Why We Celebrate Purim — Especially This Year
Purim is known as the happiest and craziest day in the Jewish calendar, and the only festival that celebrates an event in the Diaspora. But is it really?
According to tradition, the story of Purim and the Book of Esther date to the early Persian period, somewhere in the 5th century BCE. The story is of a naïve, drunken, male chauvinist, incompetent Persian king. He rules over an empire that extended from India to Africa. He relies on a series of different advisors who can twist him around their fingers. Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Achashverosh, is gulled by a wicked Haman into agreeing to kill all the Jews of the Persian empire. But the evil plan is thwarted by the combined stratagems of Queen Esther (who hides her Jewish ancestry) and her uncle Mordechai.
It was an early example of antisemitism — hating and wanting to destroy Jews for absolutely no logical reason other than that they are different and have different ways of life. The bad guy of the story, Haman, is called the Agagite. And Agag was an Amalekite king mentioned in the Bible. The author obviously wanted to make a connection with the first attack by the Amalekites on the Israelites, vulnerable as they left Egypt.
But did the story of Esther and Mordechai ever take place?
The story raises all kinds of questions. The fact is that the first Persian king, Cyrus (600-530 BCE), decreed that all religions should be tolerated and respected throughout his empire. His declaration can be seen today in the British Museum. Although succeeding kings varied in the degree of their support of Jewish communities both in Babylon and Judea, there is no evidence of a Persian king wanting to exterminate the Jews. Being different was never a problem so long as you accepted the political authority. Indeed, this policy continued under Alexander the Great when he conquered the Persian empire. This is why Purim may have been a story concocted much later.
The timeline as given in the Book of Esther is also problematic. According to the text, Mordechai arrived in Babylon with the first exile in 609 BCE. But that doesn’t quite square. Opinions vary as to who Achashverosh might have been. The earliest candidate would be Xerxes (518-465 BCE) followed by Artaxerxes (who ruled 465-424 BCE) when Mordechai would have been well over one hundred years old. It also might even have been Darius II (423-404) who wrote to the priests of Elephantine in Upper Egypt, ordering them to stop harassing the Judean garrison and allow them to keep Passover unmolested.
Purim and the Megillah were challenged in the Jewish world on theological and political grounds. The Megillah does not mention the name of God. The Jewish characters are not shown performing any Jewish religious rituals. The heroine is a Jewish woman married to a heathen king.
The Book of Esther itself tells how after the crisis was over, Esther had to issue repeated decrees calling on reluctant Jews to keep Purim, and that Mordechai’s authority was not accepted by everyone in the community. The Talmud concedes that Purim first was established in Shushan and only later throughout the Jewish diaspora (Megillah 7a). Furthermore, in Roman times, many rabbis thought it was inappropriate to celebrate Jews killing non-Jews, for fear that this might be taken as encouraging the rebellion against Roman authority.
By the end of the Talmudic era, the vast majority of Jews had willingly and lovingly adopted Purim, and the Book of Esther entered the canon. They had added blessings whose wording stated that Purim was divinely ordained on a par with Hanukkah. Some later rabbis disapproved of celebrating Purim altogether (Sheilot u’Teshuvot Radvaz). Others objected to the drunken and disorderly celebrations that often went too far. The Hassidic communities celebrated — and still do — without much restraint.
Today, sadly, antisemitism has metastasized. Jews are again being accused of divided loyalties in precisely the same language that Haman used. So we need to be reminded of our history of fighting back.
But we should also be grateful for life and for our good fortune. This is why we celebrate Purim by being kind to our neighbors, giving charity to the poor, and being happy. Remember the popular Latin phrase “Illegitimi non-carborundum,” or “Do not let the bastards get you down.”
The author is a writer and rabbi current living in New York.