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WEST CHESTER, Pa. (Mar. 6, 2023)Somber moments in history do not always create a joyous holiday. 

But, the Jewish holiday of Purim proves to be the opposite.  

Occurring once every Feb, depending on the lunar calendar, Jewish people flock to the nearest synagogue and celebrate triumph over adversity that occurred centuries ago. 

However, unlike most religious services where they wear traditional outfits, Jewish people go out entirely costumed. 

What is the story behind Purim, and why do we celebrate the death of a man named Haman while disguising ourselves in costumes? 

The Purim story, according to the Book of Esther, begins when Ahasuerus (his real name being Xerxes I or Artaxerxes I) appointed a man named Haman as viceroy in the kingdom of Persia (now Iran).  

When Mordecai, one of the many important people of the Book of Esther (called the Megillah in Judaism), refused to bow down to him, as every other person did after he became appointed, Haman was taken aback. 

Upon learning that Mordecai refused to do so “because I am a Jew,” Haman instantly decrees that every Jewish person in Persia would be executed, and that Mordecai would be hung from the gallows. Haman convinced King Ahasuerus that the Jewish people had committed crimes and allowed him to cast lots (“Purim” in Persian, where the holiday’s name comes from) for the day Haman’s actions would occur, revealing it to be the 14 of Adar (a Jewish month). 

This decree caused mass panic, and approximately 75,000 Jews were executed because of Haman’s actions, according to the Book of Esther; some started weeping and fasting in their houses, but with the help of Queen Esther, who revealed Haman’s plans to him, King Ahasuerus orders Haman to be hanged from the gallows he had created. 

King Ahasuerus gave Mordecai the viceroy position for his heroic deeds to save the Jewish people of Persia, ending the Purim story. 

Many religious scholars debate the legitimacy of the Purim story, even today. 

According to Ronald Eisenberg in the “Jewish Traditions” book, “there is no mention of Purim in Jewish literature before the first century B.C.E. Moreover, a Persian king could choose a queen only from among seven noble Persian families, making his marriage to Esther impossible.” 

In the “Seasons of Our Joy” book, Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote that some scholars thought of the Book of Esther as a manufactured story that came into being long after the Persian Empire fell and that it was “a kind of historical novel intended to comment on the situation of the Jews under Hellenistic rule.” 

Alfred Kotlach, in “The Jewish Book of Why,” also claims that “since the Book of Esther was written in the form of a scroll and was sent out as a letter to all the outlying districts of Persia, G-d’s name had to be omitted” from it. 

Some Rabbis often had trouble admitting the book into “Jewish canon” because “the Jews neither plead to God to save them in times of peril nor have a celebration of thanksgiving to God for their deliverance,” but it was eventually added anyway. 

Despite supposed evidence, this does not mean Jewish people do not enjoy celebrating Purim. 

One of the most popular Purim activities is baking what is known as “Hamantaschen (“Haman’s pockets” in German),” a triangular-shaped pastry; in the middle of it contains a giant hole for people to put in “fruit, cheese, poppy seeds,” or even chocolate, among other foods. 

The name behind it stems from “mohn taschen,” meaning “poppy seed pockets” in German. However, some thought it sounded closer to Haman, so the name changed to “Hamantaschen.” 

Some also believe Haman’s hat that he wore during his reign as viceroy inspired the “hamantaschen,” but which has no evidence behind that claim.  

Kolatch, in “The Jewish Book of Why,” also believes the three corners represent the patriarchs behind the Jewish religion: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Another commonly accepted role in Purim is masquerading or wearing costumes. 

Typically, the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament (called the Torah in Judaism) prohibits such acts. However, because Purim is such a joyous holiday, the Rabbis allowed Jewish people to break this commandment. 

One last significant portion of Purim is making artificial or natural noises. Because Haman almost murdered the Jewish people of Persia, we try to forget that Haman existed by “erasing” his name somehow.  

One method is called a “grager,” an artificial noisemaker. By swinging the grager around while holding it in one hand, it is loud enough to do away with Haman’s presence. 

Despite Haman’s plans to eradicate them, the Jewish people stood victorious. Moreover, despite the religious scholars’ skepticism, the Jewish people crafted the holiday of Purim, reminding us of the horrible time one man almost wiped out an entirely Jewish population. 


Benjamin Slomowitz is a fourth-year Media & Culture student. bs968158@wcupa.edu

Sources: 

  • Encyclopaedia Perthensis (1816). Universal Dictionary of the Arts, Sciences, Literature, etc. Vol. 9. Edinburgh: John Brown, Anchor Close (Printers). p. 82. 
  • Eisenberg, Ronald L. “Purim.” Jewish Tradition, 2nd ed., The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA, 2008, pp. 254–263. 
  • Hazony, Yoram. “Mordecai’s Challenge: An Essay on War, Leadership, and Purim.” Commentary, vol. 141, no. 3, Mar. 2016, pp. 28–38. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=asn&AN=113299263&site=ehost-live&scope=site. 
  • Kolatch, Alfred J. “Purim.” The Jewish Book of Why, 3rd ed., Penguin Compass, New York, NY, 2003, pp. 257–266. 
  • Scherman, Nosson, et al. “Megillas Esther / מגילת אסתר.” The Chumash: The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings = Ḥamishah Ḥumshe Torah: ʻim Targum Onḳelos, PE. Rashi, Haftarot Ṿe-Ḥamesh Megilot, 11th ed., Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn, NY, 2000, pp. 1252–1262. Artscroll.  
  • Shurpin, Yehuda. “Why Didn’t Mordechai Bow to Haman?” Why Didn’t Mordechai Bow to Haman? – an in-depth Read on the Heroic of a Jewish Leader, https://www.chabad.org/holidays/purim/article_cdo/aid/5055620/jewish/Why-Didnt-Mordechai-Bow-to-Haman.htm. 
  • Waskow, Arthur Ocean. “Spring Fever–Purim.” Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA, 1982, pp. 114–131.  

 

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