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Wendy Zierler

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2016

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The Enduring Value of "These Days of Purim"

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Wendy Zierler

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The Enduring Value of "These Days of Purim"

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2016

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https://thetorah.com/article/the-enduring-value-of-these-days-of-purim

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לְקַיֵּם אֵת יְמֵי הַפֻּרִים

The Enduring Value of "These Days of Purim"

The megillah emphasizes the ongoing obligation to observe Purim, and Maimonides asserts that it will endure even into the messianic age. Yet many modern Jewish thinkers have questioned this holiday’s continued relevance. What value does Purim continue to hold?

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The Enduring Value of "These Days of Purim"

 Purim Festival in Holon, Israel 2011. Avishai Teicher via the PikiWiki

The Enduring Obligation to Celebrate Purim

Esther 9 describes the birth of the Purim festival. After the defeat of Haman and his minions, Mordechai sends letters (ספרים) to all the lands under Persian rule, telling all Jews that the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar are to be Jewish holidays characterized by feasting, mishloah manot (gifts of food), and charity. Verse 23 announces that the Jews accept this obligation: 

 וְקִבֵּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֵת אֲשֶׁר הֵחֵלּוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב מָרְדֳּכַי אֲלֵיהֶם
The Jews accordingly assumed as an obligation that which they had begun to practice and which Mordecai prescribed for them.

Verse 27 repeats this, stressing that the obligation to celebrate Purim applies not only to the Persian Jews of this time but to all Jews for all time:

קִיְּמוּ וקבל (וְקִבְּלוּ) הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל-זַרְעָם וְעַל כָּל-הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר-לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם בְּכָל-שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה.
The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to the writing thereof, and according to the appointed time thereof, every year.

And verse 28 reiterates this once again, at greater length:

וְהַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה נִזְכָּרִים וְנַעֲשִׂים בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדוֹר מִשְׁפָּחָה וּמִשְׁפָּחָה מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וְעִיר וָעִיר וִימֵי הַפּוּרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֹא יַעַבְרוּ מִתּוֹךְ הַיְּהוּדִים וְזִכְרָם לֹא-יָסוּף מִזַּרְעָם.
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.

Here the declaration concerning “these Purim days” comes replete with rhyme (נִזְכָּרִים וְנַעֲשִׂים /זִכְרָםזַּרְעָם), word doubling (מִשְׁפָּחָה וּמִשְׁפָּחָה, מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה, עִיר וָעִיר), and a florid statement about how these days will never “perish” from the people’s seed.

And then, in verse 29, Esther writes her own book or letter, which is confirmed and accepted by the people. The same basic point is repeated over and over again.[1] 

Maimonides: The Book of Esther Will Endure into the Messianic Age

In Hilkhot Megillah 2:18, Maimonides extends this assertion about the enduringly recurrent nature of Purim observance to a statement about the longstanding nature of the Book of Esther in contrast to other books in the Bible, which will eventually be decanonized: [2]

כל ספרי הנביאים וכל הכתובים עתידין ליבטל לימות המשיח חוץ ממגילת אסתר הרי היא קיימת כחמשה חומשי תורה וכהלכות של תורה שבעל פה שאינן בטלין לעולם, ואע”פ שכל זכרון הצרות יבטל שנאמר (ישעיהו ס”ה) כי נשכחו הצרות הראשונות וכי נסתרו מעיני, ימי הפורים לא יבטלו שנאמר(אסתר ט’) וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים וזכרם לא יסוף מזרעם.
All the books of the Prophets and all the Writings will be annulled in the days of the Messiah, apart from Megillat Esther. It will continue to be binding like the Five Books of Moses and the entire Oral Law, which will never be invalidated. Even though all memory of our suffering will be erased, as is says in Isaiah 65, because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from Mine eyes, still the days of Purim will not be annulled, as it is written, these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.

