [Adam, Eve] eaten from the tree which I commanded you not
to eat?" [iv]
The letters of Haman’s
name (heh-mem-nun) spell out the words "from the,"
a linkage to Man’s first act of defiance in Eden," when human
conflict itself is born; when, in less than a single day, humanity
went from grace to disgrace, from innocent utopia to banishment;
from sheltered existence to the grind of reality.
As in the Scroll of Esther,
the principal player never expresses remorse; a discomfited Adam
hides among trees, generating the first recorded communication
between Man and God: "Where are you?" All of human history,
notes Rabbi Eliezer, begins with these three words, the discovery
of shame, and the ability to sense the difference between right
The Talmudic adage on hereditary,
ma’aseh avos siman l’banim, like fathers like sons, is
evident in this impeccable racist whose yichus stretches all the
way back to the dreaded Agag, cunning king of the Amalekites.
Haman shares more than
just amoral billing with his boss Ahasuerus whose pedigree is
similarly sinister. His father? [v] Cyrus, the menacing Persian king, a man who elevated
anti-Semitism into an acceptable social ideology. His wifes zeida?
None other than the notorious Nebuchadnezzer, a man who knew more
about destroying Jews than anyone else. And like most deceivers
and opportunists, Haman was true to form: his family tree was
no more Persian (he was an Agagite, son of Hamdata) than Adolf
Hitlers was German (he was an Austrian) and Yasser Arafats was
Palestinian (he was Egyptian).
Meanwhile, it is hard not
to feel sorry for the woman cast as Queen (Vashti, from ushti,
"beloved"), an enigmatic character whose brief appearance
is admirable, her execution less so. Her decadent husband is a
megalomaniac wife-killer, one convinced that in order to be the
king of his castle a man must so dominate the opposite sex that
a wifes refusal to entertain his guests is enough to issue a
Purim is a Jewish festival
of mixed emotions struggling in a tide of rising and falling fortunes
of entire Jewish communities.
The mood swings like a
pendulum, from gratitude to sudden panic, vacillating between
prosperity and trouble, relief and danger. Do we celebrate, then
grieve? or vice versa?
The latter, notes Rabbi
Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (known affectionately as "the Rav"), [vi] by fasting first, feasting afterwards; the typical
"jewish" way to deal with the precariousness of Jewish
life in exile.
drunken orgies, conspiracies, an exotic locale, assassination
attempts and a beautiful heroine.
This ancient plot has it
all: which Hollywood director could ask for
The carefully crafted Scroll [vii] of Esther (Megillat Esther) is the third
section of the Hebrew Scriptures that describes a tale in Shushan,
capital of Persia, from bayomin hahaim,
the distant past. It was edited in the 4th or 3rd centuries
BCE by the Ansei Knesset haGdolah, the Men of the Great
Assembly (Sanhedrin), and, despite
the fact that its story is not
overly long, it has earned its own yiddish phrase: di
gantze Megilla, the full Megillah, a snide reference to anybody
or anything that is endless and tedious (it’s story line was Islamicized
some 1,000 years later in the Persian court tale Hazar Afsana,
which we know as 1,001 Nights).
Some consider Megillat
Esther to be the final work of the Bible. It is not. Scripture’s
final writings occur half-a-century later and are found in the
books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi,
who collectively represent the final phase of Biblical history.
The curtain opens on a Persian monarch (Chashava’arsha
in Persian, Xerxes in Greek) [viii] whose rule coincides with what the Torah calls
yesud hama’ala, the "beginning of their ascent,"
the return of Babylonian Jewry to Zion.
Zerubbabel and Jeshua, [x] two local Jewish leaders, ask Ahasuerus for permission
to rebuild Solomons Temple, some seventy years after its destruction.
As that great Jewish comic-philosopher Mel Brooks once said, "It’s
good to be the King." Well, not always. The leader of the
world’s greatest cosmopolitan metropolis could have simply OK’d
the request, but his was a rule of stupidity and indifference,
and so he refuses (on the advice of the "enemies of Judah
and Benjamin.") [xi]
His cease n desist order is then met with such protests
that the King loses nearly half his kingdom (240 provinces), leaving
him the undisputed ruler of 120 countries, from India to Ethiopia. [xii]
The Megillah wastes no time in describing Persian Jews
as a community headed towards extinction; not only an
am mefuzar, a scattered folk among the nations, but also
an am mefuzar umeforad, divided from within. [xiii]
Iranian Jews trace their history to the reign of Persia‘s Zoroastrianic King Koroush (Cyrus) who conquered
Babylonia, [xiv] liberated the Jews from captivity, and raised
funds for the rebuilding of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. So grateful were the rabbis of the Talmud
that they carved a picture of Susa, the capital of the Persian
Achaemenid kings, on the eastern gate of the Temple.
But not all Jews went to Jerusalem; many, especially
those who were economically and socially established, migrated
to Babylonian-Persian lands that are now Iran; such as the fabled ancient city of Esfahan, once known as Dar-Al-Yahud (”House of the Jews” in Farsi). [xv]
Jewish mystics see assimilation in Esthers name itself,
a word whose Hebrew root is a cipher for hiddenness, a symbol
that the Jews were hiding from their religion.
They could hide but they couldnt run: their communal
complacency was shattered the moment their King symbolically removes
his signet ring and abdicates power to a rogue Prime Minister
whose first official act is an order to kill all the Jews. This
led Rabbi Abba bar Kahana, a 3rd-century Palestinian
amora, to observe that greater is the taking off of a signet
ring [that turned the Jews into immediate ba’alei tshuvas,
returnees to the faith] than all the pleas of the forty-eight
prophets and seven prophetesses in Israel!
Haman, true-to-form, turns
to mass murder. Why? What prompted him?
Certain laws and customs
of the Jews. Which ones? Rava, fourth-century Sage, identifies
them as kashrut (they do not eat of our food,) non-assimilation
(they do not marry our women nor give us theirs,) Jewish holidays
(they evade taxes by claiming Today is the Sabbath, Today
is Passover, etc). Haman takes his defamationary delusions to
his boss, whining, "There exists one nation [yeshno am
echad] whose laws and customs are different from those of
all nations, and who do not adhere to the King’s customs. [xvi]
He who starts with the
complaint that some Jews are anti-social irritants inevitably
ends with a much more serious charge; that all Jews are
disloyal Hofjude-type [xvii] citizens (for example: even though the Jews
tried to out-Egyptian-the-Egyptians in their patriotism, Pharaoh
also considered them dual loyalists and a security risk.)
Jewish history is littered with such terminally corrupt
Esau-sterotypes as Balaam (they dwell alone, not to be reckoned
among the nations); Joseph Stalin (they are passportless wanderers);
Bernard Shaw ("they are enormously arrogant); Charles de
Gaulle (they are un peuple delite, sur de lui-meme et dominateur,
an elite people, sure of itself and dominating); Voltaire ("What
was the Jews’ crime? None, other than being born!"); Henry
Ford ("The world’s foremost problem? The International Jew!") [xviii] – and, of course, Adolf Hitler, the inventor
of state-sponsored genocide (they are of a different race with
a different smell) whose private office was adorned with a large
portrait of Ford and a German copy of his hate-mongering book,
Die Internationale Jude: ein Weltproblem. [xix]
What accounts for this type of Jew-hatred?
