The story of Purim, as told in both the Book of Esther and Tractate Megillah of the Talmud, contains tales of palace intrigue, a beauty contest, examples of loyalty and heroism, reminders of the importance of both minor characters and historical archives, and dramatic reversals of fortune.

This last aspect, represented in the text by the Hebrew root (heh, feh, khaf), to change, adds a magical quality to the story. A time of grief and mourning, we are told, was (nehepakh), magically transformed, into one of festive joy. Furthermore, instead of Haman's forces having the upper hand, (nahfokh hu), the opposite happened.

The Talmud tells us that the Persian King Ahashverosh was like another modern-day Persian Gulf leader capricious, a (hafakhpekhan) or (hafakhpakh), a person who changes his mind and a leader who changes his policies on a whim.

Today, many Western leaders are hoping for a (hafikha), a coup d'état, in troublesome Iraq. There are also some who would not be satisfied with anything less than a complete (mah'pekha), revolution. Still others are willing (lahafokh olamot), to move heaven and earth, to find a peaceful solution to the problems of the Middle East.

Speaking of magic, there is something akin to magic in what is popularly called (if anything in grammar may be deemed popular) the (vav ha- hipukh), the "conversive vav." This is a letter that turns the past into the future and the future into the past. For example, when the Torah wishes to say "Moses spoke," it takes the future form, e.g., the phrase (yiddaber moshe), "Moses shall speak," adds the (vav ha-hipukh), and "Presto Changeo!" we have (va-yiddaber moshe), "Moses spoke."

Another prophet who spoke, but perhaps too soon, was Jonah, who walked into the sinful city of Nineveh and proclaimed, using another meaning of our root, "In forty days, Nineveh (neh'pakhet), shall be utterly destroyed." That is not exactly what happened. Au contraire, or, as they say in Hebrew, (le-hefekh), the inhabitants of Nineveh repented and the city was spared.

Another linguistic phenomenon represented by our root is the elegantly named (davar ve-hippukho), inelegantly translated as "the thing and its opposite." One of the most striking examples of this curiosity is the Hebrew word (hekdesh), which means, depending on the circumstances, both a holy and an unholy place.

In modern Israel during Purim, you might want to unwind from a topsy-turvy day of blessing Haman and cursing Mordecai. Walk into your local cafe and ask for a (kafé hafukh). As if by magic, it turns a cup of espresso into the best-tasting cafe latte you've ever had.


Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language. You can visit his site at

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