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Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Purim 2017

As part of my ongoing discussions on upcoming religious observances, I would like to share with you that the evening of Saturday, March 11 (for 2017) marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Purim.  As with all Jewish holidays, Purim runs from sunset to sunset, so the holiday closes at sunset on Sunday March 12.

Purim celebrates the story of the Biblical Book of Esther. This post first gives the background to the meaning of the holiday from the Book of Esther, then explains the way that the holiday of Purim is celebrated by Jews from around the world.

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
Mordechai’s niece was Esther (her Persian name; her Hebrew name was Hadassah). Esther became the queen of the Persian King Ahashueras (alternatively spelled Ahasueras).

Mordechai had thwarted a plot on the king's life soon after Esther's rise to the throne, but the king was unaware of this and Haman disregards this obsessing instead on the fact that Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman (because this is prohibited in his faith).  Outraged, Haman lays out plans for the slaughter of all Jews in Persia (at the time, home to most Jews in the world). Only Esther had the ability to thwart the plan; however, to do so, she would have to approach the king uninvited, an act that -- if it displeased the king -- carried the death penalty. Despite this, Esther risked her life to reveal that she was a Jew herself and that Haman’s plan to kill the Jews would mean her death as well. Purim is the holiday commemorating this.

Xerxes I,
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 for Jews is a controversial book to the extent that it centers on a highly assimilated Jew. Esther's name itself is one that reflects assimilation to the surrounding Persian culture, deriving as it does from the Persian goddess Ishtar (her Hebrew name is Hadassah).

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, 4:13-14
Esther, 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
King Ahashueras, in response, asks why she has come and assures her that he will not be angry. By contrast asking her
"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
Instead of telling the king outright, she asks him to prepare a feast for Haman and which she and the king alone would attend. While there at the feast, she assures him, she will then give the king her request.

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
Thinking the man to be honored would be himself, Haman suggests that the man be led through the streets on the king's horse dressed in the king's clothes and so on. The king then surprised Haman by saying that Haman should do all that he had described for Mordechai, the man he wants to honor.

Rembrandt's Ahasueras and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660)
Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Still fuming with anger over this affront in honoring the hated Jew, Haman then goes off that evening to the feast set for him by the king and queen. At the feast, the king turns to Esther and asks her finally to tell him what she requests and he will give it to her even up to half of his kingdom.

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.
Peter Paul Rubens,
Esther Before Ahashueras (1606)
Courtauld Gallery, London

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
It should be emphasized that both because of both the fact that Esther was the epitome of feminine beauty (she won the Empire-wide beauty contest, after all) as well as the drama of her story and its religious ideal, Esther has been a very popular subject among the greatest masters of Western art.

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

 General Observances

Megillah scroll
On Purim, Jews around the world read the Book of Esther from a special scroll called a Megillah. Because Hebrew does not transliterate directly to English, the scroll is alternatively spelled with one "l" or two, with or without the final "h" and beginning "Ma" or"Me"). Whatever the spelling, it is the same thing: the Book of Esther.  Unlike the Torah scroll, the Megilah is a special second-handled scroll.

Blotting Out The Name of Haman

While the Megillah is read at synagogues or temples to celebrate the holiday,  whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the readings, the listneners are supposed to drown out the evil man's name. As a result, the holiday is very noisy and festive.

A grogger
The Americas and Israel

In much of the world, including the Jews of the United States, Canada, Latin America and Israel, celebrants use a special noisemaker called a grogger (or alternatively called a gragger or gregger) to blot out the name of Haman.  The grogger is a ratchet on the end of a stick, usually made of wood or sheet metal (put in recent times from plastic as well). Each time Haman's name is spoken, the ratchet is spun in a circle making a loud, clacking sound.

France

Among many French Jews, the noise to drown out Haman's name comes in the form of clacking stones together. On the face of the stone is written or etched the name of Haman. In this way, each time the stones are struck together, Haman's name is effaced. By the end of the Megillah reading, the name has been blotted out audibly by the sound but also visually erased on the stone.

Germany

Before the Holocaust, it was the custom of German Jews to light to candles in the synagogue. A picture of Haman was drawn on one with his name written out and of Haman's wife Zeresh and her name on the other. The candles would be lit at the start of the holiday and the images of Haman and his wife would be effaced as they melted away.  

In a sad side note, the Nazi regime had a particular hatred for the holiday of Purim. Hitler believed that Haman was a great hero for having attempted the first genocide of the Jews, and he proudly saw himself as the successor. The Nazis made a point of using Purim as an occasion for the public killing of Jews. The anti-Semitic Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher proclaimed Kristallnacht as a payback for the death of those who plotted against the Jews in ancient Persia. Streicher, when he was sentenced to death for his crimes against humanity in the Nuremburg Trials, shouted out "Purim Fest 1946!"

Morocco

 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
The bread is decorated with almonds and contains two hard-boiled eggs as eyes. The eggs are held in place with a strip of dough. It is customary to cut the bread to divide the "eyes" so everyone gets a piece of egg with their bread. 