Menasseh ben Israel, a 17th century Dutch rabbi, saw Antisemitismus
(a replacement of Judenfeindschaft, "Jew-hatred"), [xx] as pure psychological inversion: people who hate
something about themselves project it onto the Jews. "People
hate Jews because of envy, sighs Ibn Verga, and for envy there
is no cure.
Haman’s dislike of the unlike, centuries before T.S.
Elliot developed his own insane nausea about the Jews, [xxi] gave him an entry ticket into historys Judeophobia
Club whose motto was A bas les youpins, "down with
the kikes," a group that perceived the Jews in their midst
as some evolutionary form of abnormality. Yet Haman’s paranoia
cannot even hate with originality; he simply echoes such other
vile men as Cicero and Tacitus (the Jews sit apart at meals,
and sleep apart from foreign women.) [xxii]
that we werent forewarned.
In three short verses, the Torah, in one of the most
important readings of the year, makes it a positive command to
forever remember that which Amalek did to thee (Zachor et
asher asah lecha Amalek). [xxiii]
Our Sages position the obligatory public hearing of
Parshas Zochor, which discusses this concept, on the Shabbas
before Purim and identify Amalek as the persona of all
evil; in fact, the only one whose nefarious memory all Jews through
all generations must "wipe out." Who was Amalek? I don’t
know. In fact, no one knows [xxiv] – which makes the mystery of his identity a
tailor-made reading for Purim, a yomtov of guises, replete with
masks of disguise and deception.
Interestingly, our rabbis are careful not to overtly
paint King Ahasuerus with this kind of anti-Semitic brush. Why?
Again, I dont know. They are divided as to whether, as wicked
as he was, he was as inherently evil as Haman.
The consensus is that he was a manipulative, fickle-minded [xxv] and unpredictable obtuse bumbler, swaying between
good and bad, wisdom and foolishness; an intellectual midget in
the hands of his advisors.
The popular Shoshanat Yaakov ("The Rose of Yaakov") [xxvi] song praises Mordechai, Esther – and Charvona.
Who’s Charvona? He was "Mr. Opportunist," an adviser
to Ahasuerus who is credited with a single suggestion: "Ah,
check out those huge gallows
Haman just set those up to, ah, kill
Mordechai, you know, the guy who saved your life
since they are
already there, and, ah ready, why not hang Haman on them, uh,
like right now?"
Jewish history gives him a positive review for expediting
the execution of Haman, despite the fact that he was far from
As the men in the Persian
White House gear up for their blood-letting crusade, Haman’s unattractive
wife Zeresh suddenly realizes that the elderly man [Mordechai]
who sits at the palace gate is of the Jewish race, an "ish
Zeresh knew: Jewish survival
is irreversible, the Jew unbreakable.
Baruch Hu matzilenu miyadim, in "every generation
we are saved from their hands." History had already proved
that the anonymous writer who carved in the stone of an ancient
Temple from King Merneptahs time that Israel is laid waste;
his seed is no more turned out to be nothing more than a graffiti
writer of fiction.
Zeresh quickly concludes
that her spouse had crossed the line with this "stiff-necked
people," and by underestimating the Judaic spirit of faith,
determination, intransigence in the face of (another) deadly adversary,
would "undoubtedly fall," and fall he does (together
with her ten sons) in a downfall, ironically hung from the very
same gallows that he had prepared for Petahyah son of Jair (who
we know by his non-Jewish name Mordechai). [xxviii]
For Jews this is a spectacular and unprecedented ending:
Hamans demise was not caused by the might of any Judaic warrior
but from the might of the Jewish spirit; as wielded by Ishtar,
a shy and reserved orphaned girl (who we know as Hadassah), and
her humble uncle, Mordechai, a respected member of the Sanhedrin
from the House of Kish, father of King Saul, and descendant from
Jacob’s youngest son; in other words, royalty banished by circumstance
to a faraway kingdom in exile [xxix] – ironically, the Mordechai descends from the
same failed King (Saul) who was supposed to kill Haman’s ancestor
(Agag) but failed to do despite an order from God).
Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon
of Vilna, [xxx] whose hobby was gematria and numbers, was delighted
to discover that there are 54 letters in the names of Haman’s
ten sons, and that Esthers name appears in the Megillah 54 times;
that Hadassa, Esthers other name appears only once, as
does Memuchan, Hamans other name (from the root of l’Hachin,
"to prepare"), and that the first and last words (vayehi,
zaro) of the Megillah have the same gematria (314) as Mordechai
haYehudi, Mordechai the Jew.
Jewish mystics claim that
the name Mordechai comes from mor dror, the first of the
fragrant oil spices used for annointment, suggesting that he had
the ability to arouse his people like a stimulating incense. [xxxi]
This ‘name-game’ leads us to surely one of the more
bizarre elements of Purim; the startling incongruity that our
hero and heroine are named after major Babylonian gods.
‘Mordechai’ is a direct derivative of Marduk,
god of creation and preservation; Ishtar comes from Astarte,
god of the planets. Babylonian lore believed that the combination
of these gods was a cosmic wedding union; a legend that made the
11th-century French master Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (Rashi)
flirt with the idea that maybe Mordechai and Esther were married. [xxxii]
Is this heavy innuendo of idolatry responsible for God’s
Name being conspicuously missing from the Book of Esther?
dialectic of presence and absence is Purim’s most-oft asked question, [xxxiii] why, out of the 24 books of the T’nach, God
doesn’t appear in this one. [xxxiv]
literary accident? No.
fact its absence is so obviously deliberate that its exclusion
has now become more spiritually significant than if it had been
included. And Gods Name is not the only unmentionable; eretz
Yisrael is also absent and, except for one brief reference
to life from Jerusalem, the word exile is also conspicuously
missing (is Gods Name absent in any other sefer? Yes: Shir
HaShirim, the Song of Songs.) [xxxv]
Remember: the common
motif of Judaism is the sanctification of the secular realm; and
thus this yomtov prefers to crown God in robust absentia, in His
own exile, hidden from a world riddled with the lawlessness of
disorder, where assimilation, drunkenness, lewd language and immodest
beauty contests rule the times.
In the classical sense,
the Hebrew root dt might mean dat (for "religion,"
a word derived from the Latin verb religare, "to bind") [xxxvi] but here, where it appear 20 times, it is
linked to data, an old Persian word which means law, edict,
custom (eg: the drinking in Ahasuerus’s grand ol’ parties was,
"according to dat" – ie, in the customary manner.)
Perhaps the very hiding
of His own identity is why we wear disguises? Does the costume
of Divine comedy, a theological ars poetica, include a
But wait, didn’t Jacob,
a patriarch, disguise himself to get a blessing? And wasn’t Esau
himself a master of deception, a ki tzayid bfiv con artist
who, even from conception in the womb, tried to play the role
of the righteous one? And what about Moses, the teacher of teachers
and greatest of all prophets, who was forced to "place on
his face a mask [upon] descending from Mount Sinai [after the
Jews] were afraid to approach him [knowing] that there was a splendorous
ray of light on the skin of his face." [xxxvii]
The Midrash goes back even
further: the snake in Eden (nochosh) shed its skin in order
to camouflage his ways; and so, when describing an Amalek primed
in the element of surprise to attack the Jews, our rabbis see
him as "dressed up" like the Knaani (asher
korcho baderech, "Amalek comes at us like a snake!").
