The Esther/Vashti Purim Flag

The new tradition of waving a flag when Esther and Vashti's names are mentioned celebrates the triumph of these Purim heroines.

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Reprinted from Ritualwell.org, a web resource sponsored by Kolot, The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at RRC. Used by permission of the author.

Megillat Esther has been understood as a fantasy of Jewish power written in a time of Jewish powerlessness. But the megillah actually tells two parallel stories. The primary story is about how Jews in the Diaspora became victims to the whims of power, and then, in the "happy" conclusion, the victors. The secondary story, a story about women and men, follows a similar course, beginning with a wife who is banished when she refuses to obey her husband and concluding with a wife who is listened to and given a significant amount of power. In both stories edicts are issued that threaten the rights of an entire group--Jews and women. Both edicts are eventually subverted through the cunning and courage of Esther and Mordecai. Yet, only one of these subversions is celebrated in our communal observance of Purim. 

A New Ritual

With the new ritual of waving Esther/Vashti Purim flags, we encourage our communities to celebrate and more deeply explore both of Purim's stories. Purim thus becomes both a celebration of and reflection on Jewish pride and perseverance and an opportunity to honor women's power in the face of those who fear it.

The central ritual of Purim is the reading of the megillah. During the megillah reading we call attention to Haman, the story's villain, through the spinning of gragers intended to drown out his name. We highlight the role of Mordecai by joining with the entire congregation in reciting four verses of the megillah out loud. These verses introduce Mordecai (Esther 2:5), accentuate the moment of his parading before the king in royal apparel (8:15-16) and tell of his new role as deputy to the king at the conclusion of the story (10:3). These two customs--the gragger and the recitation of the four verses--serve to ritually emphasize the characters of Haman and Mordecai as the central actors of the story.

Currently, the rituals and symbols associated with Purim do not evoke either Esther or Vashti. At least symbolically, the fact that the grager and its noise are the prominent symbols and sounds of Purim serve to put Haman, hatred, and sometimes valorization of violent retribution at the center of communal celebrations of Purim. Even though the purpose of the gragger is to drown out Haman's name, in actuality it reifies his presence in the sanctuary. Synagogue is a place where both children and adults are usually called to listen. Suddenly, on Purim we are allowed, even encouraged, to make so much noise that a certain word will not be heard.

The commandment on Purim is to listen to every word of the megillah, but the custom of the gragger often threatens that commandment, especially because the drowning out is more fun than the listening. Compared to the shofar (ram's horn) which we are commanded to listen to on Rosh Hashanah and which serves as a symbol of awakening, gathering, and proclaiming freedom, the grager is a negative sound. It is the opposite of listening.

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Tamara Cohen

Tamara Cohen is a Jewish feminist writer and educator currently living with her partner is Gainesville, Florida. She is the spiritual leader of a community in Litchfield County, CT and is on the board of Brit Tzedek V'Shalom: The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.