Purim, Parody, and Pilpul

How this festival became a time for merriment and satire

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Reprinted with permission of the author.

Like all the festivals of the Jewish calendar, Purim as we know it today is the product of a long history of development.

Ostensibly a commemoration of national deliverance from danger, we should have expected solemn ceremonies of thanksgiving such as characterize Passover and Hanukkah. The victory over Haman is, however, distinguished by a unique mood of high-spirited frivolity, colored by high alcoholic content and a general tendency to make light of matters which would be treated more reverently at other seasons.

Original Solemnity

The earliest descriptions of Purim celebrations, from the Second Temple and Mishnaic eras, offer no indication of the irreverence that we associate with the festival. The emphasis is on the formal reading of the Scroll of Esther, which was to be conducted with great care and seriousness.

To the best of my knowledge none of the familiar themes of drinking, parody, etc., are mentioned in Talmudic sources emanating from the Land of Israel. In fact the chief Palestinian rabbinic exposition of Esther, the midrash Esther Rabbah, seems to take every possible opportunity to emphasize the dangers of wine, incorporating a lengthy tract on the virtues of temperance.

graggerThe events of the Megillah are interpreted as reflections of the religious behavior of the Jews of the time, and within the context of broader historical themes, especially the destruction of the First Temple and the beginnings of the building of the Second (which the Rabbis believed was delayed by Ahashverosh and Vashti).

It was the Jews of Babylonia who seem to have introduced some of the more frivolous customs into the observance of Purim. Two main factors can be traced to the Babylonian Talmud: "Purim-Torah" and the encouragement of drunkenness.

In the Babylonian Talmud

An exceptional passage in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 139b) serves as a model for subsequent "Purim-Torah"--that is, playfully using some of the far-fetched methods of talmudic logic and Biblical exegesis in order to reach absurd conclusions.

The passage in question relates how a visiting rabbi was challenged to find references to Mordecai, Esther, Haman, and Moses (!) in the Pentateuch. The sage responds to the riddles with audacious, clever puns. For example, ignoring the traditional vocalization, he finds an allusion to Haman in Genesis 3:11: "Is it from (hamin) the tree..." (also hinting at the villain's hanging); and to Esther in Deuteronomy 31:18, where God says, "I will surely hide (haster 'astir) my face" (recalling Esther's refusal to disclose her origins to the king).

Typically, some of the later commentators approached the talmudic passage without full appreciation of its humorous intent. Thus Rashi gravely tries to justify the need to find an "allusion" to Moses' name in the Torah.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.