Purim: Un Peuple d’Elite


By Joe Bobker

One 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?"

"I’m halfway there," the rabbi answered. "The poor have agreed to accept."

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 life’s 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 and wrong.

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 wife’s 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 wife’s refusal to entertain his guests is enough to issue a death warrant.

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.

Destruction, deliverance, drunken orgies, conspiracies, an exotic locale, assassination attempts and a beautiful heroine.

This ancient plot has it all: which Hollywood director could ask for more?

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 ha’Gdolah, 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. [ix]

Zerubbabel and Jeshua, [x] two local Jewish leaders, ask Ahasuerus for permission to rebuild Solomon’s 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 u’meforad, “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 couldn’t 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 d’elite, 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 history’s 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]

Not that we weren’t 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 don’t 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 being righteous.

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 Yehudi." [xxvii]

Zeresh knew: Jewish survival is irreversible, the Jew unbreakable.

VeHakadosh 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 Merneptah’s 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: Haman’s 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 Esther’s name appears in the Megillah 54 times; that Hadassa, Esther’s other name appears only once, as does Memuchan, Haman’s 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?

The 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]

A literary accident? No.

In fact its absence is so obviously deliberate that its exclusion has now become more spiritually significant than if it had been included. And God’s 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 God’s 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 disappearing act?

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 b’fiv 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 K’naani (asher korcho ba’derech, "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 history? [xxxviii]

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 calendar.

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 stands still.

But as their trek progresses into the maturity of nationhood and independence, this awesomeness recedes, in compliance with one of God’s 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 Haman’s 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 Godly sanctity.

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 Scroll’s 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 holy men.

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, crumbles.)

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]

When the calendar “winner” of Haman’s lottery turns out to be the 13th of Adar the Jew-hater can’t believe his lucky streak.

This 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, Tevye’s 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."

Yep, it’s 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 Chicka."

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 is Purim.

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 look for."

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…

"Sophie 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…just like 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 mandated).

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. Vashti’s modesty leads to her death, Esther’s 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 Haman’s name is mentioned, a custom the Levush [xlviii] links to vehaya im bin hacot harasha because the last letter of each word spells…Haman!

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."

Nonsense!, 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-ba’ah ba’averah, 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 delight.

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 mishte v’simcha

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 b’Av.” [lvii]

So 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?

Chanukah saved Judaism, Purim saved Jews; and thus entered Jewish history as an instant expression synonymous with all Jewish deliverances.

Nearly 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]  

Gaiety, 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]

Yet 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 Esther’s 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 d’var Torah. [lxii]

The 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 Psalmist). [lxiv]

Since 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 of poppyseed.")

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 Haman’s 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.

In 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?

Now 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 folks.

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]

I 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 event.

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 Talmud’s 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 Purim’s farcical light-heartiness to underestimate how potent were Esther’s 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 been.

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 God’s Name, totally absent. The Megilla doesn’t even tell us her birthplace or nationality, and we don’t 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 Frankel’s 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 Jew.’

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?

Esther’s 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 her.

This is a truly grand gesture because the Torah rarely mentions Jewish women during major historic events (eg; neither Abraham nor Isaac’s 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 B’Av, 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 d’etre for Purim itself.

So what is the main lesson of Esther? [xciv] As my mother would say, in yiddish of course, “if you can’t 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 leadership (Esther).

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 Pharaoh’s 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 gentile, voluntarily!

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 century before.

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.

Esther’s 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; ve’im kol hamoadim yihyu beteilim, yemei haPurim lo nivtalim; a declaration that even the Messiah’s arrival would not cancel out Purim’s 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 Purim?

The answer lies in the carefully chosen choice of words: our rabbis don’t 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 state. [cxiii]

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 festivals…Pesach.


Footnotes: Purim   

[i] Rishus, a yiddish noun, means "nastiness," and comes from the Hebrew rish’ut ("wickedness") which in turn derives from rasha ("wicked man.") What’s its feminine form? A "wicked woman" is either rashante, rashaynte, roshete, or rushete. Take your pick: it depends on which part of yiddish-Europe your grandparents are from (or it can be marshas, from the Hebrew marsha’at). The "wicked Haman" is thus Haman ha-rasha, akin to the expression for our Chanukka enemies, malkhut Yavan ha-resha’ah, "the wicked kingdom of Greece." 

[ii] Esther 6:8.

[iii] Hullin 139b

[iv] Genesis 3:11

[v] His grandfather was Darius, the Median king.