Like the repetitive statements in Esther 9 stressing the perpetual nature of Purim, this statement by Maimonides on the distinctive longevity of the Book of Esther seems overblown and incomprehensible to boot. What does it even mean to say that only Esther, the most diasporic, least God-centered book in the Bible, will endure into the messianic age? What does it mean to say that even when the memory of prior suffering is erased, remembrance and observance of these days of Purim will be repeated every year? Why this anxious need to reiterate the significance and relevance of this holiday and its founding text?

Repetition in Esther

To be sure, repetition is characteristic of the Book of Esther as a whole, not just of these verses in chapter 9. As Susan Niditch notes, one of the distinctive features of the book of Esther is the “tendency to say the same things two or three or four times”; this may be seen in expressions such as “destroy, slay and annihilate” or “fasting, weeping and wailing.”[3]

One might go so far as to say that overwriting is the aesthetic principle in the Book of Esther. A full eight verses at the beginning of the Megillah are dedicated to a description of the feasting that Ahasuerus indulged in at the beginning of the story. Insofar as the entire book is built up around symmetries and reversals, the thing and its opposite, it makes sense that at this juncture of the story, when the Jews are now promulgating their own annual feast, a similar eight-verse unit be dedicated to discussing it.

That said, unlike other forms of exaggeration and repetition in the Book of Esther that increase the comic or farcical quality of the text, the nature of this repeated material is solemn and earnest, with a legal tone, and thus of a different ilk. One might go so far as to suggest that the repetitions found in chapter 9 suggest a certain anxiety about adding this new holiday to the Jewish calendar and the need to provide a rationale to make it stick. What is it then about Purim—its spirit, its message, its story—that we are being enjoined so insistently to keep and commemorate until the end of days?

A Talmudic Tale Questions the Celebration of Purim

“They tried to kill us, we beat them, let’s eat!” We’re all familiar with this terse encapsulation of the meaning of the Jewish holidays. In the case of Purim, it’s “let’s eat and drink” or “let’s eat and get drunk.” Or “let’s get totally plastered,” an idea that is enacted and then questioned in a famous talmudic passage found in BT Megillah 7b:[4]

אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי. רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי, איבסום, קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא. למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה. לשנה אמר ליה: ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי! – אמר ליה: לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא.
Rava said: a person is obligated to drink on Purim until he can’t tell the difference between Cursed be Haman and Blessed be Mordechai. Rava and R. Zeirah were having the Purim seudah (meal) together. Rava got drunk and slaughtered R. Zeira. The next day, he petitioned God, who resurrected R. Zeira. The next year, Rava again asked R. Zeira if he wanted to make the Purim seudah together with him. R. Zeira said, “Miracles do not happen on every occasion.”

In the context of this story, a drunk talmudic sage cuts the throat of his friend, another talmudic sage. A miracle happens—like the Purim “miracle”—in which the doomed Jews are saved. R. Zeira is brought back to life, but having been resurrected from this disaster, he decides the following year that he does not want to take the same chance again. In effect, R. Zeira decides that  “these days of Purim” are not going to be observed the same way year in and year out. Echoing the word doubling in the Book of Esther—מִשְׁפָּחָה וּמִשְׁפָּחָה, מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה, עִיר וָעִיר (every family, every province, every city)—he propounds that miracles do not occur בכל שעתא ושעתא, on every occasion. And if the reckless carnival spirit of Purim is what we are meant to observe unfailingly every year, R. Zeirah opts out.

The Modern Period: Questioning the Obligation

R. Zeira was not the only educated Jew to express reservations about Purim observance. In Reckless Rites, Elliott Horowitz offers an in-depth study of Jewish attitudes toward Purim from the Middle Ages to the modern period, noting the revulsion that many Jews, especially moderns, have demonstrated toward this holiday.[5]

Claude Montefiore

Claude Montefiore (1858–1938), a leading figure in Anglo-Jewry, great-nephew of the renowned Moses Montefiore (1784–1885), and founder of the scholarly journal Jewish Quarterly Review (for which Horowitz is now an editor), expressed strong reservations about the violent, vindictive, and indecorous nature of Esther and Purim. Montefiore thus asserted in his book Liberal Judaism that “the only non-Pentateuchal holiday that was likely to maintain itself was Hannukah.”[6]

