Purim celebrates the story of the Biblical Book of Esther.
The Story of the Book of Esther
The Book of Esther recounts the saving of the Jews of ancient Persia from the plot of the vizier Haman to kill all Jews in the land. Haman had planned to kill all the Jews in Persia. He was angered because a Jew named Mordechai had refused to bow down before him.
|Marc Chagall's Esther (1960)|
Musée national Message Biblique, Nice
the Biblical Ahashueras
The Historical Setting
While some debate exists over who Ahashueras really was, he is generally ascribed as being Xerxes I who ruled Persia from 486-465 BCE.
At the time, the Persian empire was the largest empire in the world, stretching from present-day Iran in the east to Egypt in the west and covering the entire fertile crescent (modern Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel), Babylonia (present-day Iraq), all of Asia Minor (including what is now Turkey and Armenia), Bactria (including all of present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan as well as much of what is now Pakistan and Uzbekistan) and Thrace (including Macedonia and much of Greece and what is now Bulgaria).
|The Persian Empire at the time of Xerxes I|
The Question of Assimilation and Communal Loyalty
|Aert de Gelder's Esther and Mordechai (1685)|
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
The Book of Esther is also the only book in the Jewish Bible that never once mentions God directly, a point that underscores the issue of assimilation. Indeed, the central act of bravery in the book is that Esther might have saved herself by keeping her Jewish identity a secret while letting the Jewish people fall victim to Haman's plot. She is convinced to act only when her uncle Mordechai argues the point with her:
“Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther, 4:13-14Esther, in turn, asks Mordechai to call a fast for all Jews for three days comes before the king, risking her life.
Esther Before the King
Esther's decision is no small choice. Ahashueras had already dispatched of the previous queen for what was essentially a very small offense. Indeed, Esther is so afraid that she faints in his presence. This is the theme of Tintoretto's famous painting of Esther.
|Tintoretto, Esther Before Ahasueras (1547-48)|
Royal Art Collection, Windsor
"What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.” Esther, 5:3
|Esther before Ahashueras|
Illumination in Biblia Pauperum,
Hesdin of Amien, ca. 1450
When Haman was invited, he was overjoyed that he was being honored to dine with the king and queen alone. At the same time, his joy was dampened when he saw Mordechai sitting in the gate. At wife's suggestion, Haman orders a gallows to be built so that Haman can be hanged on the very day that he is going to meet with the king and queen.
Ironically, the king during a bout of insomnia had been going over palace record and, just the night before, had read about how Mordechai had earlier thwarted a plot against his life and that nothing had been done to honor him. As a result, just as Haman approached the king to tell him about the gallows he had constructed, the king asked Haman for advice on how to honor a special man.
|Esther and Ahashueras (ca. 1240)|
Ste. Chapelle Cathedral, Paris
|Rembrandt's Ahasueras and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660)|
Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Esther asks only for her life, saying that she along with all the Jews are to be killed by official order. In tears she explains that she would not have asked him had the order been only for enslavement.
Enraged, the Ahashueras asks her who is
responsible for this and Esther tells him that it is Haman. The king then orders Haman and his family hanged on the gallows that Haman himself had had built for Mordechai.. He then gave Mordechai Haman's position, and the Jews were saved and the kingdom well ruiled after that.
Differing Views of Esther's Heroism
For centuries, Esther has been revered as a heroine in both Jewish and Christian ideals. In Jewish ideal, she could have chosen to hide the fact that she was a Jew to save herself. That she did not but risked everything to save her people is the source of her heroism.
While Esther is similarly admired in Christian theology for this act of heroism, in Christian interpretation, she foreshadows the Virgin Mary who would plead for souls on the Day of Judgment.
|Nicholas Poussin's Esther Before Ahashueras, (1640)|
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
In current times, however, Esther's status as an ideal heroine has come under debate in some circles among both Jews and Christians. Considerable controversy exists over the nature of how Esther came to the throne. Esther had won the king's favor after winning an empire-wide beauty contest to replace the previous queen, Vashti, who had fallen out of favor with Ahashueras.
|In Sir John Everett Millais's Esther (1885), |
the artist famously used the Emperor of China's robe
given to General George Gordon as a gift
Some of the artists who have depicted Esther include Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Filippo Lippi, Artemesia Gentileschi, Nicolas Poussin, Rembrandt, Jan Lievens, Peter Paul Rubens, Gustave Dore, Sir John Everett Millas, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and many others.
In art historical as well as social terms, it is interesting to view how artists have depicted Esther over time to represent the ideal of beauty of their day.
Purim Observances and Customs
In Morocco, Jews bake a special bread called Haman's Eyes (and known alternatively as Einei Haman, Ojos de Haman or Khubz di Purim).
|Moroccan Haman's Eyes Purim Bread|
with Full Face of Haman
In some cases, the bread is made into an entire head of Haman, replete with a full face and poppyseed beard (as in the version shown at left)
|Moroccan Haman's Eyes Purim Bread|
In others, the face is more something to imagine, with the eggs simply symbolizing the eyes of Haman (as shown at right).