[vi] Joseph Ber Soloveitchik died on April 8, 1993, in Boston, age 90. The Rav, who majored in philosophy at the University of Berlin where he received a doctorate for his dissertation on Hermann Cohen’s epistemology and metaphysics, was the intellectual-spiritual giant of the "Modern Orthodox" movement of the latter half of the 20th century. Despite merging the readings of such unjewish sources as Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Rudolf Otto, with traditional Judaism, Soloveitchik saw himself as a teacher in his family’s footsteps, in the classical "Brisker" tradition (analytical), named after his hometown, Brest-Litovsk of Lithuania. The result of his demand for perfectionism is that he left behind hardly and published works; this makes his rare forays even more exciting (eg: the neo-Kantian Halakhic Man, an ode to the Torah scholar; and the existentialist angst of The Lonely Man of Faith"). His sheer breadth and depth of Torah-secular knowledge, together with a dazzling oratorical style, made him a unique teacher and role model, influencing, through his "shtender" at Yeshiva University, thousands of young Jewish boys, many of whom became rabbis. "We feared you, we admired you, but we loved you as well," declared  Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, in his eulogy.

[vii] Why is it called a "Scroll?" In ancient days, a book was written on one long strip of papyrus which was then rolled, and termed "volume" based on a Latin word meaning "to roll," or to produce a "scroll."

[viii] Who was this King? No one knows for sure: historians point to either Xerxes II (485-465 BCE) or Ataxerxes II (403-358 BCE) because both attempted genocide during their reign.

[ix] There is still an agricultural settlement in the Jordan  Valley near Lake Hula called Yesud hama’ala.

[x] Ezra 1:1-3; 4:6; 3:7; 7:9.

[xi] Who were these "enemies?" The ten sons of Haman (Rashi on Esther 9:10, quoting Seder Olam).

[xii] Pirkei d’R. Eliezer.

[xiii] Bereshit Rabbah 38

[xiv] 539 BC

[xv] 100,000 Jews lived there in the late 19th century, today it is barely home to 1500 Jews – courtesy of mass conversion centuries ago (which is why, in surrounding Muslim villages, a distinctive Jewish dialect of Farsi is spoken, and Muslims continue such Jewish customs as lighting candles on Fridays); and the arrival of the Ayatollah Khomeini who toppled the Shah of Iran in 1979, establishing a Islamic Republic that caused many Jews to flee.

[xvi] P. Churgin, Targum Ketuvim, NY: Horeb Press, 1945; from an Amoraic Midrash found in Megilla 13b; Esther 3:8

[xvii] Hofjude is a 17th-century German word (hof means Court) that originally described Herr Hoffaktor, a powerful Jewish financier who catered to the lavish absolutist kingdoms and duchies of Germany; leading to the term HofjudeShtadlanim, "Intercessor-Court Jews," who were usually subjected to such great indignities as August the Strong of Saxony cutting off Behrend Lehmann’s beard; Prussian king Frederick William I giving his court Jew a public beating for daring to wear blue (the gentile colors of Prussian grenadiers); Duke Charles Alexander of Wuerttemberg hanging his court Jew (Joseph Suess Oppenheimer) in a public cage as the crowds watched the birds eat his flesh. In the late 19th and early 20th century in Eastern Europe, the early Zionists, contemptuous of the HofjudeShtadlanim expression and such derogatory gentile terms as the Polish zydek, Ukrainian zhidka, and German mauschel, searched for an appropriate mimetically matching anti-Semitic term in Hebrew – and came up with yehudon, a stapling of the traditional yehudi ("Jew") to the diminutive suffix (on) – as in the contemptuous self-ethnic slur, Yehudon katan, which means, "little kike Jew."

[xviii] Ford, the legendary auto magnate who proudly wore a swastika gold-crossed medal (The Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle) from Adolf, blamed the Jews for "the degradation of American baseball" and screened footage of Nazi atrocities in Maidanek in his motor plant (a typical gem: "If Jews are as wise as they claim to be, they will labor to make Jews American, instead of laboring to make Americans Jewish.") Ford’s grandson, Henry II, disgusted by his family’s background, did tshuva (penance), supported Jewish causes, and had the Ford Co. be the sole sponsor of NBC’s 1997 broadcast of Schindler’s List (Neil Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate, Public Affairs, 2002)

[xix] There have been over 120,000 works written on Adolf Hitler – and we still have not a clue as to where his particularly virulent Jewish paranoia came from. Pure Christian dogma ("Jews killed Jesus, thus God rejects Jews") provided the main ideological support for the 20th century murder of 6,000,000 Jews. When Rabbi Weissmandl of Slovakia asked a high Church official to protect the innocent blood of Jewish children, he was told, "There is no such thing as ‘innocent Jewish blood.’"