Schalom Ben Chorin

Similarly, in 1938, Schalom Ben Chorin, a twenty-five-year-old German-Jewish immigrant to Palestine, published a polemical pamphlet in which he called for the elimination of both the Book of Esther and Purim from Jewish life, since both are “unworthy of a people which is disposed to bring about its national regeneration under prodigious sacrifice.”[7]

Y. L. Peretz

The great Yiddish and Hebrew writer Y. L. Peretz, based in Warsaw, went so far as to dub Purim a “fever”—at best, an occasion to “dance on the grave of former national glory”:

Purim is no holiday. Fever is no illness.
There is no reason to envy one who trembles with fever, and even less so, to envy a people whose holiday is Purim.
Not because the salvation doesn’t come from the hands of a man. Miracles aren’t required—one can use suspenders to hold up one’s pants. And there’s no shame in a Deborah, a Yael, or a Judith.
To Esther we owe thanks for the first victory won not against, but under, foreign rule.
Purim is the anniversary of the first “protected Jews,” the first who were close to the sovereign, the first disclosing of a secret, and the first “making of a bed” for a king.
Purim is a joyous day for beggars, klezmer musicians, masqueraders … and for the nation like them!
Dance on strange beds, wretched soul, on the grave of your former glory—drink and forget, if you can![8]

Montefiore’s reservations about Purim are assimilationist in nature, reflecting a desire to eliminate materials and rituals that show disdain for gentiles so that Jews and gentiles can get along better together and foster mutual respect. In contrast, Ben Chorin’s and Peretz’s objections to Purim relate to the exilic nature of the holiday and its canonization of Jewish vulnerability, obsequiousness, and subservience—in short, nothing of which modern Jews can be proud.

Yehudah Amichai

Yet another objection to the book of Esther finds expression in a well-known poem by Yehudah Amichai in which he describes his having compiled a new, censored Bible, comprised only of the parts that he likes or can tolerate, beginning with a more refined version of the Book of Esther:

סיננתי מתוך מגילת אסתר את משקע
השמחה הגסה, ומתוך ירמיהו 
את יללת הכאב במעיים. ומתוך
שיר השירים את חיפוש האין סופי
אחר האהבה ומספר בראשית את
החלומות ואת קין ומתוך קוהלת את
הייאוש ומתוך ספר איוב את איוב.
והדבקתי לי מן השאריות ספר תנ”ך חדש.
אני חי מצונזר ומודבק ומוגבל ובשלוה.
אשה אחת שאלה אותי אמש ברחוב
החשוך על שלום אשה אחרת
שמתה לא בעתה ולא בעתו של אף אחד.
מתוך עייפות גדולה עניתי לה:
שלומה טוב, שלומה טוב.[9]
I’ve filtered out of the Book of Esther the residue
of vulgar joy and out of the Book of Jeremiah
the howl of pain in the guts. And out of the 
Song of Songs the endless search for love,
and out of the Book of Genesis, the dreams
and Cain and out of Ecclesiastes
the despair and out of the Book of Job—Job.
And from what was left over I pasted for myself a new Bible.
Now I live censored and pasted and limited and in peace.
A woman asked me last night in the darkened street
about the well-being of another woman
who had died before her time, and not in anyone’s time.
Out of great tiredness I answered her:
She’s fine, she’s fine.[10]

Unlike Montefiore’s, Ben Chorin’s, and Peretz’s unequivocal repudiations of Purim and Esther, Amichai’s poem admits the cost of cutting, pasting, and censoring the Bible and Jewish practice so as to do away with anything that might trouble us or grate against our modern sensibilities. Such a Bible is bowdlerized, limited, and incomplete. Like the false answer that the tired speaker gives in response to the question about a mutual friend who has passed away too young, this censored Bible constitutes a lie, a forgetting. In fact, life can be this guarded, peaceful, and “fine” (reiterated twice, in the final line of the poem) only when one is dead.