Maybe the absence is simply the fulfillment of a Biblical
prophecy, that God (and His miracles) would be hidden from future
This is the kabbalist position: based on the similarity
in the Hebrew root of olam (world") and he’elam
(hidden), indicating that God prefers to be hidden, waiting
to be found.
When the 19th century leader, the Chiddushei
Harim, was a little boy, one of his teachers teased him, "If
you can tell me where God is, I will give you a gold coin."
"If you can tell me where God is not,"
the boy immediately responded, "I’ll give you two gold coins."
The clue to God’s remoteness can be found in the Jewish
Purim falls on the 14th of Adar, with the
Jews of Jerusalem keeping it one day later, the 15th
Adar, known as Shushan Purim, the Purim of Susa. Why? Because
the Jews in the city of Shushan, the walled capital of Persia,
didn’t stop fighting until that day.
Our rabbis then determined that all Jews living at the
time of Joshua in similar walled-cities, such as Jerusalem and
Acco, were to keep Purim on that day instead. Athough our enemies
were defeated on the 13th of Adar we do not celebrate Purim until
the next day, the 14th. Why? Because Jews prefer to remember not
the revenge but an aftermath of stability ‘n peace.
The 14th of Adar is no calendar accident:
it is significantly positioned at the end of a yomtov cycle
that began when the Jews were about to engage in Jewish history’s
most stunning transition (Pesach); a beginning wherein a domineering
God shelters the chosen folk with seas that split, skies that
drop food (manna), and a Sun that
But as their trek progresses into
the maturity of nationhood and independence, this awesomeness
recedes, in compliance with one of Gods Names, El Shaddai,
which means, I say Dai’ [enough]! Remember: there is only one name in English for God ("God");
the terms ‘Lord,’ ‘Almighty,’ etc being concepts. In contrast
Hebrew grants God seven names (excluding Hashem), each
describing a different aspect of the Deity. Jewish mystics are
more aggressive: they have somewhere between 42 and 231 names,
not counting a plethora of synonyms.
The Heavens withdraw so that the Jews may enter history,
and enter they do. By the
time their descendants find themselves in a precarious Persia,
God is nowhere to be found. Why? Because Hamans deadly web occurs
outside the holy land, weaving the first Jewish festival
that mirrors the hazards of life in bitter exile, a symbol of
vulnerability in an unredeemed world and thus undeserving of any
The choice of the word
megillah is revealing: its Hebrew root is derived from
galut or galoh, which mean "exile, unprotected;"
and in the context of Purim reflects the existential weakness
of the Jew outside of Israel, deprived of a certain "home-grown"
Godly umbrella and exposed to the gentile elements of Haman-style
happenstance, and lottery coincidence.
This is why our Sages rolled
the Megillah up like a letter and avoided printing it in book
form, in order to emphasize its transitory, pre-redemption, role
in Jewish history.
They then inundated the
day with specific laws ‘n lores to ensure that Purim is the most
secular Jewish festival of them all, even retaining the Scrolls
non-Jewish title (Esther, not Hadassah) – and succeed brilliantly:
the future baffled and witty eastern European yiddishists sing
that "Purim is no yomtov (and fever is no sickness"),
a moronic statement well-suited for an odd-ball yomtov-carnival
spirit whose unholy satire is directed against holy texts and
And now we know why Purim
is the only festival with a gentile title.
Purim is plural for pur,
an Akkadian word that describes Haman’s macabre Lottery for Genocide,
dramatically conducted to choose a chance date for the extermination
of his clannish Jews. [xxxix] In Persian, the word pur means "son;"
if it were a Hebrew word, its root would have been prr,
which is not the sound of a cat but means "to break into
crumbs" (I guess that’s just the way the cookie, sorry, hamentasch,
The Megilla itself feels
the need to remind us (twice) that ‘pur’ is not a Hebrew word,
with a causal explanatory throw-alone line, "pur, that is,
the goral." A goral
what’s a goral?
The Homeric Greeks played
a game of random called goral that involved picking small
pebbles out of a helmet in order to make decisions by chance (the
English called this activity ballein, which means "ballot,"
or "lot"); whilst the Torah uses it in the same context
– God tells Moses and Joshua to divide up the land "by goral;"
Aaron takes two goats, "a goral for God and Azazel;"
Nehemiah casts "gorals to see who shall bring the
wood offering;" even as the Psalmist complains, "they
divvy up my clothes, casting a goral for my garments!" [xl]
the calendar winner of Haman’s lottery turns out to be the 13th
of Adar the Jew-hater can’t believe his lucky streak.
is no ordinary day, but one with historic value, coming one month
before his foe celebrates their liberation festival of Pesach.
Now is his chance; with a random human lottery the ambitious Haman
can pierce Jewish history and fate, finally reverse the calculated
victory of Exodus and shatter, once and for all, Tevyes notion
of any vast, eternal plan of the God of the Jews.
But Haman fails: on the
very day he hoped to gain rule over the Jews, it was turned to
the contrary [nahafokh]; [xli] a matter-of-fact statement that is the very
essence of Purim – the inversion of events.
On Purim nothing is as
it seems. What you see is not what you get, and vice versa.
In the olden days yeshiva
boys would "study" Tractate Purim, except there is no
such tractate, an act that led to todays Purim custom of the spoof
newspaper, a refreshing tonic by Jews who believed that religion
is healthy when it can laugh at itself.
"Creative Purim humour"
inspired such master rabbinic satirists as Judah Ibn Shabbetei
and Solomon Ibn Saqbel from the 12th century, and the 14th century Kalonymos ben Kalonymos who
penned a parody of the Mishna and Gemara on the Exodus called
Massechet Purim l’layl shikkurim, a play on the words Layl
shimmurim, "A Night of Watching."
Since it was a Purim treatise
Jacob Israelstam, an Anglo-Jewish writer, felt safe enough to
translate the title into, "The Tractate of Lots for the Night
of Sots," and included this gem of advice
"If a Jew is in the dumps, the way
to cure ‘im,
Is to get him to take part in the celebration of Purim."
playtime: Purim as pur usual, the only occasion Jews can "make
hoyzek" – a yiddish expression for "joke,"
or "make fun of," as in makh nisht kayn khoyzek,
derived, according to yiddish lexicographer Alexander Harkavy,
from hosche, German for a "jest (or) prank."
"Jews are skillful at joke-making and virtuosi
in the art of pathos," notes Nathan Ausubel. Why? "Because
they have been tempered by necessity to take life passionately" [xlii] (Sigmund Freud was particularly interested
in Jewish humor as a means of serving ideological interests, and
was not amused when gentiles told jokes about Jews which he described
as "brutal buffoonery," motivated more by mischievous
hostility than humor).