[xx] The term Antisemitismus was coined in 1879 by a German journalist (Wilhelm Marr, author of, "The Victory of Judaism Over Germanism") who founded the popular Bund der Antisemiten ("Antisemitic League") which went on to win several seats in the Reichstag.

[xxi] Hyam Maccoby, The Anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot, Midstream, May, 1973

[xxii] Robert M Hutchins, ed, Tacitus, The Histories, Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, Chicago, Vol. 13; M. Stern, ed, Cicero, Pro Flacco 28:66, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Jerusalem, 1980, Vol 1.

[xxiii] Deut 25:17-19

[xxiv] Although some scholars find the comparison far-fetched, Jewish mystics, in their desire to identify a modern-day Amalek, chose the ruthless Nazi Germany because of a Talmud that describes "Germamia" as descendants of Edom. The Vilna Gaon depicts them as "Northern European folks with a fair complexion" – not to be confused with the folks of Germamia who descend from Gomer via Yefes, son of Noah (Eliyahu Rabba, Negaim 2.1; Maharsho on Yoma 10a; Deut 25:17; Sefer Mitzvos Koton; Megilla 6b).

[xxv] Megilla 15b.

[xxvi] Why is the Jewish nation compared to a rose? The Shem MiShmuel traces the comparison to a Psalmist expression (45:1), Lamnatzeiach al Shoshanim (“For the conductor on the roses”), which was composed in honor of Torah scholars (talmidei chachamim) whom Rashi likens to soft, beautiful roses.

[xxvii] This theme (a Jew sits in the court of gentile rulers and wins favors for his people) is not new: in the Book of Ezra, composed during the Second Temple and preserved in the Greek edition, King Darius, Ahasuerus’ father, offers his servant Zerubbabel a reward for giving him a right answer. Zerubbabel asks for (and is granted) permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

[xxviii] It is customary to read all the names of Haman’s sons in one breath. Why? Because they were all hung simultaneously (Esther 7:10; Megilla 16b).

[xxix] Esther 2:5, 7.

[xxx] 1720-1797

[xxxi] Megilla 10b, 12: Esther 2:5

[xxxii] Rashi on Esther 2:7

[xxxiii] Not all scholars agree: the Baalei Hakabalah  “sees” God’s Name in the word Melech, “King,” which is repeated 187 times (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, 50). Ibn Ezra claims that Morde­chai originally did put "God" in the Megillah before distributing it to all the nations but, being idol worshippers, they replaced it with the name of their local icon. Mordechai then rewrote the Megillah, leaving out God’s name.

[xxxiv] The Torah actually encourages this type of semi-inexplicable question (Megilla 12a) but adds one caveat; that the questioner’s intent be honorable. Yet “Where was God at Shushan?” is a much more digestable question than “Where was God at Auschwitz?” Why? Two reasons: not a single Jew during Haman’s time was harmed whereas the Judaic suffering under Adolf was unprecedented; and the Story of Esther has a happy ending, the Story of Auschwitz does not. That is why the Purim deliverance is remembered in total revelry, and the deliverance from Auschwitz is not; similary Haman’s name is drowned out annually by a hellish din of gratitude; Hitler’s name is simply ignored by Jewish history’s battered, humilated victims.

[xxxv] The only parsha (from the time of his birth) where Moses’ name is also absent is Tetzaveh, the one associated with Purim (this excludes Deuteronomy, much of which is narrated by Moses). In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, Moses entreats God to forgive. And if not? "Erase me from Your Book." The Heavens apparently did just that, fulfilling Moses’ self-inflicted curse (Jacob ben Asher: 1270-1340, the Baal HaTurim).

[xxxvi] The first time that the two words din (judgment) and dat (law) ever appear together in one sentence is at the start of Megillas Esther: "For so was the king’s manner toward all that knew law [dat] and judgment [din]." In Hebrew dat, dati and datiyut mean "religion," "religious" and "religiosity." When a groom tells his bride, "You are sanctified to me by this ring according to the dat of Moses and Israel," the word can mean either, "according to the law, custom or religion" of Moses and Israel." The modern Hebrew phrase, ani religiozi aval lo dati, means, "I’m religious but not religiously observant;" whilst doing something ke’dat u’khe’din means "doing it the right way" (ie: according to dat and din).

