Saturday, March 19, 2011

8 Interesting Facts About Purim

This weekend, the Jewish calendar turns to the Purim festival. Purim is a trickster holiday in that it is a time of jokes, riddles, masks and merriment. While not everyone celebrates Purim or even knows about it, it is a fairly popular holiday. I myself celebrated Purim as a child in Hebrew School and knew that it related to the biblical book of Esther, but I was not aware of the rich symbolic and mystical traditions and legends surrounding it. I also did not have the opportunity to explore the biblical and scholarly texts with the feminist and renewalist perspective I do today. So to help you celebrate Purim, here are 8 interesting Purim facts for your pleasure!

1 - Purim and Yom Kippur are Related Holidays

While many Jews don't consider Purim to be one of the "major" holidays, it has a special significance and is actually considered so sacred that it is related to what many consider the most sacred Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur. In fact, some believe that when the Jewish Messiah comes, Purim is the only holiday that will continue to be celebrated. The holidays even sound a bit similar, and many believe this is because Yom Kippur is named for Purim.

"Purim" means lots in Persian and refers to the lots that Haman, the book of Esther's antagonist, used in order to decide which day carry out his plan of genocide. Yom ha-Kippurim means, "a day like Purim". For believers, there is a sense that our fates hang in the balance on Yom Kippur. Our fate is being decided by God. And on Purim, we celebrate God giving us victory and survival.

Still think the two holidays aren't that closely related? Consider that Yom Kippur happens around the fall equinox, while Purim happens around the spring equinox. Note that equinoxes represent balance between complementary forces, as the time of daylight and night are balanced. In the same vein, Yom Kippur is a time of uncomfortable shoes, white shirts called kittels which one would eventually be buried in, fasting, guilt, and prayers. Purim is a day of costumes, feasting, drunkenness for many (though not all, as not all are able or willing to observe the tradition to drink until one cannot tell the difference between the phrases "Blessed is Mordechai," and "Cursed is Haman"), jokes and other merry activities.

2 - Purim is a Pagan Holiday

I figured as much. I think all "monotheistic" holidays date back to older Pagan ones, and Purim is no exception. There is a an excellent article at which I highly suggest you read. It discusses possible origins of Purim as well as the etymology of the names Purim, Mordechai, and Esther.

Some believe Mordechai and Esther are versions of the names of ancient Assyrian deities Isthar and Marduk. Author of "The Pagan Temple Blog" highlights the similarities between the Christian festival of Easter, the ancient Pagan festival of springtime featuring the Goddess Eoster, and the Purim hero's name Esther. I will not delve much in the ancient connections between these holidays, but I highly suggest you read the information on both of these links.

3 - Purim is a Green Holiday

These days, many people are interested in learning how to make their holiday celebrations more eco-friendly. But it may be surprising to learn that green is symbolic of the Jewish month Adar itself, as well as the Purim festival.

The Talmud states that Esther, like the hadassah or myrtle plant, was green. There are several explanations given for this simile, and one is that Esther had a very balanced personality, which contained elements of the fiery yellow sun and the cool blue sea. Because she was so balanced, she was able to relate to anyone on a spiritual or emotional level.

Green is an appropriate color for the festival that happens in spring and may be based on an ancient spring fertility celebration. The word "green" is actually related to the old English verb "growan", which was used in reference to both plants as well as the ocean.

4 - Purim is a Vegetarian Holiday

It is said that Queen Esther kept a vegetarian diet while she was in King Ahasuerus/Achashverosh/Xerxes's palace in order to make sure her food was as kosher.

5 - Purim is a Fishy Holiday

Sorry, vegetarians. One of Queen Esther's qualities was balance, her color being symbolic of the union of sun and ocean. Speaking of oceans, Purim is associated with astrological sign of Pisces. It may surprise you to know that many rabbis made use of associations with different astrological signs, and they relate to the 12 tribes of Israel as well. Once again, we can see several allusions in this.

The story goes that Haman chose the month of Adar to cast lots because he knew that Moses's death was in the month of Adar. But he did not know that Moses's birth was also in the month of Adar, making the month lucky. Moses is associated with Pisces because he spent time in a basket while he was in the nile waiting to be saved. In fact, his name refers to the expression, "drawn from the water".

Purim is also a holiday which features the themes of riddles, jokes, balances, counterbalances, complements and opposites. Pisces is an astrological sign which contains mirror images; Gemini also features these mirror images in the form of twins.

6 - Purim is a Political Holiday

Purim has always been controversial, both among Jews and Non-Jews. For example, it was only in 397 C.E. that a formal decision was made to accept the Greek version of the Book of Esther into the Christian Bible. Christians chose to see Esther as a symbol of the church, while Haman represented Judaism. Vashti, who also had negative associations, was meant to represent the Synagogue.

Even this was still not enough removed from it's original Jewish context for some. Martin Luther, a religious revolutionary and virulent anti-semite, once said, "I am so Esther that I wish it did not exist at all; for it Judaizes too much and has heathen perverseness." The book of Esther, unlike many other books in the Bible, specifically talks about anti-semitism and persecution of Jews in other lands. Many Jews feared it would incite anti-semites into being more violent, and many anti-semites felt it troublesome to have a biblical book which so specifically rebuked them for their actions.

In 16th century Venice, Catholics were attending Purim celebrations to get a break from the heavy mood of Lent, and some worried the holiday fun might entice good Catholics to stray from the church.

