Purim History

How the events chronicled in the Book of Esther inspired a holiday.

The Book of Esther recounts the story of Purim, telling of how the Jews of Persia were saved from destruction. During the time of King Ahasuerus, one of his ministers, Haman, sought to destroy the Jews in revenge for being snubbed by the Jew Mordecai, who refused to bow down to him. With the king’s authority, he draws lots (pur) to determine the fateful day, which falls on the 13th of the month of Adar.

Learning of this decree, Mordecai approaches the new queen, his cousin Esther, to intercede with the king. Esther, who has not revealed her Judaism publicly, fasts for three days in preparation for this task. At a banquet for the king and Haman, she denounces the evil Haman, who is eventually hanged. Because a royal decree cannot be rescinded — including the decree ordering the extermination of the Jews — Mordecai must send another decree to all the provinces. This letter authorizes the Jews to protect themselves from their enemies. The days following the Jews’ struggle with their enemies (the 14th and 15th of Adar) are declared days of feasting and merrymaking, today celebrated as Purim.

The Beginnings of Purim

Although it provides the blueprint for the festival of Purim, the origins of the Book of Esther remain obscure. The text’s style of Hebrew and its lack of corroborating historical information from ancient Persia suggest that the Book of Esther was not authored until well after the time it claims to describe. Nonetheless, the Book of Esther does contain many parallels to various ancient Near Eastern and Greek myths, particularly those of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar.

Some scholars argue that the Book of Esther adapted stories about these pagan gods — Marduk becoming Mordecai and Ishtar transformed to Esther – -to reflect the realities of its own Jewish authors in exile. The period of Greek hegemony in the Land of Israel seems to have offered the social, cultural, and political circumstances for the development of this reinterpreted mythology. The actual text of the Book of Esther is thought to be of late Second Temple authorship, being amongst the latest books to enter the Bible, alongside Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Daniel.

The Book of Esther reflects a number of important features of the Persian culture, which are also found elsewhere in the Bible, above all in the Book of Daniel. These features, satirized in the Book of Esther, include a mock representation of Persian rites of gluttony, drinking, exuberant public eroticism, abnormal pomp and display of richness, and bowing to idols or men.

Other Versions of the Purim Story

There are different versions of the story of Esther in addition to the one that appears in the Hebrew Bible. The Greek versions contain the name of God, which is absent in the biblical story. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century of the Common Era, paraphrases the story of Esther in The Antiquities of the Jews.

The holiday of Purim is one of the Jewish tradition’s most beloved communal celebrations. By the second century CE, Purim played such a significant role in the Jewish calendar that an entire tractate of the Mishnah (the earliest compiled rabbinic legal work), called Megillah, was based on the discussion of Purim’s proper observance.

A festive meal, packages of food and other small treats offered to friends and family (mishloach manot), and gifts to the poor (matanot la’evyonim) as cited in Esther 9:22 remain key components of traditional celebrations until today. Purim is a holiday where celebrants are obligated to be happy — and to drink until they are unable to tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b). The reading of the Book of Esther from an actual scroll, often an object of special decoration and care, is performed with distinctive cantillation on both the evening and morning of Purim. These readings include numerous ancient customs, among which are jeering and making noise each time the villain Haman’s name is mentioned, as well as reciting the names of Haman’s 10 sons in one breath.

Contemporary Observances

Sarcastic, humorous, and iconoclastic entertainment has become a universal component of Purim celebration. Although written evidence of the Purim shpiel (Yiddish for “Purim play”) exists in Europe only from the 14th century, Purim entertainment is likely of ancient origin as well. Since Jewish performers and musicians did not exist as a professional class until the 18th century, Purim shpiels and wedding entertainments are our only source of Jewish popular pursuits for centuries. The biting content of Purim performances and the socializing, mockery, dressing up, and carousing surrounding them often provide an important forum for boundary-crossing on issues of gender, sexuality, authority, and relations with the non-Jewish world. Through satires of the original story in the Book of Esther, Purim performances and religious practices provide an essential and fixed measure of creative release exploring some of the Jewish community’s most sensitive topics.

From at least as early as the 10th century, the emergence of “Special Purims” — commemorative days instituted by local Jewish communities employing any number of Purim-related customs — demonstrates Purim’s effectiveness as a prototype for engaging larger Jewish concerns in the context of shifting historical events, particularly in the case of communities or families who escaped from serious danger. Both Special Purims and Purim itself have proven particularly useful for adapting traditional Jewish narratives and customs to the changing historical circumstances of the Jewish experience. Each generation has related its own understanding of the Jewish experience to this deceptively simple story of good versus evil and Jewish survival in a distant and hostile land. The myth of Purim lends itself to such reinterpretation because of its timeless and compelling nature.

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