[xxxvii] Exodus 34:29,30,33

[xxxviii] Deut 31:18

[xxxix] Is buying a lottery ticket considered gambling? The Mishnah Sanhedrin disqualifies the m’sachek b’kuvyah ("one who plays with dice") from being a judge or a witness; the professional gambler (an "occupation" the Talmud calls "not socially useful") is disqualified but not those who buy an occasional raffle or lottery ticket. In contrast, the practice of casting lots is allowed, as we see on Yom Kippur in deciding which goat to use (Leviticus 16:8-10); in allocating territory among the tribes (Numbers 26:55, etc); in determining who would carry out the Temple service (Yoma 2, Tamid 1, etc.)

[xl] Numbers 26; Leviticus 16; Nehemiah 10:35; Psalms 22

[xli] Esther 9:1; 22

[xlii] Editor, Treasury of Jewish Folklore, page 264; I. Davidson, Parody in Jewish Literature, NY, 1907; Chone Shmeruk, Yiddish Biblical Plays: 1697-1750, Jerusalem 1979.

[xliii] Joselit humorously describes how the Jewish woman shed her bubba’s sheitel in return for a "3 foot tall and 2 foot wide hat, decorated with pyramids of grapes and flowers, clutters of yellow wheat and curving shafts of [heron-like birds] Aigrettes" (A Perfit Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America, Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2001)

[xliv] In his book on the haskala, Shmuel Feiner describes an incident in the 18th century over the traditional custom of halanat hamet (no burial delays) wherein the rabbis were accused of "premature burial," and being accessories to burying live people. To stress the point Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn (author of "Avtalion" and "On Silliness and Hypocrisy") gate-crashed the chief rabbi of Breslau’s Purim party dressed as a dead person who had emerged from the grave, with a placard, "I happened to faint and the members of the burial society quickly buried me in the ground and almost shed my blood in utter ruthlessness.’" The rabbi’s guests and family were frightened "to death." Halle-Wolfssohn was forced "to leave the city and never to return" (Mahapekhat hane’orut: Tenu’at hahaskalah hayehudit bame’a hashmoneh esrei, "The Jewish Enlightenment in the 18th Century," Center for Jewish History, 2002).

[xlv] Essay, Purim Everlasting, February 25, 2002

[xlvi] Ibn Ezra; Emek Davar

[xlvii] Yoma 23b.

[xlviii] Esther 8:15; Deut 25:2

[xlix] Esther 8:17.

[l] Sabbath 113b

[li] Ohev Israel, Jerusalem, 1966, p.111

[lii] According to the "experts" on drinking: "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading" (Henny Youngman); "You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on" (Dean Martin); the Board of Health once posted this advice on all alcohol bottles: “WARNING: Consumption of alcohol may cause you to thay shings like thish.”

[liii] This yiddish vort is based on the first miracle that Jesus was supposed to have performed; turning water into wine for a wedding party.

[liv] Sukkah 51a

[lv] What makes a wine kosher? Rabbinic supervision, from the time it was considered yayin nesech, wine consecrated for heathen worship, and thus Jews were prohibited from deriving and benefit from it. When this ban was expanded to cover s’tam yeynam, wine made (or served) by nonJews, the cause was the association of wine drinking with heavy socializing (ie: the fear of assimilation). Kosher wine at Jewish functions is usually yayin m’vushal, boiled and pasteurized, and can be served by non-Jewish staff on the basis that heathens never used boiled wine during their idolatrous worship.

[lvi] Psalms 104:15.

[lvii] Megilla 7b; Esther 9:20-22; Pesachim 109; Psalm 104:15; Judges 9:13, Kohelet 10:19.

[lviii] There are several similarities between Purim and Chanukka; from twirling and spinning (gregger ‘n dreidel); to the presence of sleep-related issues (Joseph in dream, Ahasuerus as an insomniac). The main difference is this: Chanukka revolves around a premeditated campaign, Purim does not. Perhaps this is why we spin the dreidel from the top (in that the miracles of Chanukka clearly involve God), and spin the gregger from below (in that Jews had to help themselves).

