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Holy Days

Purim (The Day of Mordechai)

Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus, both near and far, to ask them to establish the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, each year, as days on which the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned to them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day: they should keep these days as days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the needy.

-Esther 9:20-22

What is the holiday about?

Purim celebrates the Book of Esther and the account therein of the Israelites being saved from destruction. The story is exciting and short, so it will not be summarized here: if you are not familiar with it then go read it!

Is the Purim story true?

Our current text of the book of Esther is certainly edited from the original story.

It appears that the names of most of the characters have been changed. Herodotus records that the wife of Xerxes I (Ahasuerus in Hebrew) was named Amestris. Although this name is similar enough to the Hebrew text's "Esther" to allow us to believe the same person is referred to, the name Esther sounds even more like the name of the Babylonian god Ishtar. (Esther's original, Hebrew name of Hadassah means "myrtle" in Hebrew.) In fact most of the names in the story have apparently been changed to reflect an incident in Persian religious history. 160 years before the reign of Xerxes I, at about the same time that Nebuchadnezzar took the people of Judah captive, the Persians completely wiped out the Elamite civilization east of Babylon. In that part of the Persian Empire, Babylonian mythology triumphed over the indigenous Elamite mythology. In Babylonian mythology, Marduk and Ishtar are cousins (as are Mordecai and Esther), and Persian culture invented a holiday which in part was about these gods triumphing over the old Elamite gods Haman and Vashti. It seems that the Purim story was edited to mimic this Persian holiday.

Why would editing happen? The answer is found in rabbinical commentary on verse 4:14, which sounds a lot like an edit to tactfully remove a mention of God: Mordecai tells Esther, "No, if you persist in remaining silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place." Jewish tradition claims that the story never mentions the name of God because the author did not want the pagan Persians to make use of the story if it included mention of the God of Israel. This is a strange explanation! Why would the non-Jewish Persians make use of the story?

Another second factual problem with the current text is that if Mordecai was deported by Nebuchadnezzar, as Esther 2:6 claims, then he would have been about 150 years old by the third year of the reign of Xerxes I. Apparently verse 2:6 contains an edit intended to remind the reader of the time of the Exile's beginning—also the time of the defeat of the Elamite gods Haman and Vashti by the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar.

We have no reason to doubt that the events of the Purim story are historical, but apparently these events resonated with non-Jewish Persians and their Persian holiday about the defeat of the Elamite religion. An editor then decided it was better to adapt the text to cater to the needs of non-Jewish Persians than to keep the original text.

Such edits would also serve an important purpose. Throughout the book of Esther, God behaves in ways quite true to his character and quite distinct from the way mythological gods behave:

In its original form the story would be for a Jewish audience, about God saving them from an evil plot. In its edited form the story also is for a Persian audience, about a God of Israel who orchestrated the events of Persian religious history without the Persians even knowing about it. The story becomes not only Jewish history, but also a testimony to the non-Jewish Persians that the God of Israel simultaneously orchestrates events across the world, that he responds to humble prayer without sacrifices, that all other gods are like puppets before him, that the Israelites (unlike the Elamites) will always survive, and that gentiles are welcome to join the winning team.

How do we celebrate Purim?

Celebrating the holiday is appropriate for Messianic Judaism, even if the day is not a moad. The Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:5, tells of a discussion of 85 rabbinic elders who are debating if any Purim celebration should be allowed. According to the account, God "opens their eyes" to see the acceptability of the holiday despite their concerns about Deuteronomy 12:32. As believers in Yeshua we also have an additional tradition that the inclusion of Esther into the Tenach by our forefathers means the text has divine inspiration. Perhaps the Jerusalem Talmud does not tell us what those 85 rabbinic elders saw because the revelation was considered too dangerous to share: not only did God inspire the original text of scripture, but that he can even inspire minor alterations.

We know from Second Maccabees 15:36 that a "Day of Mordecai" was celebrated at the time of that document's composition, approximately 124 B.C. We do not know anything else about this "Day of Mordecai", but it clearly was the ancestor of Purim. Ten year's later the book of Esther was translated into Greek (with apocryphal additions) and a copy was sent to Egypt.

Josephus also mentions a Jewish fast during the middle of the month. Since the only Hebrew fast in the middle of a Hebrew month is the Fast of Esther, we know this fast day, held on the day before Purim to remember Esther's fasting, happened during the first century.

Talmudic commentary on Purim shows that the generation mentioned in Second Maccabees (living at 124-114 B.C.) knew of the Purim story but had not yet progressed past the custom of reading the Megillah (the book of Esther) and the customs mentioned above in Esther 9:22.