This dual capacity for weeping and laughing is one of
the wholesome defense mechanisms by which he is enabled to keep
a balanced outlook" (perhaps this is why Jews feature so
disproportionately in the fields of psychology and psychiatry?)
I just received the Purim version
of Sh’ma, a normally staid journal, renamed Sham,
that contains a Purimesque rabbinic debate on What came first:
the chicken or the egg? conducted by "Reb Roosta and Reb
In its fecund imagination in honor
of Purim the serious New York Jewish Week renamed
itself The Jewish Weak and transformed itself into a well of
satiric deflation with such essays as Husband gets Get after
wife dates 100 rabbis, and Reform to officiate at same-sheep
ceremonies" ("The villain’s name was Hey-man because when he
entered the palace he said, ‘Hey, man! I have to see His Maj!’").
Illusions and delusions,
false impressions, exaggerated expressions, artificial masks and
masquerades (first introduced in 14th century Provence);
in fact, one’s very persona symbolizes a cover-up because
the word is Greek for mask. Note how close the Hebrew word for
clothing (b’gadim) is to betrayal (b’gida).
Purim is parody; parody
In an essay called The
Veiled Truth, Deborah Weissman, Jerusalem-based educator,
recalls that she "once attended a Purim party, completely
costumed. The next day, a friend said, ‘We missed you last night.’
But I was there."
Lehit’hapes, the Hebrew word for wearing
a costume, comes from the root lehapes, which means "to
Since clothing was the
most literal expression, socially and morally, of who we are,
Purim, a festival no longer "at home" but in the diaspora,
became a time when an ensemble that "stood out" fitted
in more than "fitting in." Or in the words of the Megilla:
Nahafokh hu, "quite the opposite!"
In her lucidly written
book on clothing ‘n character, Jenna Weissman Joselit, describes
how a "newcomer" to America, Sophie Abrams, replaces
her fashion-from-morality shtetl "kerchief and shapeless
sack-dress" for the "Cinderella clothes" of an
assimilated new world
recalled standing before a mirror, outfitted in a new shirtwaist,
skirt, and hat ("such a hat I had never seen"), and
saying to her new self, ‘Boy, Sophie, look at you now
an American." [xliii]
Costumes hide the truth,
what the ancient Greeks cruelly called "pretend play at the
Theater," when slaves and prisoners, as a cathartic sublimation
of their drives, were allowed to pretend to be free. [xliv] This same psychology takes place today in Brazil
when the government subsidizes poor people to dress up once a
year for their grand carnival spectacle; or in Israel, where escapism
has become an all-year-round obssession (after his kids dress
up as Popeye and Olive Oyl, Stuart Schoffman, an associate editor
of The Jerusalem Repirt, can’t decide whether to dress
up as Jeremiah? ("No, I look bad in a sheet"), Zorro?("No,
too many props"), a Chief Rabbi? (Yes, I get to give a sermon
in my hat, kippah turban, sunglasses.") [xlv]
Since clothes maketh the
man, the Purim parsha is Tetzaveh, which discusses the
special clothing (bigdei Kehuna) that the priests would
wear upon entering the Tabernacle or Temple to perform their services
(avoda), including a special hat, pants, belt, shirt; all
entirely white, notes the Sefer Hachinuch, a classic
medieval work on the meanings underlying the mitzvos, in order
to symbolize purity.
This priestly wardrobe,
designed to express "honor and splendor as shown by royalty
(Ramban), was serious business: the Torah even implies death for
those who conduct the service in the absence of a regal appearance. [xlvi]
Jewish mystics paired each
garment, as atonement, to a different sin (eg: trousers for adultery;
tunic for murder; belt for improper thoughts; breastplate for
miscarriage of justice, etc) and warned that these sins were a
result of lack of middos (character traits), which in Hebrew
also means measure; in other words, a priests appearance had
to also be a perfect (spiritual) fit; a (mido vad) made
to measure. [xlvii]
On Purim, everything is
upside down, against the norm. Even the rosh yeshiva of Slobodka
would dress up like a horse on Purim (no, disguises are not halachically
Talk about contrasts: the
term Purim also appears within a solemn Yom Kippurim;
and even the mitzva to fast and eat is reversed: on Purim one
fasts, then eats; on Yom Kippur one eats, then fasts.
Nothing is as it should
be: welcome to the Season of Sheer Role Reversal. Vashtis modesty
leads to her death, Esthers modesty lands her in the bed of a
King. Mordechai sheds his Jewish wardrobe and dons royal garb
(twice). Traditionally it is the Jews with large families, but
not here: Mordechai has no wife and no children yet his arch enemy
has ten sons.
Noise in the shul?
Not only allowed but encouraged
whenever Hamans name is mentioned, a custom the Levush [xlviii] links to vehaya im bin hacot harasha
because the last letter of each word spells
This is normal? Wait, it gets worse!
Jews suddenly have hyphenated
names symbolizing the gods, even gentiles become Jews. [xlix] This is no dress rehearsal but a dress reversal.
Men dress as women and
women as men (something halachikally prohibited the rest of the
year; Rabbi Johanan calling his garments, "my honorees"), [l] causing Rav Abraham Joshua Heschel (the Apta Rav)
to a startling conclusion on cross-dressing, When a man changes
his garments on Purim and dresses like a woman, pleasure and joy
result [thus] the essence of pleasure comes about because of a
change of a thing to its opposite. [li] No wonder the Midrash describes this world as
one in which "everything is topsy turvy, with those who
deserve to be on top wallowing on the bottom and those who are
supposed to be on the bottom reveling on top."
Nothing makes sense. Nothing
is supposed to. Goodbye promised land, welcome to exile!
Which brings us to the strangest Purim practice of them
all; a minhag of intemperance, a custom of inebriation,
one that I was never able to do. Why? Because I hate to drink
– as per a yiddish ditty, ganstz
yor shikkur, Purim nikhter, all year drunk, on Purim sober, which applies
to folks always doing things out of season.
"The trouble with the Jews," said George Bernard
Shaw, "is they think too much and drink too little."
The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, in typical philosophical
gibberish, wrote that Jews don’t get drunk because they "are
exposed through their eccentricity and alleged chosenness to relax
in their self-control."
say our rabbis who trace Jewish sobriety to the lessons of Noah
and his vineyard, even as Medieval parodies highlighted Noah as
a drunkard, together with such other Biblical personalities as
Lot, the prophet Habakbuk (nicknamed "the Bottle"),
and the "Drunkard" Rabbi Shakhra.
The Midrash warns that
when one drinks one cup of wine, he becomes like a lamb, docile
and peaceful; after two cups, he becomes like a lion, boastful
of all the great things he believes he will accomplish; after
three cups, he dances like a monkey; and after four cups, he rolls
in the mud like a pig. [lii]
Was Noah the only Torah
personality who hit the bottle? No. There was Lot, the "very
drunken" Nabal, husband of Abigail (there is even a wine
bottle called Jeroboam, named afer a King of Israel who, according
to the Book of Kings, was a prodigious drinker who
"sinned and made Israel sin.")
