The Feast of Lots

Purim is named from the Hebrew word pur, meaning "lot," after the lots Haman tossed to choose the month in which to destroy the Jews. In ancient times the holiday was also called the Day of Mordecai, because along with Queen Esther, Mordecai is a hero of the story.

Mordecai son of Jair, from the tribe of Benjamin, descended from King Saul and later Jews who were exiled to Babylon. He himself rose to become a courtier and consultant to King Ahasuerus of Persia. After Esther's parents died, he became her foster father.

It was Mordecai's idea for Esther to hide her identity when she became queen, and it was to Esther as queen that he went after he overheard two men plotting to assassinate the king. Esther gave the information to Ahasuerus, the men were executed, and the incident, with Mordecai's name, was inscribed in the king's annals.

In some respects, Mordecai's struggle with Haman was an extension of the ancient Israelite war with Amalek. Mordecai's ancestor Saul had spared the life of the Amalekite King Agag. Mordecai refused to bow to Agag's descendent Haman, and Haman, in turn, tried to avenge himself by planning to exterminate the Jews of Persia.

Mordecai won on every score. First, King Ahasuerus, unable to sleep one night, chanced on the record of Mordecai's good deed on his behalf. Next, as a reward, the king ordered Haman, of all people, to parade Mordecai through the streets of Shushan on a royal horse, proclaiming, "This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!" (Esther 6:11). Finally, Haman lost his life after Esther denounced him to the king, and Mordecai, of all people, replaced him as minister.

Did any of this Purim story really happen? Plenty of historians say it didn't. They point out that while King Ahasuerus may have been the Persian king Xerxes I, who reigned from 486 to 465 B.C.E., no references to the events described in the Scroll of Esther exist in Persian sources. Furthermore, the names Esther and Mordecai sound suspiciously like those of the Babylonian gods Ishtar and Marduk, making it likely that our story is a retelling, maybe a parody, of some ancient folktale or myth. Some scholars argue that the whole story was invented, possibly during the Second Temple era, to give a Jewish slant to an old, popular spring festival.

The sages had their own problems with the Purim saga. What was this Jewish woman doing in a Persian king's harem, changing her name from Hadassah to Esther, paying no attention to dietary laws, and hiding her identity? Worse still, why is there no reference to God in the entire Book of Esther — not a prayer for salvation when Esther calls for a public fast, not a prayer for thanksgiving when salvation does arrive?

They argued the matter back and forth and finally agreed to accept Purim as a legitimate festival, although a minor one, on which work is permitted. They concluded that though the book appears to be secular, it was actually divinely inspired, perhaps more than any other biblical book. The only reason God is not mentioned in it is because God's presence is hidden, working behind the scenes. How else explain the remarkable victory of the Jewish people than through divine providence, which shapes all events without our awareness? Why, even the thorn tree, on which Haman the "thorn" was hanged, had been created for that very purpose from the beginning of the universe.

So be joyful on Purim, the rabbis commanded, and be sure to follow the practice Esther and Mordecai instituted of sending gifts to one another, known as mishlo'ah manot, and especially of distributing food and money to the poor.

Without worrying about the holiday's origins, Jews have accepted the rabbinic injunction and celebrated in high spirits, with carnivals, masquerades, and Purim shpiels — plays and poems that satirize the story and its characters. Even cross-dressing, men as women and women as men, is permitted on this day. Families gather on Purim afternoon to eat a Purim se'udah, a hearty meal that in Ashkenazi homes may include triangular meat-filled pastries called kreplach, and end with the festival's favorite delicacy, hamantaschen. Loosely translated as "Haman's pockets," these are small three-cornered cakes filled with poppy seeds or jellied fruits. Like the kreplach, they mock the three-cornered hat that Haman supposedly wore. A Sephardic Purim meal might feature fine egg noodles tossed with lemon sauce and known as "Haman's hair," and fried cookies called " Haman's ears," or oznei Haman in Hebrew.

In the synagogue, readers chant from the Megillah (scroll) in a melody of its own, folding the parchment like a letter, unlike the Torah scrolls which are unrolled. The folding is a reminder of letters Esther and Mordecai sent to the Jewish community creating the holiday.

The highest spirits of all come from a saying by the fourth-century Babylonian sage Rava that it is a duty to get so drunk on Purim that you cannot distinguish between the phrases "Blessed be Mordecai" and "Cursed be Haman." Naturally, the idea has won many followers (despite a few hand-wringing rabbis who worry about excesses), but it actually raises some sobering questions. Should one truly try to forget the difference between the good Mordecai and the evil Haman? And isn't this supposed to be a holiday of remembering and not forgetting?

But perhaps what Rava advocated was something else: Purim offers a moment of total victory, rare in the Jewish past. Why not put aside our anger, even our memory, for that moment and simply be happy? Then, too, Jewish tradition teaches us not to gloat over the destruction of our enemies. The Megillah reader, for example, chants the names of Haman's ten sons, who are also killed, in one breath so as not to dwell in detail on their deaths. It may be that melding Haman's name to Mordecai's for a while is a way of preventing ourselves from gloating even while cheering success. It may also be that drinking to oblivion is the only way to quell the pain of a history of Haman-like hatreds.

Purim carries another serious message that makes it resonate with meaning far beyond the day itself. In the story, Esther hesitates at first about approaching the king, knowing that she is putting her life in jeopardy. Mordecai says, "Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king's palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish..." (Esther 4:13-14).

It is a statement of connectedness — of Esther to the Jewish people, of Jews to one another, and, ultimately, of all people to all others. Nobody is safe no matter how exalted his or her position, Mordecai is saying, unless people assume responsibility for one another. For so long as even one monster is allowed to remain out there casting lots, who knows who will be the next victim?

excerpted From: Jewish Days: A Book of Jewish Life and Culture Around the World (Farrar Straus Giroux 1996).
author Francine Klagsbrun has written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on social, religious, feminist and family issues. She is a columnist for "The Jewish Week" and "Moment" magazine, and lectues extensively throughout the United States.




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