© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We received reports that some iPhone users with the latest version of iOS cannot play audio via our website.
While we work to fix the issue, we recommend downloading the WSHU app.

Purim — a festive Jewish holiday with an ending often ignored

Jewish men and children in Purim costumes celebrate in the Mea Shearim ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, on March 18, 2022. The Purim holiday is celebrated with parades and costume parties to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them in the ancient Persian empire 2,500 years ago, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther.
Menahem Kahana
/
AFP via Getty Images
Jewish men and children in Purim costumes celebrate in the Mea Shearim ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, on March 18, 2022. The Purim holiday is celebrated with parades and costume parties to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people from a plot to exterminate them in the ancient Persian empire 2,500 years ago, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther.

The Jewish holiday of Purim begins at sunset, Saturday, March 23. At synagogues across the world, people will read the Book of Esther. But its story of celebration is followed by another, darker chapter — one many Jews are thinking about this year.

Attempted destruction, deliverance, and a celebration

Aaron Koller teaches Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, and has written about the Book of Esther, which tells the Purim story. It's a story that takes place after the destruction of the temple, when Jews were scattered throughout the Persian empire.

"There is an evil advisor to the king, who essentially randomly gets upset at the Jews for no good reason," explains Koller. "He sends out messages throughout the entire kingdom — 11 months from now, everyone should just kill their Jewish neighbors."

But then the king's wife, Esther, reveals that she's Jewish. And the evil advisor, Haman, is killed instead. The story has been told for thousands of years, and it's always sort of a party.

Even in ancient times, Koller says the reading has been accompanied by what he calls a "carnivalesque" atmosphere — drinking, costumes, cross-dressing — that enact the upending of the social order that underlies the story. There are Purim spiels which re-enact the story (with the audience drowning out the name of Haman), often mapping it onto social critiques of the day.

This tradition has continued through to today. Sari Laufer is a rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, which puts on spiels and carnivals.

"We're going to cheer when Esther appears," says Laufer, "and people are in costume — I'm usually in an animal onesie... I've not heard a lot of quiet Megillah readings in my time."

Purim is usually considered kind of a kid's holiday. Haman's plot is foiled, big cheers, big finish. For most Purim plays, and for many Jews, that's the end of the story.

A group of Jewish boys visit homes as they gather tokens that can be exchanged for cash for their respective schools and dance during Purim on March 07, 2023 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
A group of Jewish boys visit homes as they gather tokens that can be exchanged for cash for their respective schools and dance during Purim on March 07, 2023 in London, England.

Chapter 9: The Purim story's surprisingly dark turn

While there's a raucous, joyful celebration, Rabbi Laufer acknowledges the story is more adult than that.

"I really do think it's about power and autonomy," says Laufer. "It's about survival."

And there's another, darker chapter to the story that makes this even clearer — Chapter 9, which doesn't usually make it into the Purim spiels and children's books.

After Haman's plot is foiled, the Jews are actually still in danger — because the king's decree to kill the Jews has gone out, and can't be repealed. So instead, they arm the Jews to let them fight back.

And they do. And they kill 75,000 people across the empire.

From a historical satire to the modern era

Professor Aaron Koller stresses that there are no mentions of this massacre in the histories of that era. The ending is considered a work of satire, a sort of comic revenge fantasy for a people who seldom had actual political or military power.

And there's little evidence that these reenactments of revenge seldom went beyond the metaphorical.

"I'd say maximally there's maybe three or four cases over the course of 1,500 years where something happened on Purim that might not have been a coincidence," says Koller.

Even in religious tradition that codifies debate, this is an issue that rabbis and scholars didn't really wrestle with — likely because it was so known to be a joke. No actual people were harmed in the making of the story.

"It's really only in modern times that people sort of refocus attention on it. And say like, wait a second — this is actually kind of bloodthirsty, and a little bit over the top," says Koller.

And, he says, for good reason.

"You take 2,000 years of fantasy violence and marry it to a real world in which people actually have machine guns, and suddenly it gets really dark."

Vintage color lithograph from 1882 of Haman as he lays his Complaint before Zeresh his wife and all his friends.
duncan1890 / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Vintage color lithograph from 1882 of Haman as he lays his Complaint before Zeresh his wife and all his friends.

Haman is considered to be a descendant of Amalek, the tribe that attacked the Israelites in the desert. And there's a commandment that's read on the Shabbat before Purim to eradicate Amalek and every generation. Rabbi Jill Jacobs heads T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Jacobs notes the Hasidic interpretation that Amalek is our own worse impulses, so "this commandment to wipe out Amalek is not about going out and doing something to people externally, but rather it's a challenge to wipe out this evil inclination that might be pushing us personally, each of us, to do the wrong thing."

But Jacobs notes there are sadly those in recent eras who have taken this not as satire or metaphor, but literally.

Professor Aaron Koller points to Nazis like Julius Streicher who read Chapter 9 as evidence that the Jews were bloodthirsty, and should be eradicated before they attacked. And thirty years ago Baruch Goldstein, an extremist Israeli settler, murdered Muslim worshippers in Hebron — an attack carried out intentionally on Purim.

"And it's also more recently been invoked by Prime Minister Netanyahu also as a justification for killing Palestinians," says Jacobs.

Reckoning with Chapter 9

It may be no surprise that some Jews gloss over this final chapter. Or don't even know it exists. But Yehuda Kurtzer, who heads the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research center based in New York and Jerusalem, says the fact that something is hard to read doesn't mean you sanitize it. You read it — and think about the consequences.

"The bulk of the book until chapter nine is this parody, or a satire, of the horrors of vulnerability," says Kurtzer. "And then the horror of the ninth chapter is what you do when you actually get power at your disposal."

With the Israeli Government reporting 12 hundred people killed on October 7th, and the Gaza Ministry of Health reporting nearly 32 thousand Palestinians killed since, many people are feeling the horrors of all the chapters.

"I know some of my Israeli friends have a hard time engaging in that conversation, because they feel that they're closer to the fourth chapter of Esther. They feel that they're in a place of vulnerability and that the agency and power that they have available to themselves is the kind that you use to defend yourself... as opposed to the kind that constitutes perpetrating something terrible," says Kurtzer. "So I'm doing what Jews do in these kind of places, which is just be anxious."

The Talmud says that on Purim, people are supposed to get so drunk that they can't tell the difference between the hero of the story, and the villain. It's usually read as reinforcing the whole carnival atmosphere. But Kurtzer says it could also be showing that the lines between good and evil aren't as clear as people might want. And that's the story of the whole megillah.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deena Prichep