On Purim the formidable
Sage Rava laid down the light-hearted dictum that the Jews, the
most abstinent of all folk (despite the fact that a baby boy’s
first taste at his bris is wine), must drink so much alcohol
that ad de-lo-yada, their intoxicated senses become so
blurred that they cannot tell the difference between two expressions
whose gematria (502) is identical: arur Haman (cursing
Haman) and baruch Mordechai (blessing Mordechai) – a
category of a mitzva known as ha-baah baaverah, a good
deed brought about through wicked means.
But halachik loopholes
exist: since shmirat haguf, the prevention of bodily harm,
is forbidden by Jewish law, one can include excessive drinking
in this category; also, yiddishists who believed that shikkor
is a goy (ie: only gentiles get drunk) [liii] decided that sleeping accomplished the same
result of wine-soaked blurriness (buttressed by the Rambam’s ruling
that one may drink just enough to fall asleep).
In fact, the root of liv’sumei
in the Aramaic phrase liv’sumei b’Purya, can also mean
"to sweeten" something (the same word describes how
sweet the sound of Temple music was), [liv] which opens the possibility that other beverages
and/or activities can also produce the requisite Purim state of
When asked why the simcha
on other yomtovim is more restrained than on Purim, which has
no bounds, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, a leading Torah scholar of the
20th century, linked the reason to an Amalekite attack
which had left the Jews "cold and indifferent," depriving
them of their pre-Sinai emotion and excitement. It took the victory
over Amalek (on Purim) for the folk to regain the ability for
true and passionate simcha, a victory commemorated by an excess
of happiness on this day.
Is blessing Haman and cursing
Mordechai a license for unbridled excess? [lv] No. It is the Talmud’s definition of a drunk:
one who is unable to tell the moral difference between good (Mordechai)
and evil (Haman).
Thus the Book of Esther
contains more references to drinking parties (mishteh,
which means bash) than the rest of the entire Torah, the precursor
to Mordechai’s desire "to observe [these days] as days of
By the juxtaposition of
mishte (feasting) and simcha (rejoicing), the Talmud
concludes that the Jew must feast (get drunk) on rejoicing
(wine), on the theory that the beverage of wine "gladdens
the heart of man (V’yayin yesammach l’vav enosh.") [lvi] But only in moderation: in the Talmud, Rabbah,
under the influence, accidentally "kills" his colleague
Rabbi Zera, then revives him; however Zera politely refuses his
invitation to the following year’s Purim festivities.
Woe, woe, woe, cried
one medieval Rabbi to his drunken Purim congregants, lest your
behavior be the cause of another Tisha bAv. [lvii]
important does the Talmud treat Purim that it devotes an entire
portion to it while practically ignoring Chanukka, [lviii] the only other post-Biblical festival. Why?
saved Judaism, Purim saved Jews; and thus entered Jewish history
as an instant expression synonymous with all Jewish deliverances.
half of the Jewish calendar, about 165 days, is crowded with the
Purims of History. In fact there are more "Purims" (36)
in the month of Adar than days! Jewish communities as diverse
as Frankfurt-am-Main, Hevron, Carpentras, Casablanca, Paduva
and Tripoli all have different Purim days in their calendar;
a fact that should lay to rest the myth that we can no longer
introduce Days of Thanksgiving into the Jewish calendar. [lix]
revelry and joviality now became the month’s motto, based on a
rabbinic demand [lx] that mi-shenikhas adar marbim be-simchah,
Jews are to greatly increase joy in the month of Adar. [lxi]
despite all the activity, there are only a few halachic requirements
of Purim; one of them being mikra megilla, a law which
is conspicuously absent in the Megilla yet derived from Esthers
wish that "these days should be remembered [nizkarim]."
According to the Ramban, any command coming out of Tanach, even
as a story, has the halachic status of dvar Torah. [lxii]
main two obligations are to publicly read the Megillah (twice),
at night and by day; and simchat Purim, to be celebratory [lxiii] – even though Hallel, a prayer of praise usually
recited on festivals, is not said. Why not? Several reasons: the
Megillah itself is regarded as praise; the whole episode occurs
outside eretz Yisrael; and, even after the defeat of Haman,
the Jewish people were still subject to foreign rulers and thus
not completely "servants of God" (as required by the
it was a great koved (honor) to read the megillah several
communities auctioned it off, giving bridegrooms the first bid:
in poverty-stricken Yemen and Aden, payment for this privilege
involved donating the wax candles to light the synagogue.
The hearing of the megillah
(megilla leyning) takes precedence over all halachic obligations
(one must interrupt Torah study, davening, even a bris) [lxv] except two: tending to the dead and the saving
of lives. Remember: the order to read n hear the Megillah is
not the same as the command to read n hear the Torah.
Unlike the Torah, which
must be read in traditional Hebrew, our rabbis demanded that the
Megillah of Esther be read in any language – as long as it was
the language understood by the masses.
The other mandatory requirement is the exchange of gifts:
food baskets (mishloah manot) and money to the poor (mattanot
l’evyonim), done these days with much hustle ‘n bustle, initially
intended to force Jews living in gentile societies to stay together,
interact, pool their resources and maintain communal necessities.
Is there a difference between mishloach manot
and matanot la-evyonim? Yes. The former has such specific
halachic guidelines as zeman ha-mitzva (when it is performed),
chovat ha-mitzva (who is obligated), and tzurat kiyum
ha-mitzva (how it is performed). Each Jew is also obligated
to donate three coins to charity as a reminder of the three half-shekel
tax that was obligatory for every man over twenty to give for
the Temple. Why three? This number comes from the Torah passage
that repeats the words half-shekel three times. [lxvi]
This led to another popular
yiddish expression: Chanukkah un Purim vera di uhreine lay ashirim,
On Chanukka and Purim, the poor become wealthy. [lxvii]
The traditional gift was
not your usual flowers, toys or barbie dolls; nor was shalachmonos
to be considered rachmonos, gifts of compassion. Its
ingredients originally consisted of food and wine, a symbol in
antiquity of intimacy, friendship, comradeship. [lxviii]
And of course no Jewish
holiday is complete without food.
The meal on Purim afternoon
(seudat Purim) is the second most important feast in the
Jewish calendar, behind the Pesach seder.
Triangular shaped sweet
pastries filled with prunes, poppy-seeds or jelly (hamantashen)
are synonymous with Purim, despite the fact that they originally
had no Purim connection at all (the name perhaps being a simple
misunderstanding of the word mohntasch, "a pocket
It is a custom to eat different
kinds of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, nuts, etc) in honor of Esther’s
dietary discipline whereby she only are seeds in the King’s non-kosher
palace; some eat legumes (to honor her vegetarian lifestyle),
or beans (a symbol of sadness, traditionally eaten after a funeral,
and apropo on Purim – despite the partying – as a reminder of
our continued state of exile), or Turkey (known in Hebrew as "Indian
chicken," and dedicated to the "stupid" King Achashverosh: [lxix] Turkey being considered by the Europeans as
a symbol of stupidity.)
One oldie custom was to
make pastries in the shape of different animals, soldiers, heroes
of the Megilla, and even percussion instruments (for beating Haman).
