Purim

First and foremost, PURIM IS FUN!! Joyous…boisterous…madcap. All the rest is commentary. But even hilarity must fit within a framework. So here, with apologies for lapses into seriousness, is the background and foreground (and underground) of Purim.

I. PRIMITIVE ORIGINS

Some scholars see in Purim close parallels with the Babylonian New Year festival. Mordecai, they note, could be Marduk, the patron god of the Babylonian capital; Esther might be another name for Ishtar, the mother goddess. Others argue that Purim originated in pagan new year rites long before the Jewish exile in Babylon. Aspects of the megile (Book of Esther) story—such as the selection of a queen, the parade of a commoner in royal garb, (Mordecai) a fast, distribution of gifts, etc.—all occur in ancient celebrations of the new year usually celebrated at the vernal equinox. Noise-making (gragers) and revelry too are ancient customs that survive in Purim, as they do in the Christian Mardi Gras and in both Western and Eastern new year celebrations.

II. HISTORICAL FOUNDATIONS

Sorry, the Purim story has no basis whatsoever. But it does have connections with Jewish history. The megile was, at first, excluded from the Bible. It doesn’t mention the power of God. The victorious survival of the Jewish people is entirely of their own doing. A secular story celebrated by revelry is hardly Biblical material. Popular pressure, however, reversed the priestly ban. Purim was in. It has remained “in” ever since, despite its official status as a “minor” holiday. Like Chanukah (khanike), it was of little importance—except to the people.

The megile itself makes “historical” connections to characters in the Bible: Mordecai is described as a descendant of Joshua, while Haman’s lineage is traced to Agag, king of the Amalekites, the ancient enemies of the Hebrew tribes.

The Rabbis made peace with the holiday when they realized that it could replace one they detested even more: Nicanor Day, a celebration of a victory of the Macabbees, of whom they were not very fond, to put it mildly.

Another “historical connection” is the fact that there were many Purims in Jewish history. During the Middle Ages, scores of cities in Europe and the Mediterranean area celebrated their own Purims to mark victories of Jewish resistance against threats from local Hamans of extinction or exile. According to local legends, these crises occurred during Adar, the month in which Purim falls. (Could be. Good Friday, with its anti-Jewish passions, often falls in Adar.)

III. TRADITIONAL FORMS

Secular in origin, the holiday remained steadfastly secular in observance through the ages. True, the megile was read in the synagogue, but with irreverent shouting, stamping and grager-twirling at each mention of Haman’s name. There was an attempt during the Middle Ages to introduce the lighting of ten candles on Purim eve. It was quickly forgotten, perhaps because the candles were meant to represent Haman’s ten sons (!), who, according to folklore were hung with their evil father. (The Book of Esther says they were impaled).

In recent centuries, Purim became a day of “anything goes … anywhere.” In the synagogues and yeshivas, rabbis and “honored folk” were satirized and often mocked by artisans, apprentices and students. Through the device of the Purim shpeel (play, theatrics), ordinary people could sass their “betters” and even demand cash contributions. Even the Talmud could be satirized. Popularly chosen “Purim Kings” and “Purim Rabbis” served as masters of revelry and often took the opportunity to voice the grievances of the common people.

The Purim shpeel, originally street theater, became the foundation of the professional Yiddish theater, despite rabbinic prohibitions against masqueing (acting the role of another person) and cross-dressing.

These are the main characters of the Purim story (bold=the King James and Jewish Publication Society biblical spelling; italics=YIVO standard Yiddish transcription):

AHASEURUS (Ah-khash-VEY-rosh)—King of Persia and Media and 127 provinces reaching from India to Ethiopia. Not too smart.

VASHTI (VASH-tee)—Chief Queen of his harem; banished for disobedience. Might inspire other women in the kingdom to defy their husbands. Raised consciousness raises a toast to this early feminist.

ESTHER the Queen (ES-ter ha-MAL-ke)—A Jewish orphan, selected to replace Vashti. Her heroism has been underplayed for too long. By appearing unbidden before the King to plead for her people, and later, to facilitate the Jews’ right to self-defense, she risked instant death.

MORDECAI the Righteous (mord-KHE ha-TZA-dik)—Esther’s kinsman. Nice Jewish boy makes good. Saved his people and became the king’s #1 man. “Only in Persia…”

HAMAN the Wicked (HO-mon Ha-ROSH-e)—The king’s vizier. Mordecai would not bow to him, so Haman hauled out every classic anti-Jewish canard: “They’re different … disobey the laws … besides, eliminating them can be profitable…” (Every word is right there, in the me-GIL-e.)

Some minor characters, favorites in the Purim Shpil: Memucan (Me-MU-khan), one of the King’s seven princes; Parshan-datha, Dalphon, Vajezatha (par-shan-DOS-u, DOL-fin, vay-ZUS-u)—three of Haman’s sons. All four are clowns (“the 4 stooges”), especially the last, whose name became Yiddish slang for a jerk … a twerp … the eternal fool.