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

http://www.ou.org/shabbat_shalom/column/ojos_de_haman_the_eyes_of_haman/

Bukharan Jews (Uzabekistan and Tajikistan)

Uzbekistan had two distinct Jewish communities. The Ashkenazic Jews (who followed the same traditions largely followed in Eastern Europe) and the Bukharan Jews that were unique to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

 Bukharan Snow Haman
It was the custom of the Bukharan Jews at Purim to make snow Hamans. These Haman snowmen would be decorated with fruit peels and various pieces of garbage. At the end of Purim, the Bukharan Jews would light a bonfire and melt the Haman, to wipe out his memory.

At this point, it is probably worth noting that the Bukharan Jews were among the oldest Jewish communities outside of Israel, but for the most part no longer exist. Bukharan Jews traced their roots to at least the 6th Century BCE (to which the oldest Jewish ossuaries there date). Sadly, virtually the entire community has been displaced or destroyed, beginning in the 1990's and collapsing entirely in the last 10 years.

Uzbekistan had a large and ancient Jewish community for centuries. As late as 1989, there were still roughly 95,000 Uzbek Jews. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise in Uzbekistan of anti-Semitic Islamist movements culminating in 2005 with the Andijan Massacre, the population of Jews in Uzbekistan essentially evaporated. Today, there are less than 5000 Jews in Uzbekistan, almost all of whom live in and around Tashkent.

Dushanbe Synagogue
destroyed by the Tajik government in 2008

Tajikistan also witnessed mass flight of Jews after an independent Tajikistan emerged from the Soviet Union. Before independence, there were roughly 20,000 Jews in Tajikistan, dating back at least to the 2nd Century BCE; today there are less than 100 Jews left in Tajikistan.The final destruction of the Tajik Bukharan Jewish community came in 2008. In 2008, the Tajik government razed the last active synagogue in Dushanbe along with the community's kosher butcher, ritual bath (mikveh) and Jewish schools. The Tajik government did this (without compensating the Jewish community in any way) to build the Palace of the Nation there. After the Tajik government destroyed the synagogue and other centers in 2008, the remaining Jews who were physically able to leave fled to Israel and the United States.

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.

Globally Shared Purim Traditions

Hamentaschen


Hamantaschen
Throughout the world in a wide variety of countries (including most of the English-speaking world), Jews eat a special pastries called hamantaschen.  In Yiddish, the name means "Haman's pockets," but are supposed to be shaped like Haman’s triangular hat or Haman's ears. Inside the triangle are fillings such as apricots, poppy seeds, prunes or cherries among others.  An easy recipe for hamantaschen can be found on Purim on the Net website of Holidays.net at

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.
Drinking Alcohol

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
Jewish children
dressed as Esther for Purim
In many Jewish traditions, congregants – especially children – dress up in costume, most commonly those of the key figures in the story. Dressing young girls as Esther is particularly popular, although all figures in the story are common.  In some congegations, there is a Purim play (the Purim Spiel) acting out the story as well.

To add to the festivities, many congregations hold a Purim carnival with games and other activities on the Saturday evening or Sunday following Purim.

Purim Parade in Ashkelon, Israel
In Israel, Purim is a time of costume parties and public celebrations, somewhat akin to the celebrations held for Carnival or Mardi Gras in Christian countries before Lent. Major parades are held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ashkelon and many other Israeli cities on Purim. 


Matanot Le'Evyonim
Jews are required to give “matanot le’evyonim” or gifts to the poor on Purim.  Many Jews extend this to mean specifically the giving of meals or food to the poor.

Additionally, in Jewish communities in many countries where Christmas is not widely practiced (e.g., Israel, Morocco, Yemen, Turkey, India), the Jewish community exchanges gifts on Purim rather than on Chanukah.

Conclusion
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.

Happy Purim!

Want to Read More?

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


Holidays.net "Purim on the Net": http://www.holidays.net/purim/




United With Israel, "Colorful & Tasty Purim Customs Around the World." http://unitedwithisrael.org/tasty-colorful-purim-customs-from-around-the-world/

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 

Peter Paul Rubens, Esther Before Ahashueras (1606), Courtauld Gallery, London:http://uploads8.wikipaintings.org/images/peter-paul-rubens/esther-and-ahasverus.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:
 http://www.ou.org/shabbat_shalom/column/ojos_de_haman_the_eyes_of_haman/

Moroccan Haman's Eyes Bread Without Full Face: http://www.secretofchallah.com/site/detail/detail/detailDetail.asp?detail_id=787059

Bukharan Snow Haman: http://cdn.timesofisrael.com/uploads/instagram/51dd96225b5111e2bccc22000a1f8cda_7.jpg

Dushanbe Synagogue destroyed by the Tajik government in 2008: http://www.vosizneias.com/27506/2009/02/17/dushanbe-tajikistan-jews-concerned-about-fate-of-its-only-synagogue/

Hamantaschen: http://www.holidays.net/purim/goodies.html

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


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