During the days of Abravanel
delicacies were baked in the shape of human ears and dipped in
honey; which is why hamantaschen were called oznei
Haman, "Haman’s ears," a custom which, according
to Immanuel of Rome, dates back to the legend that the Jews cut
off Haman’s ears after he was hanged (an unlikely scenario, and
one probably based on an old Italian law that called for a thief’s
ears to be cut off if caught).
Some link the three corners
of the hamantasch to Haman’s three-cornered hat, or to the three
Biblical Patriarchs, whose merit, according to the Midrash, saved
the Jews of Persia from destruction. Jewish mystics derive Haman-Tash from the words tash (kocho shel) Haman,
may Hamans strength become weak; [lxx] whilst the Otzar Dinim
is convinced that the word Haman was mistakenly used for manna,
claiming it should have been called ManTash, a bag of
manna, but instead, through human error, became Haman-Tash.
my home my mother made kreplach, a yiddish word describing
a treat of boiled dough or
fried dumpling filled with meat, chicken or vegetable pastry.
Why on Purim? I don’t know. Perhaps because the meat is hidden
from the dough it symbolized the hidden miracle of Purim?
that I think back, we ate kreplach with
soup on every yomtov (I guess we just liked kreplach)
although the three-cornered delicacy, like Hamantashen, is traditionally associated
with the meals of Purim, erev
Yom Kippur, and Hoshanna Rabba. Why these three festivals?
They share a commonality: striking or beating – our heart (on
Yom Kippur), willow branches (on Hoshanna Raba), Haman’s name
(on Purim). Perhaps the term kreplach is an acronym of Kippur
(k), Hoshanna Raba (r), and Purim (p)?
Is there a universal standard
for Purim celebrations? No: it’s different strokes for different
Tunisian Jews light firecrackers
and feast on freshly killed lamb; in Uganda, Jews exchange gift
baskets of fish instead of sweets; the teenagers of one Azerbaijan
community used to take the opportunity of the noise made by groggers
to nail the clothing of unsuspecting synagogue members to the
benches; in Morocco the holiday feast is celebrated with spicy
fish and couscous instead of hamantashen; [lxxi] Arab Jewish communities would party non-stop
from the eve of Purim, continue until daybreak, stop for morning
prayers, and resume partying until nightfall; in eastern Europe
a poor community member would be paid to deliver the mishloach
manos: in contrast, affluent American Jewry has turned this
into an overwhelming, ostentatious and above-board exercise.
In our community we give
a donation to the local yeshiva and a list of names of recipients;
creating "Purim Shuffles" where one basket only is given
to one family on behalf of several families.
In Israel, and on some
kibbutzim, there is a pre-Purim lottery in which each family randomly
selects another family to receive their package (thus cutting
down the cost whilst not inadvertently insulting someone). Jews in Bukhara built snowman-Hamans (because Purim
falls in winter) next to a campfire and families gather to watch
Haman disappear, melting from the heat; in Yemen effigies of
Haman, made of intertwined pieces of wood smeared with
clay and painted in bright colors, are propped on donkeys and sent house-to-house accompanied
by children for each householder to beat or throw dirty water
on (and then give the children candy); in Persia Jewish children
would fill the clothes of a hung Haman effigy with gunpowder,
throw oil on it and set it on fire; Jewish children in Afghanistan
draw pictures of Haman on cardboard and then stomp on the board
during Megillah at the sound of his name; Italian Jews break
clay pots and shout, "And He shall break it as a potter’s
vessel is broken." [lxxii]
To "blot out" Haman, some communities bang together two smooth
stones or wooden blocks upon which is written Haman; others
write Haman on the soles of their shoes and then stamp
or rub their shoes hard in the ground; Turkish Jews would write
the name of Haman on the head of a hammer and pound with it.
Today, hissing, booing,
stamping one’s feet and rattling greggers are near universal customs
(although cap guns ‘n cymbals are fast intruding!) I was in a
shul in London once where the shammas would wave a Dayyenu-type
placard that said "Ssh, enough already!" when he thought
the lively were becoming undignified.
This symbolic custom "to
blot out" Haman’s name was already known by Rashi in the
11th century; but did not have rabbinic unanimity. At various
periods in Jewish history, attempts were made to blot out the
custom itself, until the 16th century Rabbi Moshe Isserles
(Rema) concluded that, "We should not nullify any
custom or deride it." [lxxiii] But why Haman? Why is he singled out for
special treatment; after all, there are other villains in the
Torah (eg: Pharaoh) who are not hissed or booed?
Haman is unique because
of his links to Amalek whose memory Jews are ordered "to
erase," Timcheh et zecher Amalek. [lxxiv]
once received a booklet titled Purim Guide: Hints on How to
Party, that instructed: Read the Megilla, eat, drink, sing,
drink, read Megilla again, drink, give money and gifts, drink,
eat, drink, drink, sing, drink, sleep, wake up with hangover ‘n
headache. It is easy (with all the surface nonsense that smothers
Purim) to forget that the Mordechai-Haman face off is a serious
Jewish textbook of Life in Exile, with several hard-core lessons
that are too quickly overlooked.
The first lesson is halachic: it is important to note
that the road to near-destruction was ignited by a single innocent
An old Jew, unwilling to bow, quietly steps back in
the shadows in order not to offend a ruler. Was he correct? Did
Mordechai foolishly breach a talmudic warning known as dina
de-malkhuta dina, civil state law takes precedence
over Jewish law?"
This pragmatic formula comes to us courtesy of two veteran
Sages (the Amora Samuel and High Priest Rabbi Hanina) [lxxv] in the post-Mishnaic period [lxxvi] and forerunners of the proto-Hobbesian attitude
towards political quietism [lxxvii] who intended to give Jews great flexibility
to accommodate those in rule. [lxxviii]
However the rabbis drew a red line if it involved idol
worship, or even the hint of idolatry. Thus Mordechai was correct
– even though his benign act begins a terrifying countdown to
a final solution against Jews who are described as being perplexed
by the shocking and sudden news. And here we have our second major
lesson of Purim: don’t forget the past!
Throughout Jewish history many Jews have been perplexed
as to why their embrace of universal brotherhood suddenly became
irrelevant whenever it arose.
In 1917, the eloquent Rosa Luxembourg told a Jewish
friend, I feel at home in the entire world. [lxxix] In less than two decades there was not one
Jew left alive in her home town of Zamocz; evidence of the Talmuds
observation that the urge to evil enters as a guest, and soon
becomes the host. [lxxx]
The Jews of Shushan were totally convinced that their
gentile neighbors had accepted them unconditionally. And yet their
wealth, respect, and acceptance in the Oriental capital of the
world came to naught, literally overnight.
In their complacency they had forgotten that there exists
within Creation an arbitrary and pathological irrationality of
societal anti-Judaism; and that it (whether a gallow, pogrom,
or an Auschwitz) can happen anywhere, anytime by such satanic
aberrations as a Torquemada, Antiochus, Chmelnitsky – or a Haman,
whose simple machination of Death by Lottery is a reminder that
those who plan genocide don’t need complicated methods or machinery
to carry out their deeds. [lxxxi]
A month after Purim we open the Passover Haggadah and
there it is, a sneak preview: omdim alenu lechalotenu,
In every generation there are those who rise against us to annihilate
us – an admonition that the gargantuan evil of anti-Semitism
has not been relegated ad acta, for all time, that just
like a Jack-in-the-box it solemnly pops up again and again no
matter how often history hits it over the head, powered by the
hidden spring of irrationality.