The poem suggests that this sort of Bible, and by extension, this sort of Jewish life, would not be much of a Bible or a Jewish life. Implied by Amichai’s poem is the need for a Bible as well as a way of living that is engaged and honest about the unpleasant, discomfiting truth of the world and of our many sacred texts.

We return then to our initial question, but reframed: What is it about Purim that merits repeated reassertion and preservation as an enduring truth in modern times and beyond?

Purim and the Persistence of Anti-Semitism

One common explanation for the persistence of Purim relates to the ongoing fact of Jewish vulnerability and the persistent evil of anti-Semitism, which inheres in the connection between Haman the Aggagite, King Aggag of Amalek (1 Samuel 15), and the continuing custom of reading Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17–19) on the Shabbat before Purim. Corresponding with the reiterated need to observe these Purim days is the continuing awareness of the possibility of Amalekite evil in every generation; hence Irving (Yitz) Greenberg’s Peretz-like designation of Purim as the most “depressing holiday in the Jewish calendar.”[11]  “Is it an exaggeration,” Greenberg asks, after the manner of Peretz, “to see in celebration of Purim a substratum of despair? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow Mordecai may be hanged and a new Haman may be enthroned.”[12]

While I concede this undercurrent of despair, I have trouble reconciling it with an obligation to hold an annual celebration, unless we say that, in keeping with the theme of masquerade,[13] the whole holiday is a kind of sham, a momentary disguising of dark reality over which we have but fleeting, illusory, ritual control.

Purim: The Holiday of Human Action

Let me offer a different explanation. Purim merits repeated reassertion and preservation as an enduring truth in modern times and beyond not merely because it serves as a yearly reminder of Jewish vulnerability in exile and our gratitude for all the salvation that chance has sent our way but because it is the holiday of human action.

All the other biblical holidays are commanded by God, sanctified by God, tied in some way to the natural processes of the land. Purim, in contrast, is an urban holiday and is completely human centered.

Unlike Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, there are no prohibitions (מצוות לא תעשה) associated with Purim, only positive commandments. Even the commandment to fast on Ta’anit Esther (the day before Purim) can be seen as a form of taking action, marking the biblical Esther’s first foray into the realm of activism on behalf of her previously unacknowledged people.

Chanukah, our other extra-Pentateuchal holiday, places limits or prohibitions on activity, insisting that הנרות הללו קדש הם ואין לנו רשות להשתמש בהם—these candles are holy and cannot be used for any but ritual purposes.[14]

Purim, in contrast, emphasizes action, even excess, over restriction.

In the spirit of the repetitive Book of Esther, I’ll say it again: What makes Purim so distinctive is that it is the holiday of human action.

Chanukah, of course, is historically connected to the holy Temple in Jerusalem, whereas Purim commemorates a secular story that takes place in the secular banquet halls and royal court of Persia. The story and observance of Purim are entirely dependent on human involvement, improvisation, thinking on one’s feet.

There is no burning bush in the Book of Esther. No outstretched arm of God. No plagues from heaven and no manna. Mordechai dons sackcloth, Esther fasts and plans and takes her life into her own hands. The Jews of Shushan wage war against their enemy, wipe them out, and institute a new festival. Esther and Mordechai need to use whatever human means they have at their disposal to combat evil and save their own.

A Clear and Unambiguous Call for Action

In chapter 4, Mordechai calls upon Esther to act on behalf of her people:

יג וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי לְהָשִׁיב אֶל אֶסְתֵּר אַל תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל הַיְּהוּדִים.
13 Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.
יד כִּי אִם הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.
14 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. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Esther responds:

טז לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם גַּם אֲנִי וְנַעֲרֹתַי אָצוּם כֵּן וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר לֹא כַדָּת וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי אָבָדְתִּי
16 “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

In marked contrast to the rest of the Megillah, which includes excess verbiage at every turn, Mordechai’s call to Esther and her response are both remarkably pithy and direct in their representation of the need for demonstrations of Jewish communal responsibility. The only repetition here is of the word “אבדתי,” justified as a means of underscoring the danger of acting against the laws of the king.  It is similarly noteworthy that whereas much of the Book of Esther is characterized by a prevalence of the passive voice, suggesting an environment in which things happen willy-nilly, chapter 9, which refers to the institution of Purim, chiefly includes active verbs, including ‏לְקַיֵּם (to ordain or uphold), לקבל (to accept), and ‏לַעֲשׂוֹת (to do).

