Purim: A Wacky Tribute to Life
The Talmud's advice for this holiday: get drunk.
March 15, 2014 - 6:00 am
The wackiest of the many holidays on the Jewish calendar is Purim, which falls this year on Saturday evening and Sunday (and a day later in Jerusalem). Purim commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from a genocidal decree of the Persian Empire sometime in the 5th century BCE. Its story is told in the Book of Esther, the last of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible to be canonized.
Purim, as laid down in the ninth chapter of Esther two and a half millennia ago, is a joyous day, marked by a festive meal, the sending of food gifts, the giving of charity, and the public reading of Esther (mostly in synagogues, though in Israel you can tune into synagogue readings on TV). The Talmud even tells you to get drunk on Purim until you can’t tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” (the villain of the Book of Esther, who is eventually hanged) and “blessed be Mordechai” (a good guy, who eventually becomes the king’s second-in-command).
At some point in medieval times Purim also became a costume holiday. While, in today’s Diaspora, Purim is mostly celebrated by observant Jews, in today’s Israel it’s a countrywide event and you can see colorful, often bizarre costumes everywhere, along with carnival processions on city streets (a custom begun in a then brand-new city, Tel Aviv, in 1912).
Purim is a nationalistic holiday that enshrines survival and the defeat of enemies, and in the 20th century it won some strange resonances.
On October 16, 1946, the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, who was convicted in the Nuremberg Trials for inciting genocide, remarked as he was being led to the gallows: “Purimfest 1946.” In 1953, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was making genocidal plans for Soviet Jewry. Those plans were shelved, though, when he suffered a stroke (dying a few days later) on March 1—which, that year, was Purim.
In the Purim story, the genocidal threat to the Jews comes from the Persian imperial regime, and specifically from Haman, the Jew-hating grand vizier. Israelis are aware of a striking parallel with today’s situation, in which the current Persian—or Iranian—regime has been waging a campaign to destroy Israel since taking power in 1979.
There are some significant differences as well. Haman’s boss, King Ahasuerus (probably the historical Xerxes I), has no particular beef against the Jews. He is, though, a mercurial, impressionable sort, and it’s Haman who talks him into ordering the killing of all the Jews in the empire. The current Iranian regime is, by contrast, ideologically committed to antisemitism. And whereas, in the Purim story, the Jews are dispersed throughout the empire and have not yet consolidated the Second Jewish Commonwealth in the Land of Israel, today’s Iranian regime has its sights set on what has been called the Third Jewish Commonwealth—a powerful, sovereign state that Iran knows it cannot hope to eradicate without intensive military efforts.
And yet, again, certain common features are striking. What stokes Haman’s ire at the Jews is the refusal of Mordechai—adoptive cousin of Esther, the king’s wife—to bow down to him. As Haman darkly complains to King Ahasuerus in Esther 3:8:
There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them.
For the current Iranian regime, the intolerable affront is simply the Jewish state’s sovereign existence in what is supposed to be an exclusively Muslim (preferably Shiite) domain. The intended sentence for the transgression is the same—death.
And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.
So it says in Esther 9:28, and indeed, “these days” (the regular day of Purim and the additional day, now marked only in Jerusalem) have been celebrated ever since. In the Purim story, the king’s death sentence on the Jews gets lifted when his wife, Esther—whom he did not know until then to be Jewish—successfully pleads her people’s case and makes him realize that Haman is “wicked.” And once again, on Purim 2014 (5774), Israel will be a riot of color, songs, stories, plays, parades, and general hilarity, a madcap tribute to life.
And just as in Esther’s day, the will to destroy remains part of the landscape. As the Iranian regime’s minion, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, put it a few years ago:
The Jews love life, so that is what we shall take away from them. We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.
It’s known as “the Middle East conflict.”