Not at all incidentally, notice how different all these names are from our usual conception of biblical names. They’re Persian (Babylonian), not Hebrew. The Purim players thought they sounded hilarious.

IV. ADAPTATIONS FOR NOW

Purim Balls were a feature of immigrant life in the world of our forebears, the major social event of the season. In recent decades, Purim carnivals have become the most popular form of public observance. Queen Esther beauty contests can be deservedly discarded. (But don’t litter.) At some universities, mock scholastic debates are staged on the relative merits of latkes and homontashn.

In strong need of updating and revival:

  • The purim shpeel—a chance to ridicule current Hamans and their henchmen … and to poke fun at the vayzusus we all know and could do without;
  • SHAL-akh MON-es—”sending gifts,” as the megile suggests, to friends and to the poor. (NOTE: at Purim, children were the bearers of these gifts, not the recipients.) Traditional shalakh mones consisted of platefuls of homontashn, fruits, nuts and similar delicacies;
  • The message of the megile—the Jews were saved from Haman’s planned pogrom not by Divine Power (He was on His Vacation), not by special pleading, not even by Mordecai’s wisdom nor Esther’s wise heroism (though they helped) … but by the militant resistance of the people to violent oppression. [Check the Book: it's all there.]

V. AND SPEAKING OF FOOD

We will get to it in a minute. But first, consider the grager. It isn’t merely an accessory of Purim. It is the very symbol of Purim. Its origins seem to be… aw the heck with it… Just gragle whenever that name is read.

And now the food … The Talmud fails to ponder an important question: How did Haman’s pocket become his hat? The indispensable food of Purim is the HO-mon tash (pl. homentashn). The literal meaning (in Yiddish) is “Haman’s pocket.” But, the learned commentators tell us that the shape of the pastry signifies a three cornered hat! It was probably for such knotty problems that the Ancient Sages devised their profound saying: Af a mayse fregt men nit kayn kashes. (“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”) However, if you must ask, the best theory is that poppyseed, called mon in Yiddish, became associated with the evil ho-mon based on the time honored folk etymological principle ‘sounds like…’ Thus a pastry pocket filled with poppyseed (mon tash) came to be called homontash. As for the Haman hat theory, don’t believe it. Three-cornered hats did not come into style until King George III. And he, as we know, was many things, but no Haman.

Pocket or hat, though, the homontash has been raised from its lowly Jewish status in recent decades, starting with its debut in pages of Better Homes and Gardens (March 1976), and has since appeared in even glossier and tonier publications with elaborate “refinements.” These days, even non-Jewish bakeries are known to offer homontashn year round! Lest upscale surroundings traduce the Purim pastry, please bear in mind its inalienable right to be made of cookie (not cake) dough, and that prune (or plum) preserves (poVIDle) were widely used in some areas of Eastern Europe, in addition to the most traditional filling, MOHN, or poppyseed. While other fillings may be acceptable in some culinary precincts, one wonders whether they’re really, well, kosher.

Finally, it should be noted that, in all sobriety, tradition declares: “on Purim it is a mitsve (commandment) to drink ad loy-A-da (until you can’t distinguish …[between]…’blessed be Mordecai’ and ‘cursed be Haman’)”. This permissive attitude gave rise to the Yiddish folk expression that sums up the festival’s topsy-turvy spirit: a gantz yor shiker un purim nikhter—”drunk all year but sober on Purim.”

VI. MISCELLANY

Let us note Purim’s special contribution to the multi-cultural enrichment of American English. While there are actually five scrolls (megiles or megilot) in the Bible—each traditionally associated with a specific holiday and read as part of the liturgy—the Scroll of Esther (megiles ester) was referred to as the megile. Because it tells an involved tale, the Yiddish phrase a gantse megile—a “whole scroll” came into English almost untranslated, meaning, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, “a tedious detailed or embroidered account: told us the whole megillah.”

So where did Purim get its name? Purim means “lots” as it the word “lottery.” Apparently Haman was as superstitious as he was wicked. In order to select the “right” day to carry out his massacre, he cast lots on a calendar and they landed on the 13th day of the month of Adar. What luck! Haman played his little game in Nisan, the first month, and Adar is the twelfth month. So this gave Mordecai and Esther nearly a year to come up with a counter-plan. Ultimately the Jews triumphed over their enemies on the same day that Haman had planned for their extermination. The next day they celebrated, so that is why we celebrate Purim on the 14th day of Adar.

But consider this: in accomplishing this great victory, the megile, or Scroll of Esther, tells us that “the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies.” (Esther 9:5) In the capital city of Shushan, the Jews killed 800 men, including the ten sons of Haman, who were impaled. (Esther 9:6, 14-15) In the provinces the Jews “disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes,” (Esther 9:16) which arguably included women and children. (Esther 8:11) Then they partied.

Since not one single Jewish casualty is recorded, it appears that the Jews did to Haman’s allies more or less what Haman had planned to do to the Jews. Of course, the entire story is fantasy, but it is a revenge fantasy, most likely written at a time when Jews were living under oppressive foreign rule and needed some cheering up. Purim served that purpose well.