How We Should Really Celebrate Purim
I believe that the core principles of all religions are virtually the same. They may have different ways of describing the ultimate power they call God, but they all agree on the importance and priority of being a good person, being considerate to others, and trying to make the world a better, more meaningful and spiritual place.
But among the world’s religions, there are very different practical, cultural and theological ways of going about achieving this dual relationship. I do not want to be diverted into writing about the failures of religions. But I am fascinated by the similarities and differences that usually can be put down to what we call cultural and historical factors.
All religions have days of happiness, sadness, fasting, celebration, atonement and forgiveness. Judaism adapted the Mesopotamian harvest festivals. It turned Shappatu into the idea of Shabbat, and celebrated it on Saturday. Christians liked the idea, but intentionally switched it to Sunday. And Muslims followed with Friday.
Judaism and Christianity both have customs of penitence and self-denial. Elul in August gets us ready for the High Holy Days. Then between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have the Ten Days of Repentance. That is followed by the festival of Sukkot when, in addition to eating in the sukkah, we wave palm branches as part of the Four Plants. When it ends, we have the lively celebration of Simchat Torah. Judaism waves palms in the autumn, but Christians wave palms in the spring.
There are examples of coincidence — like Hanukkah and Yuletide, or Carnival and Purim. Carnival (goodbye to meat in Latin) originated as a farewell to meat, before the Christian period of mourning and abstinence called Lent. Lent is also known as Shrovetide (old English for “Time of Forgiveness”). The Christian and Jewish carnivals thus parallel each other.
The most famous carnival is that of Venice, with Rio de Janeiro a close second. They are gaudy, riotous and colorful affairs — with an abundance of drink, food and sex. In prior times, carnivals often involved mock battles; social satire and mockery of authorities; weird displays of large noses, bellies, mouths; abusive language and degrading acts; depictions of death; and a general reversal of everyday rules and norms.
When Lent it is over, Christians celebrate the festival of Easter ,with its cute little bunny rabbits and Easter eggs — usually at about the time when we celebrate Passover/Pesach.
Drink and food are features of Purim, too. The Bible talks about feasting, giving gifts to friends and the poor, and reading the Megilah. But I am convinced that the excesses — the masks, mocking the authorities, and the riotous behavior — owe more to Christian revelry than Mordecai and Esther.
Given that society always advances in cycles, the more licentious the carnivals became, the more the church and the authorities sought to ban or suppress them. I think we could do with a bit of that, the way Purim now often manifests itself in many ultra-Orthodox enclaves. But then I always was a bit of a killjoy.
Another feature of Lent in Christian countries is Ash Wednesday. It is when you see people walk around with crosses of ash daubed on their foreheads. It isn’t always precise. This year it fell on Valentine’s Day.
The official story is that Ash Wednesday derives its name not from a tree called the ash, but from the placing of repentance ashes on the foreheads of participants to remind the faithful of the biblical words: “Repent, and remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The ashes were often prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. Palm Sunday is a Christian feast that falls on the Sunday before Easter, and commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where everyone conveniently was waving palm fronds to shade his way.
But I think there is another connection between Purim and Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday could well be named after the Ash tree. Trees play an important part in Christian culture — what with its yew trees, mistletoe, holly and Christmas trees. And there’s another tree link. Purim celebrates hanging Haman and his sons on a tree — eytz.
Either way, the tree of Purim and the tree of Ash Wednesday may be related cousins in the way that many religions and religious customs are. Perhaps the tree, like the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, is really a sign to warn us against making the wrong decisions — to stop us from being so mean to each other, or being forced into conflicts we never wanted to get involved in, in the first place.
We should enjoy happy days by being nice to everyone — instead of rolling drunk in the gutter or partying. Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call Purim Torah. Happy Purim, everyone.