Friday, August 12th | 15 Av 5782

February 24, 2021 12:57 pm

A Purim Guide for the Perplexed

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


An Israeli teenager wears a Purim costume referencing the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

Here are some interesting facts about Purim:

1. Purim’s historical background: The 586 BCE destruction of the first Jewish Temple and the expulsion of Jews from Judea and Samaria — by the Babylonian Emperor, Nebuchadnezzar — triggered a wave of Jewish emigration to Babylon and Persia. In 538 BCE, Xerxes the Great, Persia’s King Ahasuerus, proclaimed his support for the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple and the resurrection of national Jewish life in the Land of Israel, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish homeland. In 499-449 BCE, King Ahasuerus established a coalition of countries — from India to Ethiopia — which launched the Greco-Persian Wars, attempting to expand the Persian Empire westward. However, Persia was resoundingly defeated, and Ahasuerus’ authority in Persia was gravely eroded.

2. Purim is a Jewish national liberation holiday — just like Passover and Hanukkah — which commemorates the transformation of the Jewish people from subjugation to liberty. It is celebrated seven days following the birth and death date of Moses, who is the role model of liberty, leadership, and humility. Purim is celebrated annually, at a time when the relatively cold and stormy winter season shifts into the relatively warm and pleasant spring season.

3. Purim is celebrated on the 14th/15th day of the Jewish month of Adar. Adar is the root of the Hebrew adjective Adir (אדיר), which stands for the adjectives glorious, exalted, and magnificent. It is also a derivative of the Akkadian word adura (heroism). The month of Adar ushers in happiness.

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4. Queen Esther is the heroine of Purim. The Scroll of Esther is one of the five Biblical scrolls, which are highlighted during Jewish holidays. Esther was Mordechai’s niece, and demonstrated the centrality of women in Judaism, as did Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah (the Matriarchs), Miriam (Moses’ older sister), Batyah (who saved Moses’ life), Deborah (the prophetess, judge, and military leader), Hannah (Samuel’s mother), and Yael (who killed Sisera, the Canaanite general).

Esther was one of the seven Biblical Jewish prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther (Megillah tractate of the Mishnah, 14:71). The name Esther was a derivative of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of beauty and fertility, as well as Stara, the Persian morning star, which shifts darkness into light, thus becoming a symbol of deliverance. The Hebrew name of Esther was Hadassah, whose root is Hadass, which is the Hebrew word for the myrtle tree. The myrtle tree features prominently during the Feast of Tabernacles. It is known for its pleasant scent and humble features, including leaves in the shape of the human eye. Greek mythology identifies the myrtle tree with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

5. Mordechai, the hero of Purim — who led a wave of Jewish ingathering from Babylon to the Land of Israel — was a role model of principle-driven optimism in defiance of colossal odds, and in defiance of the Jewish establishment. The first three Hebrew letters of Mordechai (מרדכי) spell the Hebrew word “rebellion” (מרד). Mordechai did not bow to Haman, the second most powerful person in the Persian Empire. He was a descendant of King Saul, who defied a clear commandment to eradicate the Amalekites, sparing the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, thus precipitating further calamities upon the Jewish people. Mordechai learned from Saul’s crucial error and eliminated Haman, a descendant of Agag the Amalekite, thus sparing the Jewish people a major disaster.

6. Purim’s (פורים) Hebrew root is “fate” as well as “casting lots” (פור), commemorating Haman’s lottery, which determined a designated day for the annihilation of the Jewish People. It also means “to frustrate,” “to annul” (הפר), “to crumble,” and “to shutter” (פורר), reflecting the demise of Haman.

7. “Purimfest 1946,” yelled Julius Streicher, the Nazi propaganda chief, as he approached the hanging gallows (Newsweek, October 28, 1946, page 46). On October 16, 1946, ten convicted leading Nazi war criminals were hanged in Nuremberg. An 11th Nazi criminal, Hermann Goering, committed suicide in his cell. According to a Jewish survivor, the late Eliezer Cotler (the grandfather of my son-in-law), Julius Streicher’s library documented his interest in Purim’s relevance to the fate of the enemies of the Jewish people. Streicher underlined, in red ink, each reference to the Amalekites and Haman.

After the events of Purim, Haman and his ten sons were hung. An 11th child, a daughter, committed suicide following her father’s demise (Talmud, Megillah tractate, 16a).

The author is a commentator and former Israeli ambassador.

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