Abraham Geiger, a 19th century Reformist, noted that the book of Esther held "bad taste and mean feelings." Reformist Schalom ben Chorin actually suggested, in 1938, that Purim be abandoned as a festival altogether. To learn more about this, and to find information sources, click here.

Unfortunately, you can find plenty of websites today that use Purim as an example "justifying" their anti-semitism. I won't link to them because I don't want to give them web traffic, but you can find them for yourself if you are so inclined.

Studying Judaism in these past few years has given me more ambivalence about the bloody and vengeful aspects of the Bible and commentaries. On the one hand, vengeance is rarely, if ever, the answer, no matter how understandable it is. And yet - it is understandable. I have rarely felt or experienced anti-semitism in my life. While I have known the stories from my family, what I have experienced most is anti-African racism from my family, my community, and the world at large.

So I forgot. I forgot that I still live in a world where many people hold anti-semitic prejudices, and where some would do us harm if they could, regardless of whether we even consider ourselves Jewish. It is a world where many would co-opt our heritage to suit their own ends and justify their violence towards us. This doesn't mean it's okay to indulge in vengeance (although I'm glad I've never been in a position where my loved ones had been harmed and had to grapple with the burning rage for vengeance), but ... I'm not sure what it means, but it means something.

Next topic.

7 - Purim is a Catholic Holiday

Many Jews had to hide their religion and ethnicity at different times in history, and this was especially true of Spanish Jews in the middle ages. Sometimes called conversos, marranos, or anusim, these were secret Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism, but continued to hold to their traditions in secret. One of the customs they used in order to hide their religion was to celebrate Jewish holidays before or after the official date. The festival of Purim took on a special significance for them because it entailed the story of Queen Esther, who had had to hide her identity for years in order to save her own life and that of her people.

Over time, the "secret Jews" developed a practice of fasting on Purim. Purim became of holiday of solemnity and repentance, much like Yom Kippur. There's that Yom Kippur connection again - the balance and paradox, the dichotomous and complementary aspect of the two holidays.

Since the Inquisition did not stay in Europe, but followed Jews to Middle and South America, many "secret" Jews from Spain, to the American Southwestern state of New Mexico, down to Peru, still follow unique Jewish customs. One of these customs includes making offerings to Catholic Saint they hold in very high regard - Saint Esther. I urge you to click here to read more about this.

8 - Purim is a Feminist Holiday

When I grew up, Vashti was presented as an uppity wife who refused to do as her husband said. Definitely not a good woman - y'know, bein' uppity an' all. She even gets a bad shake in the Midrash, which presents her as a vain, immoral woman with leprosy.

Well, it seems I'm not the only woman (or man) who's realized that Vashti took a courageous stand for her human dignity, and women are starting to incorporate Vashti as a feminist hero/hera/heroine/shero.

In fact, some see a connection between anti-semitism and misogyny expressed in the Purim story. In fact, feminist politics may be covertly, or "maskedly" (not a real word), included in the story. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center writes:

My own reading of the Megillah is that it is made up of two intertwined jokes -- very powerful, and in one case bloody, but jokes nevertheless. The second one is the one we all have learned -- what Haman wants to do to the Jews is what happens to him, and he brings it on his own head. That's the bloody joke. The FIRST one (it starts earlier in the story) is that Ahasuerus's decision that no woman is going to tell him what to do puts into motion the train of affairs that ends by his doing EXACTLY what Esther tells him to do. Structurally, this is the same joke as the first one.

In addition to focusing on understanding, integrating and transforming the aspects of the collective rage of victimized Jews, some liberal Jewish groups are using Purim as a time to dedicate to peace, interfaith dialogue, and inviting Non-Jews to Megillah readings.

Some Chavuras (prayer groups) have adopted Esther/Vashti Purim flags in the customary reading of the Megillat Esther (book of Esther) on Purim. It is tradition to use "gragers", or noisemakers, to block out the name of Haman during the reading. Now, some people are using Esther/Vashti flags and bells to wave and ring to celebrate female power when the names of Esther and Vashti are read.

There is also a customary "Fast of Esther", known in Hebrew as "Ta'anit Esther", which is not as well known as the holiday itself. The Fast of Esther commemorates Esther and the Jewish community's biblical three-day fast in the Megillah. Some have begun using this holiday to donate time to a womens' shelters, home-building, and other charitable activities. This is all in keeping with the traditional holiday practices, which feature charity in various forms. You can read more about this by clicking here.

I hope this has been an informative Purim article for you, and I wish you a Purim Sameach!


  1. well that's a lot of info there and interestingly organized! BTW I think u meant Yom HaKippurim - i.e. a holiday like Purim. What's also interesting is - I was predicting that the Vashti section might go in a different direction being under the rubric of feminism as some ppl tend to take it but I'm glad it went the way it did :). I heard about the pagan theories before but personally I don't buy into it. The sages would not have included Megillat Esther in the Tanach if it was not based on truth. How about Mordechai's and Esther's burial plots being known as well as the discovery of ancient Shushan? So then why do these pagan connections look similar? H-shem allows them to appear that way so that we have free will to choose to believe that they are the origin of Purim or not.
    Purim Sameach!!!
    Esther Asna

  2. Thank you so much for posting Esther Asna, Purim Sameach!!!