The True Story of Purim
By JUDITH SEID
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
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
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
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?