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The Surprising Connection between Purim and Yom Kippur

Purim and Yom Kippur appear to be complete opposites but the ancient rabbis say they are really two sides of the same coin.

It’s difficult to imagine two holidays more different than Yom Kippur and Purim. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, a somber occasion for contemplating one’s misdeeds in the previous year and seeking to right those wrongs. Purim is a day set aside for ecstatically celebrating the Jewish people’s escape from a genocidal maniac. Yom Kippur is for fasting, while Purim is for feasting. Yom Kippur is solemn, Purim is raucous. Yom Kippur is full of restrictions (food, sex, bathing and luxurious clothes), while Purim has none. On Yom Kippur Jews consider their own certain mortality, on Purim they celebrate unlikely escape from the clutches of death. On Yom Kippur, Jews confront themselves in the hopes of entering the new year with a clean slate. On Purim, they celebrate a successful confrontation with their evil attackers. 

And yet, since the rabbinic period, Jewish tradition has repeatedly linked these two holidays, arguing that they are actually opposite sides of a single coin. This theme is found in ancient rabbinic texts, early modern mystical texts, the writings of the Vilna Gaon and celebrated modern Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

The Zohar, Judaism’s premier mystical text, explains that the clue to this unlikely pairing is in the names of the festivals themselves:

It is called Purim because of Yom HaKippurim for, in the future, people will rejoice on Yom Kippur, and will transform its required afflictions to delight.

Tikkunei Zohar 57b:4

Yom Kippur has many Hebrew names, including the pluralized form: Yom HaKippurim. While the word kippurim literally means atonements, if we adjust one vowel and read it as kappurim, then its meaning becomes “like Purim.” This is a clue, says the Zohar, to the future purpose of Yom Kippur when it will become a day not of affliction, but of delight — just like Purim.

Here are three more ways Yom Kippur and Purim are linked.

(1) They are both about casting lots

Purim gets its name from the lot (pur) that Haman casts in order to determine the day on which he will massacre the entire Jewish people. In the Purim story, the fate of an entire nation rests on a single roll of the dice. 

Lots also play a critical role in the ancient Yom Kippur ceremony. Back when the Temple stood, the high priest would take two goats and cast lots to determine their fates. One goat would be slaughtered as the Yom Kippur sacrifice. The other would have the community’s sins symbolically cast onto it and then be led off into the desert. 

In both cases, we are uncomfortably reminded that random chance plays an inescapable role in our destinies — for better and for worse.

(2) They both hinge on entering the presence of a king.

In ancient times, the high point of Yom Kippur was the moment when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, and faced God directly to ask forgiveness for the people. In that moment, God could forgive the entire people and ensure their wellbeing for the coming year, or God could strike the high priest dead. The ceremony was fraught with anticipation as the priest immersed publicly to achieve a state of purity and dressed in special garments while the community fasted and prayed for his successful intercession with God.

In the Purim story, in order to save her people, Esther must enter the court of the king unsummoned. She knows that an unwelcome visit could spell her demise if the king were unhappy to see her. To prepare for this crucial meeting, Esther fasts for three days and asks the entire Jewish community to fast on her behalf as well. Then she clothes herself in her finest garments and enters the throne room.

In both cases, a community is in great distress, and their fate hangs in the balance. A representative must undertake a dangerous mission — entering the throne room without an invitation — and hope it is the right move to save the people. It is dangerous and desperate, and also the people’s only hope.

(3) They are the “forever” holidays

The ancient rabbis noted that Purim and Yom Kippur are the only holidays about which scripture states that they will be celebrated forever:

All of the holidays are to be nullified in the future but the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it is stated: “And these days of Purim will not be rescinded from the Jews.” (Esther 9:28)

Rabbi Elazar said: Also Yom Kippur will forever not be nullified, as it is stated, “And it will be to you for an everlasting statute to atone for the Children of Israel from all of their sins once a year.” (Leviticus 16:34)

Midrash Mishlei 9:1

In the messianic era, the rabbis imagine, Jews will no longer need many of their holidays. They will not need Passover to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt because they will be eternally free. They will not need Tisha B’Av to commemorate the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people because there will be no more tragedies. They will not even need Shabbat, the sacred day of rest and arguably the most important holiday, because all days will be restful. Indeed, Shabbat is considered a foretaste of the World to Come. However, says the midrash, there are two holidays the Jewish people will retain even in the messianic era: Yom Kippur and Purim, days of pure spirituality and pure physicality.

Two sides of one coin

The Talmud makes clear that most Jewish holidays are about honoring God and following divine commandments, but they are also about pleasure, feasting and celebrating. Purim and Yom Kippur are the outliers, each taking one aspect of holiday observance to an extreme. Yom Kippur is about forgoing all bodily needs and pleasures (food, sex, etc.) to achieve spiritual elevation. Purim lunges wildly in the opposite direction, giving license to take feasting and merriment to their extreme — so much so that the Talmud dictates revelers are to become drunk to the point that they can no longer distinguish the names of Mordechai and Haman, the hero and villain of the holiday. Both, in Jewish thought, are important paths to spirituality and divine service. The Jewish experience would be incomplete without either one.

Famously, the Talmud teaches that at Sinai Israel was reluctant to accept God’s Torah. In frustration, God uprooted the entire mountain and suspended it threateningly over their heads:

“…and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount.” (Exodus 19:17)

Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa said: This verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above them like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your graves. 

… Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves.

Shabbat 88a

At Sinai, teaches Rava, the Jews were forced to accept the Torah. They took upon themselves the covenant with God and the commitment to follow God’s commandments not out of love, but out of fear — because God gave them no choice. But hundreds of years later, in the land of Persia, having just escaped almost certain death at the hands of a madman — an escape which, at least on the surface of the story, was made completely without divine aid — the Jews had a change of heart. It was at this moment, on the very first Purim, that they embraced the covenant with all their hearts, and accepted it willingly. Purim, then, becomes the holiday par excellence, the holiday that celebrates the pinnacle of the Jewish people’s commitment to Torah. If Yom Kippur is about repenting and returning to divine service, Purim perhaps represents the first and best example of that ideal.

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