The True Story of Purim


First and foremost, Purim is fun! All else is commentary!

Purim, which celebrates the story chronicled in the Book of Esther, has primitive, seasonal, national, historical, and ethical components. The primitive aspects appear in the folk customs of wild celebration and drunken revelry at the full moon of the spring. In addition, the naming of a new queen in the Esther story is paralleled in many primitive spring celebrations, like May Queen; and the ancient cultures of Egypt, Babylonia, and Greece included spring festival ritual marriages by kings and religious figures.

Although the story purports to be historical, it was written several hundred years after the events it talks about would have taken place. There is no evidence in any other record, either Jewish or otherwise, that the events ever happened or that the characters ever existed. In fact, the historical record directly contradicts the main plot ideas, and the characters appear to be named for Babylonian gods. The story itself is what we would now call a fairy tale. Still, we have adopted this episode into our national history.

Although the story is not historical, there is an actual historical holiday on the day that came to be the Fast of Esther (a minor sunup-to-sundown fast), the day before Purim. That was a holiday celebrating the victory of Judah Maccabee over Nicanor, a Syrian general. The rabbinic establishment so hated the Hasmoneans (because they had declared themselves not only High Priestsóalthough they were not of the correct lineageóbut also kings, a position reserved only for the House of David, a line that had died out) that the rabbis, when they came to full power near the end of the first century C.E. deliberately made a fast on the day that had been a holiday. Since the folk tradition already had a festival, the rabbis used merry-making for their Purim holiday.

The story, found in the Book of Esther, tells about a Persian king, Ahasuerus, who marries Esther, a Jewish woman, without knowing she is Jewish. The womanís cousin, Mordechai, overhears and foils a plot to kill the king. Meanwhile, Mordechai also antagonizes the evil prime minister, Haman, who retaliates with a plan to kill all the Jews. The king hears about Mordechaiís help against the traitors and rewards him, causing Haman to hate him even more. Esther invites the king to a dinner party at which she risks her life by telling him that she is Jewish. The king becomes angry with Haman and allows the Jews to fight back on the day that was named for their destruction.

The theme of the whole story is profoundly secular in natureóit is really about the role of luck or chance in human history. Mordechai happens to notice the contest to become queen; Esther happens to win it. Mordechai happens to overhear a plot. The king happens to be unable to sleep and the portion of the record read to him when he canít sleep just happens to be about Mordechai saving his life. That we live in a random universe is a statement with profound ethical import. We cannot control nature or chance, but we can plan for contingencies and, most important, we can control our responses to happenstance. Thereís no sense praying for rain; we have to irrigate and store food and then, if thereís a drought, share with others.

The other ethical issues of Purim are more problematic. The story brings up the question of dual loyalties, which has plagued Jews in many times and places. It demands attention to the question of intermarriage and to the idea of hiding oneís Jewish identity. These questions are interesting and important, but thereís something more ethically troubling in the text.

Purim is a nice holiday commemorating the saving of the Jews by Queen Esther, who is good and sweet and feeds her husband before she asks any favors. Thatís the story most of us remember. But thatís not what it says in the Book of Esther!

What the Book of Esther really says is that Ahasuerus refuses to countermand his own order that the Jews be massacred and their possessions plundered. His excuse is that a kingís order cannot be annulled. Instead, after the famous dinner with Queen Esther, the king issues another order allowing the Jews to gather and fight in their own defense on the day appointed for their destruction.

Once given permission to fight, the Jews really go at it. According to the Book of Esther, they kill 500 men in the capital city of Shushan. When Esther hears this, she asks Ahasuerus to allow the Jews another day of murder. He grants her wish and the Jews kill 300 more Shushanites on the next day. The rest of the Jews in the 127 provinces ruled by Ahasuerus also rise up and they kill 75,000 people.

I always liked the story I was told as a child, and I wasnít too happy when I read the Book of Esther for myself. I love Purim and prefer to be proud rather than ashamed of the history of my people. Knowing that the story isnít true doesnít help, either, because the authors of the story and those who included it in the Bible appear to have approved wholeheartedly of the slaughter. And they donít seem to condemn the supposed passivity of the Jews before the kingís proclamation allowing them to fight back.

The Purim story deals with themes that appear again and again in Jewish history. All through our history, whenever we are powerless, we struggle with the issue of whether to fight the oppressor. According to the Purim legend, had the Jewish people not arisen to fight back, the Jews of Persia would have been annihilated. Individual Jews, Mordechai and Esther, could not save the Jewish People. The Jewish People had to act collectively to save themselves. We learn from this story not to rely on heroes, but to understand that people are responsible for the course of history. We donít have to be heroes to influence history, but we do need to be willing to act in concert with others.

But thereís another element to the story. All through history, whenever we are powerful, from the time of King David to the time of John Hyrcanus to the time of Ariel Sharon, we struggle with the issue of a just use of power and a just defense. How much fighting back is too much? Do you just make the oppressor stop or do you wipe him out? Must we choose between being oppressed and being the oppressor? Isnít there a middle road?