Passages

Purim by Aaron Koller

Where and when did Purim originate?

Purim is the first explicitly human-made festival in the Bible. While the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot have their roots in agricultural practices and historical commemorations of the Iron Age, the festival of Purim was first celebrated by the Jews centuries later, in the times of the Second Temple. While the pilgrimage festivals, as well as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are commanded by God in the Torah, Purim is said to be the invention of the Jews and their leaders under the Persian Empire.

The origins of Purim are described in the biblical book of Esther. The annual celebration on the 14th of Adar (the last month in the Jewish year) is said to commemorate the salvation of the Jews from the genocidal plot of the royal advisor Haman. Esth 9:31 explains the name “Purim” as deriving from the Persian (originally Babylonian) word for “lottery” (pur), because Haman cast lots to decide on which day to massacre the Jews. There are a number of abiding mysteries surrounding the festival, including its name (why that name? why plural?), and scholars have long sought some other source for the festival. Many have speculated about origins in Persian or other cultures, but no evidence of any similar festival has ever been found.

Although the book of Esther and the festival of Purim probably have their origins in the eastern diaspora (Mesopotamia and Persia), the earliest explicit mention of Purim is in the book of 2 Maccabees from late second-century BCE Alexandria. The great victory of Judah the Maccabee over the Seleucid general Nicanor was celebrated annually on the anniversary of the battle, the 13th of Adar, and the book comments that this is the day before “Mordecai’s day.”

How is Purim celebrated?

The primary practices of Purim are “to make them into days of banquets and rejoicing, of sending presents to each other and gifts to the poor” (Esth 9:19, Esth 9:22). In the Mishnah, these three practices (feast, presents, gifts to the poor) are supplemented by the obligation to read the book of Esther itself. This ritual reading is the subject of much of the tractate Megillah in the Mishnah.

Beyond the mandated rituals, Purim has long been celebrated in a carnivalesque mode, “a world turned upside down.” Children and adults dress in costumes, often breaking all barriers and taboos in doing so; cross-dressing is documented for many centuries. In premodern society, when people normally had to dress within certain expected norms, this day provided a release from all such obligations. The consumption of alcohol, already a major theme of the book of Esther itself, was also the norm on Purim, and the Talmud legislates that one must drink so that they “do not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai’” (b. Meg. 7b). In many communities, a fool was sent to pretend to be the rabbi, and Jews produced faux-rabbinic literature, which was often bitterly satirical. The practice of burning Haman in effigy is also long known, and on very rare occurrences, this fantasy of violence turned into real violence.

How was the holiday established?

The Talmud tells that Esther wanted her book to be accepted into the Bible, so she wrote to the rabbis in Jerusalem, “Establish me for generations!” The rabbis resisted, however, as they could find no license in the Bible for such a book. The book of Esther is indeed strange: most importantly, God is never mentioned! In the Talmudic story, license is eventually found, linking the book of Esther to the earlier clash with Amalek (1Sam 15:3), and Esther is allowed into the Bible.

Aspects of this story are obviously fictional, but it does reflect a real ambivalence about Purim within the Jewish calendar. The focus on materiality and the reversal of norms so prevalent on this day sits at odds with the general Jewish calendrical focus on order and ritual. For that very reason, though, Purim has long been one of the most beloved holiday on the Jewish calendar.

Aaron Koller , "Purim", n.p. [cited 24 Sep 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/purim

Contributors

koller-aaron

Aaron Koller
Professor of Near Eastern studies , Yeshiva University

Aaron Koller is professor of Near Eastern studies at Yeshiva University, where he is chair of the Beren Department of Jewish Studies. His last book was Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press) and his next is Unbinding Isaac: The Akedah in Jewish Thought (forthcoming from JPS/University of Nebraska Press in 2020); he is also the author of numerous studies in Semitic philology. Koller has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, and their children.

A Jewish holiday celebrating the saving of the Jews of Persia from annihilation, as recounted in the biblical book of Esther.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.

A collection of rabbinic interpretations of biblical law. The Mishnah records the judgments of a group of rabbis called tannaim (as distinct from the amoraim, whose interpretations of the Mishnah are recorded in the Talmud). According to tradition, the Mishnah was compiled and edited by a rabbi named Judah the Prince around 200 C.E.

a journey, usually with religious significance

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

Literally "Weeks," a biblical pilgrimage festival celebrated in the spring, seven weeks after Passover.

Literally "Booths," one of the biblical pilgrimage festivals, celebrated in the fall.

A collection of rabbinic writings, mostly interpretations of the Hebrew Bible and the Mishnah (another rabbinic collection). There are two Talmuds, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, so called after the region in which each is believed to have been compiled. The Talmuds were likely composed between the third and the sixth centuries C.E.

Esth 9:31

31and giving orders that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as the Jew Mordecai and Queen Esther enjoined on the Jews, just as t ... View more

Esth 9:19

19Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, a holiday on ... View more

Esth 9:22

22as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning int ... View more

1Sam 15:3

3Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and don ... View more

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