Today Purim is celebrated in different ways around the world. Unfortunately, many Purim customs were imported from the Babylonian holiday Zagmuk. Since Christmas suffers from the same problem, its information also appears in this table:

Zagmuk Purim Christmas
feasts a feast feasts
masked parties costume party masked parties
visiting from house to house visiting from house to house visiting from house to house
caroling caroling caroling
giving gifts giving gifts of food giving gifts
the mock reign of a fool the mock reign of a fool the mock reign of a fool
plays a play of the book of Esther a play
burning an effigy hanging an effigy of Haman  
lasts twelve days   lasts twelve days
bonfires   bonfires and yule log
  giving to charity  

As is proper for those who celebrate Christmas, when we celebrate Purim we must make sure that we are do so according to scripture's guidelines.

We are allowed to create a man-made holiday, but First Corinthians 10:14-33 prohibits us from "partaking" of something pagan, especially in the same way we "partake" of God. To do so would be idolatrous, and to appear to do so would be hypocritical. Also, that passage teaches that we must not follow a custom that hinders someone else's spiritual growth. In a similar way, Deuteronomy 12:29-32 also prohibits us from trying to adapt or use behaviors that our neighbors use in a pagan manner.

Also, Romans 11 reminds us that we (especially the gentile believers among us) must behave in ways that provoke unbelieving Jews to jealousy.

Applying these standards, it seems reasonable in our society to avoid effigies and having a fool's mock reign, since those customs are currently in use in secular society for Mardi Gras. Perhaps caroling should also be avoided since it is so strongly identified in our community with Christmas and doing Purim caroling would probably confuse people and seem hypocritical. The other customs (a big dinner, a costume party, visiting from house to house, exchanging gifts, presenting the book of Esther as a play, and giving to charity) seem to not be strongly identified with current pagan customs, do not hinder anyone's spiritual growth, and do not interfere with provoking unbelieving Jews to jealousy. So these seem valid to do, if we wish. We could also change these customs, since they are all man-made and not given by God. Perhaps instead of visiting from house to house within our congregation's families we might visit a few local charities that work with children, and at each place present our play and give away hamantashen and other charitable donations.

The original Purim plays were monologues. Many congregations still have a narrator present an "almost monologue" with children called up from the audience to act out certain scenes. Other congregations try to get everyone involved in the acting out of the story.

The Zagmuk ambience of reversals of propriety continue in Purim customs, especially at a Purim costume party at which people dressing as the other gender is a long-standing historical tradition always frowned upon by the rabbis. Also, dancing is the streets was part of reversing propriety and is in many places is more normal for Purim than dancing inside.

Esther 3:9 and Exodus 30:11-16 were combined during the Second Temple period to institute an annual giving of a half-shekel of silver to the Temple treasury. This is a very un-Messianic tradition, for it teaches that "atonement for one's soul" is obtained for a year by a donation to charity.

The Zagmuk "mock reign of a fool" became, for Purim, selecting a Yeshiva student known to be a trouble-maker to act as the Rosh Yeshiva for the day. This custom was especially popular in Eastern Europe. In Tel Aviv the custom is different, and a "Queen Esther" is chosen.

Why did Esther host an extra banquet?

Esther invites King Ahasuerus to two banquets (5:4, 5:8, see also 7:2-6). Why did she delay, and not reveal Haman's evil during the first banquet?

Most commentators suggest that Esther is being diplomatic. She has been out of favor with the king for thirty days (4:11) and wishes to become more fully established in his favor before making her true petition.

This answer is reasonable, but ignores the extraordinary amount of favor the king does show Esther (5:6) which is unchanged at the second banquet (7:2). Messianic Rabbi Jim Appel proposes an alternative answer: Esther simply misses the king and wants to spend time with him. At the conclusion of the first banquet the narrator follows Haman's activity (5:9-14); the story implies that Esther was with the king that evening, at least until the events of chapter six. Perhaps Esther was worried she might be killed (if not by the king when he hears her accusation then shortly after by Haman's vengeful family) and simply wanted to be with her husband a little more before entering danger.

If so, we learn a lesson about prayer. Esther's love for her husband, the king, meant she wanted to be with him more than she wanted to get something from him, even when the something to get was so very important. Similarly, in her three days of fasting and prayer (4:16) she would desire to be in God's presence more than she desired to get something from God. This attitude of genuine love would have been visible to both the king and to God, and was what prompted them to grant her such favor.

What do we learn from Purim?

Many things!

In the Tenach God mentions that he sometimes draws near and sometimes is distant (Isaiah 55:6). Purim is a joyous holiday celebrating a time when God was both distant enough to remain anonymous and yet near enough to save the Jewish people and turn an event of Jewish history into a testimony of God's power for the entire Persian Empire.