In either tradition, the eating of the bread is a means of effacing Haman's memory.
It is often customary to provide pieces of the bread to the poor. A recipe for the full-face version of Moroccan Haman's Eyes bread can be found
Algeria, Libya and Tunisia
Algerian, Libyan and Tunisian Jews had their own Purim traditions, largely lost today.Before the expulsion of the Jews from Libya and Algeria following the independence of Israel in 1948, these countries had very large Jewish communities. In 1948 there were 140,00 Jews in Algeria and 38,000 in Libya. Today there are less than 100 Jews in Algeria and none at all in Libya. In Tunisia, where the Jews were not formally expelled but suffered considerable prejudice following the founding of Israel, the Jewish population shrank from 105,00 in 1948 to roughly 1,500 today.
In all three of these countries Jews would make an effigy of Haman out of rags and stuffed with straw. They would then light a bonfire and throw the effigy into the fire, beating it with special sticks brought for the occasion. After the fire burned down, they would throw salt and sulphur onto it and shout "Cursed be Hamand and Zeresh! Blessed be Mordechai and Esther!"
In Algeria, the custom of lighting candles on Purim was also practiced, a tradition carried on today by some Jews of Algerian origin in France and Israel.
The Whole Megillah
The requirement is to read the entire Megillah twice -- once on the eve of the holiday and once on the morning of the holiday. It is from this repeated reading coupled with the numerous interruptions of the noisemaking involved in drowning out Haman's name that the US English expression "the whole megillah" entered the language to mean a overly elaborate or extended account of a story.
In many Jewish traditions at Purim, drinking alcohol is – rather uniquely for Judaism – encouraged during the festival. This tradition developed so that the holiday specifically would not promote intolerance or celebrate the hating of the persecutor; as a result, the tradition is to celebrate to the point that one loses track of the “cursed Haman and the blessed Mordechai.” The wearing of masks or costumes (akin to the US secular Halloween) also derived from this tradition of not being able to tell apart Haman from Mordechai.
Costumes, Carnivals and Parades
dressed as Esther for Purim
|Purim Parade in Ashkelon, Israel|
As with all of my posts on this site regarding religious holidays, this overview is in no way intended to suggest what is or is not proper observance. The sole purpose here is to inform. If you would like to share your own views of the holiday, please do leave a comment. I would welcome hearing from you.
Want to Read More?
About.com "Purim": http://judaism.about.com/od/holidays/a/Purim.htm
Chabad.org "Purim": http://www.chabad.org/holidays/purim/default_cdo/jewish/Purim.htm
Holidays.net "Purim on the Net": http://www.holidays.net/purim/
Jewish Agency for Israel: "Purim Customs Around the World": http://www.jewishagency.org/JewishAgency/English/Jewish+Education/Compelling+Content/Jewish+Time/Festivals+and+Memorial+Days/Purim/Purim+Customs+around+the+World.htm
Judaism 101 "Purim" http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday9.htm
Religion Facts "Purim" http://www.religionfacts.com/judaism/holidays/purim.htm
Alfassa, Shelomo, "Origins of Noise Making to Wipe Out the Evil Name on Purim," Judaic Studies Academic Paper Series, March 2008, http://www.alfassa.com/paper_purim.pdf
Clip art sources:
Happy Purim opening image: http://jewishroots.net/holidays/purim/purim-holiday-page.htm
Chagall's Esther: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/marc-chagall/esther-1960
Xerxes I: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/images/xerxes.jpg
Map of ancient Persia: http://70facets.org/messages/2007/PERSIANEMPIRE.png
Aert de Gelder's Esther and Mordechai: http://www.bible-art.info/Esther.htm
Tintoretto's Esther Before Ahasueras: http://www.lib-art.com/artgallery/17354-esther-before-ahasuerus-tintoretto.html
Esther before Ahashueras llumination in Biblia Pauperum: http://www.bible-art.info/Esther.htm
Esther and Ahashueras window, Ste. Chapelle: http://www.wga.hu/support/viewer/z.html
Rembrandt's Ahasueras and Haman at the Feast of Esther: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_Harmenszoon_van_Rijn-_Assuerus,_Haman_and_Esther.JPG
Nicholas Poussin's Esther Before Ahashueras: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/marc-chagall/esther-1960
Millais' Esther: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Esthermillais.jpg
Megillah scroll: http://0.tqn.com/d/collectibles/1/0/K/z/3/101megillah.jpg
Purim grogger: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Purim_gragger.jpg
Moroccan Haman's Eyes Bread with Full Face of Haman:
Moroccan Haman's Eyes Bread Without Full Face: http://www.secretofchallah.com/site/detail/detail/detailDetail.asp?detail_id=787059
Jewish children dressed as Esther for Purim: http://www.holidays.net/purim/costumes2.htm
Ashkelon Purim Parade: http://www.ynetnews.com/PicServer2/20022007/1037759/ashkelon1_wa.jpg