The Jewish holiday of Purim commemorates the ancient story of the plot by Haman, the vizier of Persian King Ahashuerus, to kill all Persian Jews—and how Esther and her cousin Mordechai foiled the plot and saved them. It’s celebrated in synagogues often with a play, called a Purimshpiel, which outlines the story related in the Biblical book of Esther, read in the Megillah scroll. There are many confusing traditions and little-known facts surrounding the holiday that I will now attempt to elucidate, or at least tell you about.
- The word Purim means “lots,” supposedly because Haman cast lots to determine on which day he would kill the Jews. But recent research has shown that there is a close connection between the dates of Purim and an ancient Persian day of “Lots,” when property was traditionally sold by real estate agents of the time.
- Haman is the King’s vizier, or viceroy—a ruler exercising authority over a region or country on behalf of a sovereign. Thus, Haman considered himself a pretty big enchilada, and expected people to bow down to him. Our hero, Mordechai, refused to bow down to him and thus gained Haman’s enmity, leading him to want to kill him and the rest of the Jews (Hell hath no fury like a Haman scorned). Viceroy is also the name of an old brand of cigarettes, which some (dubious) scholars have suggested Haman smoked.
- As the Megillah is read aloud in temple, each time Haman’s name is mentioned, we are obliged to create noise to blot the name out, harkening back to Deuteronomy, which says “Thou shalt blot out the name of Amalek” (another ancient bad guy); Haman was, it is said, a descendant of Amalek’s. The noise made in temples by the ratchets, called grogers, and shouts by congregants were not always welcomed. Some rabbis actually protested doing this as a disturbance of public worship, and Spanish and Portuguese Jews consider it a breach of decorum. (I did find one commentator who holds that actually these rabbis were very old, had very sensitive hearing, and all that noise gave them headaches.) The Framinghamer Rebbe has further suggested that the Haman, and his evil intent, led to the sages’ prohibition of eating ham sandwiches because of the closeness of the food’s name to that of the villain.
- You’re supposed to drink a lot on Purim. In fact, you’re supposed to get so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. (I’ve known people who get so drunk, they can’t tell the difference between Haman and Esther.) The Persians, especially Ahashuerus, were evidently heavy drinkers; the Torah tells us the king had a 7-day banquet with “No Restrictions” on drinking. No doubt the custom of drinking on Purim was begun by the same folks who first brought whiskey and schnapps to temple to have a “little l’chaim” (just a little, ha-ha) following Saturday services. One thing may be certain: drinking a lot of wine on Purim pre-dates the manufacture of Manischewitz, as few could stand to drink enough of that wine to get drunk.
- Esther is a true heroine, because through her, as the King’s second Queen, Haman’s plot is foiled. This led Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century CE) to prescribe that women should be allowed to hear the Megillah reading, because women were part of the miracle. (This was very big of him, eh?) Many also hold up Vashti, the king’s first wife, as a heroine refusing to parade naked, wearing only a crown, before the court, thus refusing his commands. She was “banished from his presence,” which many commentators have said is not such a bad thing because, in many ways, as we know from the story, Ahashuerus could be a shmuck.
- The commands for us on Purim are: hear the reading of the Megillah; exchange gifts of food and drink, known as mishlach manot; donate charity and food to the poor; eat a celebratory meal (and drink a lot, don’t forget); and recite additions to the daily prayers and grace after meals. But nowhere in the Torah or in the writings of the sages are we told to dress up little girls in queen costumes like Esther or put beards on little boys who are barely old enough to walk. This is folk custom, even if it is pretty cute.