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The Purim story

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-03-18

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

In the mystical book, ‘Two Tablets of Stone’ ('Shenei Luchot HaBrit' written by Yeshaya Horowitz 1560-1630), you will find it said that sometime in the future all religious festivals will become obsolete except for Purim. And there is another mystical idea that the Day of Atonement, Yom Keppurim as it is described in the Torah, is really a day ‘ke’ (which means ‘like’) Purim.

Why Purim, the least obvious of choices? It sounds ridiculous when you know that Yom Kippur is described in the Torah as the holiest of festivals, while Purim is a later rabbinic innovation.

But it is such a deliciously Hassidic idea, predicated on worshipping God through joy, as Purim is the most obviously happy day of the Jewish calendar. To be sure, our religion is supposed to be one of joy and delight (although two thousand years of oppression and antagonism seem to have taken the shine off, somewhat). So the Torah commands that we rejoice on every festival. But it’s Purim that really gets us to go over the edge.

On the surface, the Purim story, as told in the Book of Esther, is a totally non-religious story. It is a tale of political and sexual intrigue, with not one mention of God. And yet there are many ways of seeing the hand of God at work, even through sex.

The beauty of the Purim story is that it replicates the perpetual struggle of religion to get people to see that what can be explained in rational terms, may, indeed, be supernatural. It is a reflection of the hope that over time we will elevate ourselves spiritually to the point where we will see God in everything and won’t need ritual to remind us of it.

The story takes place in the Persian Empire roughly 2,500 years ago. Esther, a ‘nice Jewish girl’ from an aristocratic family, wins a competition similar to the ‘Joe Millionaire’ reality show, in which she has a single night to prove to the king that he’d be crazy not to choose her. Having been bedded with no guarantee that she will be made an ‘honest woman’ (hardly the behaviour of a religious seminary girl), she is crowned queen.

Simultaneously, anti-Semitic Haman (using the latest lottery techniques) persuades the naïve king that it is in his best political and commercial interests to side with those who hate the Jews. After a strict fast (no doubt to enable her to fit into her latest Versace), Esther uses her teasing charms to show the king what a nasty piece of work Haman is.

She is successful. The Jews are allowed to defend themselves, the bad guys are strung up, and all the anti-Semites (who actually are a minority within the Persian Empire) are despatched. The Jews have a massive celebration and everyone lives happily ever after.

As a result, we now have a festival (not as strict as Biblical ones), in which we read the story, the Megillah of Esther, in synagogue. We give charity to the poor and gifts to friends. Many of us wear fancy dress and have a major banquet during the daytime, at which too much alcohol is drunk and people make fools of themselves to their great amusement, if to no one else’s. It is the Jewish Carnevale.

The excessive drinking relates to a statement in the Talmud (Megillah 7b): Rava says, ‘A person is obliged to drink (BESUMEH) on Purim until he cannot know (tell) the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’’

I have very fond memories of my late father coming back from Tel Aviv in the early fifties, where he had joined in the annual Purim Fancy Dress Parade in Tel Aviv, which was called the ADLOYADA. He was tickled pink by the name, which comes from the Hebrew wording of the Talmudic phrase I quoted above, ‘until he cannot know the difference’.

‘Just think,’ he said with obvious emotion, ‘having a huge parade through the main street of a Jewish city to celebrate a Jewish festival and naming it after a phrase in the Talmud.’ That, for my father, was Zionism--not some of the political shenanigans that have cast a shadow since.

(By the time I got to Israel I was more impressed by the fact that you could celebrate Purim in Tel Aviv one day and then go up to Jerusalem to celebrate it a second time the following day. In Shushan the capital of Persia  it took an extra day to get rid of the troublemakers. So Shushan Purim is celebrated a day later in any city that, like Shushan, had walls since the time of Jericho.)

Normally people understand the injunction to ‘drink until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai’’  to mean that you’d have to be completely blotto to reach that stage. And anyone who has been in Orthodox communities on the day will know that a lot of people take this literally. Even underage kids often indulge. But statistically it does not appear that Jews are unduly prone to alcoholism as a result.

Indeed, there is well known motto in the Talmud based on a pun because all three words share the same Hebrew root. It goes ’You can tell what a person is really like by his Cup, his Pocket and his Anger’ (Eiruvin  65b). In other words, a gentleman (or a gentlewoman, of course) is someone who can control his drinking, his spending (be charitable) and his temper.

But the Hebrew word BESUMEH can mean both drunk and perfumed.  And, in my youth, I heard the Head of Mir Yeshiva, Rav Leizer Yehuda Finkel, say that the statement means you have to be so relaxed and free from your inhibitions and predispositions that you are able to see good, and, indeed, see God in even the lowest human being--and you don’t need wine for that.

And in case you were wondering, Purim is next Thursday night and a very good Friday, unless you live in Jericho when its on Sunday. But that’s another story.