[lix] The Purim of Candea falls on Tammuz 18th (1538) despite this month’s traditional status of being a month of mourning; and the Purim of Ibrahim Pasha (in honor of the Jews of Hevron being rescued from Pasha’s army) falls on the first day of Av despite the halachik dictate to "reduce" festivities at this time. Even the rabbinic qualms about mixing simchas were brushed aside for Purim: thus we have the Purim of Ancona (Italy, 1740) on the second day of Succas; and the Purim of Carpentras (France, 1651) on the last day of Pesach. A "second" Purim was even personalized: when the Viennese household of Rabbi Abraham Danzig survived a catastrophe his family kept the 16th of Kislev (1803) each year as "the Purim of Abraham Danzig;" as did Prague Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (author, "Tosefet Yom Tov"), who, in 1629, proclaimed a "second Purim" for his descendants on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Adar to commemorate his deliverance from death. There is a "Vincent Purim" (20th Adar, 1614-15) accompanied by a special fast, penitence and its own "Vincent Megillah" penned by Rabbi Elhanan Ha’elen, after the Jews of Frankfurt-am-Main survived the rantings of a local baker, Vincent Fettmilch, a self-described "New Haman." We even have a "Hitler Purim" (20th Kislev, 1942) with its own Hitler Megillah ("Cursed be Hitler, cursed be Mussolini," etc) penned by Casablanca Jews who survived Adolf.

[lx] The earliest descriptions of Purim celebrations, from the Second Temple and Mishnaic eras, offer no indication of the irreverence, drinking or Torah parody that we today associate with Purim; concentrating instead on the formal, careful and serious reading of the Megillah. On the contrary: Midrash Esther Rabbah, the main Palestinian rabbinic source of Esther, not only strongly emphasizes the dangers of wine but incorporates a lengthy tract on the virtues of temperance. It was the exile rabbinate, and the Jews of Babylonia, who introduced these more frivolous customs (Ta’anit 29a).

[lxi] Despite the Adar admonition to be increasingly “merry,” Adar 7 (known as Zayin Adar, the 7th of Adar Sheni) has, since the Talmudic period, been a significant day for mourning. Why? Because it is both the anniversary of Moses’ death and birthday (Kiddushin 38a; Exodus 2). Jewish communities mark this day as a Burial Society (Chevra Kadisha) fastday, reciting special selichot, eulogizing those who died during the year, and ending it with a festive dinner (a seuda) that elects new executives. Why is Zayin Adar associated with the work of the Chevra Kadisha? Because Moses was buried by God Himself, a symbol of the significance of burial.

[lxii] Teshuvot Dovev Meisharim, Vol 1, by Rav Dov Baersh Weidenfeld (the Tchebiner Rav); Ha’sagot Le-sefer Ha-mitzvot, Shoresh 2; Megilla 2b

[lxiii] Rav Nosson Adler of Frankfurt un Mein made a point of singing the depressing psalm Al Naharot Bavel (about the exile from Israel) during his Purim seuda, on the basis that the obligation to remember Jerusalem supersedes the order to be happy on Purim. 

[lxiv] 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 Psalm 113:1).

[lxv] The Baal Haturim traces this halachic priority to the Megillah words ki raboh hee, because she is great, indicating that reading Megilas Esther takes precedence because Esther "is greater" (Megilla 3b).

[lxvi] Exodus 30:13. 15.

[lxvii] Macy Nulinan, The Encyclopedia of the Sayings of the Jewish People, Jason Aronson Inc, NJ.

[lxviii] Nehemiah 8:10, 12.

[lxix] Midrash Megilla XII

[lxx] Maasa Al­fis.

[lxxi] "Esther’s Legacy: Celebrating Purim around the World," a compilation of Purim reminiscences from 138 different communities; published by Hadassah on its 90th-anniversary (2002).

[lxxii] Isaiah 30;14

[lxxiii] Orach Chayyim 690:17

[lxxiv] Exodus 17:8-16.

[lxxv] Baba Kamma 113b; Pirkei Avos 3:2; Jeremiah 29:7

[lxxvi] 173-253 C.E.

[lxxvii] Nedari’m 28a, Gittin 10b, Bava Kama 54b, 55a

[lxxviii] Shmuel Shilo’s Dina De-Malkhuta Dina: The Law of the State is Law, Academic Press, Jerusalem, 1974

[lxxix] J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

[lxxx] Midrash Rabbah

[lxxxi] About 15% (1,000,000) of the Jews who died in the Holocaust died from nothing more complicated than starvation.