We are enjoined to commemorate Purim every year and into the messianic age, as it were, precisely because this holiday commemorates human action in a world where the workings of God are unclear and ambiguous at best.  It illustrates that quietism and reliance on others—even on God—is never an adequate response to injustice. 

Addendum:

Sharing the Action: Women and Men Alike

Purim is the holiday of action, but equally important, I would argue, is that this action and activism require the involvement of the entire community, men and women alike.[15]

The Book of Esther tells a redemptive story in which a man and woman work together to save their community. Thus, in chapter 9, Mordechai writes his letters promulgating the holiday (וַיִּכְתֹּב) and then Esther writes her own letters confirming this (וַתִּכְתֹּב). Rather than viewing the reference to Esther’s letters as yet another dizzying repetition, consider it a literary mark of inclusion, a reiterated writing that connotes the participation of the entire community.

The Only Two Women who Wrote in the Bible: Esther and Jezebel

It bears mentioning that the verb וַתִּכְתֹּב, “and she wrote,” appears only twice in the Bible; the other instance occurs in a less than laudable story about another queen, the evil Jezebel, who writes letters (ספרים) in order to illegally expropriate a vineyard from a man named Nabot for her husband, Ahab (I Kings 21:8). This is a corrupt form of writing by a corrupt, evil queen. She and her evil husband Ahab collaborate in sordid, reprehensible ways.

Enter Queen Esther, who takes back the verb וַתִּכְתֹּב and rewrites it, so to speak, to stand for the righteous, beneficial use of power and the written word.[16] Chapter 9, verse 25, relates that it was Esther who reversed the whole course of this narrative from tragedy to comedy: “But when she came before the king, he [Ahasuerus] commanded by letters that his wicked device, which he had devised against the Jews, should return upon his own head; and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.” Following this, Esther herself writes letters to affirm the new holiday.

The Reversal in Women’s Power

Finally, the chapter closes with a reference to מאמר אסתרthe commandment or saying of Esther, a stunning reversal of the norm that had been instituted in Persia in the aftermath of Vashti’s refusal to appear at the king’s banquet. At the end of chapter 1, a ruling goes out “that every man should bear rule in his own house, and speak according to the language of his people” (1:32). In the wake of Vashti’s disobedience, women throughout the kingdom are effectively silenced by their husbands. But here, at the close of chapter 9, it is the speech and writing of a woman, wife, and queen that rings out and prevails above all.

Esther acts and then helps write a directive that keeps evolving and ramifying in every successive generation, as this literary–feminist reading of the Megillah is meant to demonstrate. With Mordechai, she helps institute a holiday that celebrates action and activism and the enduring nature of the Jewish people despite the vicissitudes of fortune, that places sharing and caring for others at the center of the celebration, and that demonstrates that men and women can lead and write and inspire together.

All this is what needs to be repeated, in various circles of influence of practice, for years and years to come:

וְהַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה נִזְכָּרִים וְנַעֲשִׂים
And these days should be remembered and kept
בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדוֹר מִשְׁפָּחָה וּמִשְׁפָּחָה
throughout every generation, every family,
מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וְעִיר וָעִיר וִימֵי הַפּוּרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֹא יַעַבְרוּ מִתּוֹךְ הַיְּהוּדִים וְזִכְרָם לֹא-יָסוּף מִזַּרְעָם.
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.

Published

March 17, 2016

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Last Updated

September 23, 2019

Footnotes

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Professor Wendy Zierler is the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. and her M.A. from Princeton University and her B.A. from Stern College (YU). She is the author of And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Hebrew Women’s Writing