Jews and Jewish leaders have an ongoing responsibility,
no matter where they found themselves, to do everything in their
power to prevent such corrupt occurrences.
This is why Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) faulted
Shushan Jews for participating in, instead of boycotting, the
raunchy banquets of the evil Ahaseurus. [lxxxii]
Over the centuries many comfortable Jewish communities
had their comfort abruptly shattered, without warning. The privileged
Jews of the Roman Empire, whose very Judaism was religio licita,
officially State recognized, woke up one day to discover their
communal serenity drowning in the bloodbaths of Hadrian. Similarly,
when Adolf Hitler was born, the Jews of Germany were well entrenched
into societal middle class. By the time the stiff-armed mustached
one died, there was not a single Jewish child left alive in Germany.
Shushan, Spain, France, London, Kishinev, Berlin, Damascus, Baghdad.
The names may change but the lesson remains the same.
Haman, observes the Talmud, came as an everlasting
reminder, [lxxxiii] as a fast forward warning of Jewish vulnerability. The rabbis [lxxxiv] even dated the trials and tribulations of
Job to the era of Ahasuerus, in order to fit in with this Purim
theme: that challenges would follow the Jews throughout history.
And the third lesson? Individual responsibility.
It is easy, amidst the babble ‘n brouhaha of the noisy
gragger to allow Purims farcical light-heartiness to underestimate
how potent were Esthers adversaries.
Of the total power that descended to the world, remind
our Sages, the Persians took 90% and 10% went to the rest.
We may snigger at Ahasuerus insomnia, chuckle at his
pursuit of wine, women, song – and conclude that this grand vizier
was no more than some idiotic Iranian buffoon. He was not.
This King wielded his tyranny and oppression with great
might. Nor was Haman some wimpy pushover.
He was resourceful and ambitious, and independently
wealthy enough to audaciously offer 10,000 talents of silver
(eshkol kesef) [lxxxv] for the right to kill Jewish men, women and
children. Was that a lot of money in those days? It must have
The total annual revenue of the Persian empire was only
17,000 talents, and Ahasuerus, during his thirteen-year rule,
was in deep debt after losing wars with the Greeks at Salamis
and Plataea. A shrewd Haman, knowing that the monarch needed cash
for his lavish parties, fast lifestyle, and palace upkeep, made
a significant financial offer – and his bet paid off. Ahasuerus’s
counteroffer appointed Haman tax collector over the Jews ("take
their booty as spoil"), who were now an easy and exploitable
target because of the death decree hanging over their heads. [lxxxvi]
In the face of such vigorous
adversaries what does Mordechai do?
He dresses in ashes ‘n
sackcloth, and aimlessly wanders the streets muttering lamentations.
Finally he convinces Esther to risk her life on behalf
of her people – and she (not he) immediately takes control – which
is why Jewish history records the drama as the Megilla of Esther
and not of Mordechai. [lxxxvii]
Her transformation is breath-taking:
the charming little Jewish girl from the second chapter was passive,
unsophisticated, devoid of initiative. Her true persona, of inner
strength and moral awareness, were, like Gods Name, totally absent.
The Megilla doesnt even tell us her birthplace or nationality,
and we dont even know if she was a Persian.
Yet it is this same innocent
girl who rises to confront Haman and manipulates Ahasueros with
such ruthless courage and self-confidence that Jewish history
itself recoils in astonishment.
This quality of secrecy made Esther a special heroine
to the later Marrano Jewish women who saw themselves living similarly
hidden lifestyles in Catholic society.
Esther has been portrayed in nearly every medium: Artemisia,
the famous 17th-century Italian artist, lavishly portrayed her
in "Esther Before Ahasuerus" [lxxxviii] as a woman of exquisite beauty and modest
gentleness; and the very first oratio of Saxon George Frederic
Handel, who Beethoven called one of the greatest composers, was
"Esther," a remake of his original "Haman
and Mordecai." [lxxxix]
How Esther, an imprisoned concubine ("a sister
in the house of the King") copes, [xc] with a mood pendulum swinging between jeopardy
and survival, was to become a generational metaphor for all endangered
Diaspora Jews, her victory a legend of Judaic hope, a source of
historic optimism, an allegory of desire
and nowhere was this
more poignant than during the Holocaust, so brilliantly captured
by Jacob Frankels diary, written in the death camp of Buchenwald
One night we recalled the old saying, when the month
of Adar comes, joy is increased. We decided to arrange a secret
celebration of Purim as the law requires. With the last remnants
of my strength, I labored for many days in gathering all sorts
of scraps of paper scattered about the camp…All of these I collected
with special diligence because I had decided to write the Megillah
of Esther on them – from memory.
We divided the bundles of scrap paper among the group.
Altogether we had only one pencil, more correctly the lead from
one broken carpenter’s pencil. It was passed from hand to hand.
Each one wrote several verses that he remembered from the Megillah…When
the Fast of Esther was completed on Purim eve, we gathered together
at the appointed hour on the upper level of the block. A number
of unfortunate prisoners who lived on the lower tiers sensed our
evident joy. We, too, wish to take revenge on the wicked Haman!
The reading itself was marked by an extraordinary exaltation
and great enthusiasm. Most important, when we finished reading
it, and began to sing Shoshanat Yaakov,
the song burst forth from our mouths like a mighty storm.
It seemed to us as if all of Buchenwald held its breath for a
moment and listened trembling at the words, Cursed be Haman,
who sought to destroy me; blessed by Mordechai, Mordekhai the
The next morning we got up and went our difficult way,
as always. Yet we sensed that something had changed in the atmosphere
of the camp. Just because we had the boldness to cry out aloud,
cursed be Haman! and it was clear to everyone just who was meant
by Haman the terrible pressure was lightened a little bit….
A leader has definitely
been born. What caused the turn-about? How did Esther, daughter
of Avichail, rise to inspire a generation?
Esthers moment of truth
comes via a family confrontation: an anxious Mordechai gives her
a blunt warning, "Do not imagine that you will escape in
the royal palace. Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time like
this you came to join the royalty?" [xci]
All doubts quickly evaporate,
all hesitations desiccate.
A fearful Esther, her back
to the wall, makes a decision – and saves entire Jewish communities.
God rewards her with a
son (Darius II) through whom the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt;
the Talmud compares her to the ayelet hashachar, the first
ray of light in the morning; the Psalmist dedicates an entire
section to her; [xcii] the rabbis crown her a Prophetess, link her
beauty to that of Sarah, [xciii] Rahab and Abigail, and wrap two consecutive
days (including Taanis Esther) in the Jewish calendar around
This is a truly grand gesture
because the Torah rarely mentions Jewish women during major
historic events (eg; neither Abraham nor Isaacs wife are mentioned
during the important Akeda saga).