[lxxxii] Why, within the bias of Divine providence, was that particular generation destined for near-destruction? Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) traces the fault-line to the Jewish participation in the King’s banquets which the Megillah goes to great lengths to describe (Megilla 12a), suggesting that they had abandoned the laws of kashrut. But the Midrash squashes this charge by claiming that “no one was forced to drink non-kosher wine,” and in any event, there is no Jewish law against attending a royal banquet, garden court or feast. To which the rabbis reply that not all parties are considered equal; and that attending the unruly, vulgar banquets of evil hosts is out of bounds for Jews.

[lxxxiii] Mechilta Beshallach 5:2

[lxxxiv] Baba Batra 15a

[lxxxv] Eshkol is the verb form of shekel, the currency used by Moses in his census  (Exodus 30-34).

[lxxxvi] Esther 3:7, 9, 13: 10:1.

[lxxxvii] The Jews urged Mordechai to stop interfering in politics and to stick to his Torah studies (Rashi, Esther 10:3).

[lxxxviii] Focusing on Biblical narratives, Artemisia (the heroine in several French-US novels, such as Alexandra Lapierre’s "Artemisia," and Susan Vreeland’s "The Passion of Artemisia") also painted the imposing Judith and Holofernes series, known for their dramatic violent bloodiness (in her "Jael and Sisera" for example, one can almost feel the nail going into his head.)

[lxxxix] Handel was enthusiastic for Jewish subjects, and his choral anthem "Zadok the Priest" is still played at every English royal ceremony and at most British weddings. What inspired him to write "Esther"? During a stay with Jewish friends in Venice he witnessed their colorful celebration of Purim. Handel’s "Haman and Mordecai" libretto premiered in 1718 in London to great acclaim; with a 1732 remake ("Esther, a Sacred Drama") in the form of an English oratorio because the Bishop of London forbade Biblical subjects to be enacted on stage; and the Protestants banned operas during Lent. Handel’s quasi-operatic form was his loophole to get around these prohibitions. When he died (in 1759), Venetian Rabbi Jacob Saraval honored his memory by translating his work into Hebrew (called Teshu’at Yisra’el al yedey Esther, "The Salvation of Israel by Esther.")

[xc] Esther found life in the castle so abhorrent and defiling, that her complexion of radiant beauty turned into a "greenish parlor."

[xci] 4:14.

[xcii] "My Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me…I cry in the daytime but you do not respond, and in the night I have no rest…" (Psalm 22:2-4)

[xciii] Rashi notes the similarities between Sarah (who lived 127 years) and Esther (who ruled 127 provinces). There are times when even Rashi admits he doesn’t know something (eg, see Genesis 28:5). How is that possible? Judaism prefers a Sage to be honest ‘d humble, with no pretenses to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (B’rachot 4a).

[xciv] Since one must learn "proper" lessons the Mishna says that reading the Megilla backwards does not comply with this mitzva (Reb Moshe of Kobrin).

[xcv] Lighting candles, niddah, challah, and (Midrash Tehilim, Buber, 22:16).

[xcvi] Otzar Midrashim, Eisenstein

[xcvii] Exodus 14:15

[xcix] d. 1859

[c] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters, 1961

[ci] Daniel 7:13; Sanhedrin 98a

[cii] Takanat Hashavin, p. 17

[ciii] Nazir 23b

[civ] Hosea 6:6

[cv] Mishnah Nega’im 2:2.

[cvi] What happens to Esther? No one knows: the last we hear of her is when she asks future generations of Jews to remember Purim. What of her children? No one knows: one scholar claims her son became the next King; others claim that her descendants lost their Jewish identity only to return in the future as Righteous Gentiles. Ironically, we know more about Haman’s descendants: they convert to Judaism and "learn Torah in B’nai Brak" (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b).

[cvii] Ben Azzai; Chapter of the Sages, 4:3; Esther 4:16.

[cviii] Pirchei Avos

[cix] Midrash Mishle, Proverbs 9:2; Rambam, Yad Hachazaka

[cx] Y. T. Livinsky, Sefer Ha-moadim, Tel Aviv, 1963, Vol. 6.

[cxi] Since the Book of Esther is the end of miracles, the letter taf, being the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, is written extra large in the sentence Vatich­toy Esther Hamalka – to signify that Esther is the last of the miracles. (Yoma 29a; Minha­gei Yeshurun)

[cxii] Resh Lakish, Megilla 1:5

[cxiii] Our Sages explicitly warn not to make any salvational arithmetic about the end of this planet (Sanhedrin 97b), but this did not stop the Ramban who toyed with messianic maths and declared (incorrectly, obviously) that the Jewish year of 5118 (1358) was a likely Messianic arrival (Sanhedrin 98a; Shabbat 118b).