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A Purim Guide for the Perplexed, 2022

avatar by Yoram Ettinger

Opinion

A Purim carnival in Tel Aviv. Photo: Ehud Kenan via Wikimedia Commons.

Here are some facts about Purim, as we celebrate the holiday this year:

1. Purim is a Jewish national liberation holiday — just like Passover and Hanukkah. It is celebrated seven days following the birth and death date of Moses, who is a historical role model of liberty, leadership, and humility.

2. Remembrance is at the core of the Purim holiday. The Scroll of Esther, which narrates the Purim saga, is also named “The Book of Remembrance.” The pre-Purim Sabbath is called “The Sabbath of Remembrance,” commemorating the deadly threat of the Amalekites, who aimed to annihilate the Jewish people.

3. Here is some of 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 Jewish exile to Babylon and Persia. Eventually, Persia replaced Babylon as the leading regional power. In 538 BCE, Persia’s King Ahasuerus proclaimed his support for the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Jewish Temple and the resurrection of national Jewish life in the Land of Israel. In 499-449 BCE, Ahasuerus established a coalition of countries that launched the Greco-Persian Wars, aiming to expand the Persian Empire westward. However, Persia was resoundingly defeated, and Ahasuerus’ authority in Persia was gravely eroded.

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4. 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.

5. Queen Esther is the heroine of Purim. The Scroll of Esther is one of the five Biblical Scrolls that are highlighted during Jewish holidays: Song of Songs (Passover), Scroll of Ruth (Pentecost), Lamentations (the 9th day of Av — destruction of the Jewish Temple), Ecclesiastes (Feast of Tabernacles), and The Scroll of Esther (Purim). Esther demonstrates 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).

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 name evolved into Aphrodite and Venus, the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, beauty, and fertility.

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.

6. Mordechai, the hero of Purim and one of the deputies of Ezra the Scribe — who led a wave of Jewish in-gathering from Babylon to the Land of Israel — was a role model of principle-driven optimism in defiance of colossal odds. Mordechai 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 from a major disaster.

7. 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.

8. “Purimfest 1946,” yelled Julius Streicher, the Nazi propaganda chief, as he approached the hanging gallows. Streicher studied the Aryan connection to the descendants of the Amalekites — who were the worst enemies of the Jewish people — and particularly to Haman. Hence, Streicher’s assumption that Purim was relevant to the fate of the enemies of the Jewish people.

The author is a former Israeli ambassador.

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