Esther even gets her own
Scroll, one so significant that of the five Scrolls of the Bible
which are read on five Jewish holidays, only hers is directly
related to the festival itself. The others – Song of Songs (Pesach),
Ruth (Shavuos), Ecclesiastes (Sukkos) – have no
direct relationship to their festivals; and the bonds between
Lamentations and Tisha BAv, or Ruth and Shavuos, are such that
they can be separated without affecting either the Scroll or the
festival. But not the Scroll of Esther; it is the raison detre
for Purim itself.
So what is the main lesson of Esther? [xciv] As my mother would say, in yiddish of course,
if you cant do as you wish, do as you can.
One of the many ironies
of this captivating Megillah is that it opens with the oppression
of a defiant woman (Vashti) and ends with the triumph of female
We learn not from what
Esther does ("Even though I am in the house of this evil
man," she tells God, "I have not broken one of your
three commandments), [xcv] but from what she does not.
Esther does not
lapse into pessimistic apathy, does not call for prayers,
does not rely on Divine intervention.
She has no time for any
quick metaphysical savior. She asks only that the community fast
for me, for three days (based on precedent: Moses, Aaron, and
Hur fasted before Joshua led the Jews against Amalek).
A Midrash describes Mordechai’s
shocked reply: "But the third day is Pesach!" to which
Esther responds, "If there is no Israel, why do we need a
festive celebration of freedom? Mordechai then abolishes (for
that year only) the first day of Pesach and made it into a fast." [xcvi]
Esther instinctively understood the quality that separates
Jewish leaders from leaders of Jews.
Leaders know: that in the face of national survival, a Jew
must act, not react. Her response to Mordechai is telling: "As
I am lost, I am lost."
This is a tragic reflection on her reality; that under the
King’s proclamation, her life, together with thousands of other
Jews, is lost anyway.
When there is a possibility
of danger, advises the Talmud, do not depend upon a miracle.
This lesson was first taught
at Pi-hahiroth when Moses, in the face of Pharaohs army, decides
to pray for siyata di-shemaya, assistance from Heaven."
The Heavens respond quickly, but not how Moses expects. Now is
not the time for prayer. Tell the people to go forward and I’ll
help them. [xcvii]
This verse is the single
most important Purim lesson.
It proves that non-reliance
on God is not a sign of doubt nor disbelief, and suggests that
not only does action speak louder than words but that the Heavens
only help those who help themselves.
When Isaiah comforted his
Jews that God would listen to them ("on a propitious day"),
it implied that Jews were first making themselves heard, as in
Purim, by seizing control of their own destiny. [xcviii] Whenever Reb Mendel of Kotzk [xcix] would hear other rabbis cry to God to bring
the Messiah he would chastise them: Cry to Jews, not God, to bring
the Messiah! [c] – the same logic lies behind the reason why the
Redeemer will eventually show up on a donkey, [ci] a non-miraculous, earthy arrival.
Esther faithfully follows this strategy of self-determination:
she dons the cloak of histadlus instead of the wardrobe
of pacifism, knowing full well that the Laws of Moses never expected
the Jew to stop a German panzer tank with only a mezzuza,
or an Arafat terrorist with only a pair of tefillin.
Purim thus powerfully reinforces the Sinai dogma that
powerlessness is not a Torah virtue, and that, for the sake of
pikuach nefesh, the saving of life, Jewish power (even
within the context of v’chai bahem, you shall live by
mitzvot) may be used unJewishly.
Rav Tzaddok of Lublin argues [cii] that Esther did not lose her share in the next
world (the punishment for sexual immorality) because her exploits
(that saved the Jewish people from annihilation) were a "sin
for the sake of Heaven," an act greater, say our rabbis,
than a mitzva performed with wrong intention, [ciii] performed in accordance with God’s desire for
"kindness, and not your offerings." [civ]
And so the once chaste, pure and unadulterated Esther puts
herself into the humiliating and debilitating legislative program
of Memuchan, which was nothing less than the total subordination
of women, in order to wine, dine, seduce – and marry a heathen
Why did the Jewish girl not choose martyrdom over life in the
harem? – especially with the knowledge that sexual licentiousness
was blamed for the destruction of the First Temple less than a
Is the Talmud shocked? No. Embarrassed? No.
Our rabbis brush aside all moral ambiguity and refuse to indulge
in self-righteous innuendo. On the horizon looms a great national
catastrophe; its shadow allows no one in Jewish history to cast
aspersions. The tale of Esther is spun out as-is, where-is,
warts and all.
Esthers inherent misbehavior (described in a language of absolution,
karka olam, as "passive as a field being plowed")
is subordinated to a sacred task: Jewish survival – and her acts
underpin one of the greatest singular strengths of the yiddishe
folk, that of hitchadshut, renewal."
And herein lies another lesson for all Jews: a stern rabbinic
warning, "One does not examine blemishes on a cloudy day;" [cv] taken literally this means that one must refrain
from judging other Jews (especially in abnormal times) for what
may, on the surface seem to be to unJewish conduct. [cvi]
We should not reject anyone, our Sages warn, "for there
is no person who has not his hour;" a twin lesson to that
of achdut ("unity"), a quality demanded by
Esther as a prerequisite for standing firm against her enemies
("Go," Esther orders Mordechai, "and gather all
[and not just some] of the Jews.) [cvii]
The Rambam, commenting on Yehoshua ben Perachia’s warning to
"judge everyone favorably," [cviii] explains that since it is not clear whether
someone is righteous or not one is obligated to give others the
benefit of the doubt. The Mishna’s use of the term kol ha’adam
(literally, "all of man") is indicative that
one cannot judge another without seeing both the "whole"
person and the "whole" situation.
Finally, and most impressive of all, is the rabbinic
adage encapsulated as an extra insertion in the morning Shacharit
service; veim kol hamoadim yihyu beteilim, yemei haPurim lo
nivtalim; a declaration that even the Messiah’s arrival would
not cancel out Purims place in history, despite the tradition
that all Jewish festivals will be obsolete on his arrival. [cix]
"A messianic age without Jewish jokes or hamantashen?,"
raves Schoffman, "Heaven forbid!"
This ad infinitum honor is surely peculiar: why
The answer lies in the carefully chosen choice of words:
our rabbis dont refer to this piety ‘n partying holiday as just
Purim – but as the days of Purim. [cx]
Yes, the difference is subtle, but important.
It emphasizes that Purim represents a snapshot of exile,
a time frame when Jewish dignity and life were under siege, when
the Jew rose to face another day of antipathy and insidious anti-Semitism,
so lost and brutalized that he could no longer tell the difference
between good and bad, sober and drunkenness. [cxi]
The Messiah wants Purim to stay on as the everlasting
reminder of those days, [cxii] the striking point of reference, a historic
necessity, a sharp contrast and comparison to his new idyllic
As the noise of the gregger fades and the merriment
of a light folk-festival recedes, the festival of winter holidays
comes to an end.
Pour yourself another drink, quickly, because in less
than four weeks Spring rises and raises the curtain on the most
dramatic, exciting, sensational – and satisfying of all Jewish