Purim, Feast of
PURIM, FEAST OF
The Jewish Feast of Lots, in Hebrew pûrîm, is celebrated on the 14th and 15th of Adar (February-March) or of Second Adar in a leap year. In 2 Maccabees 15.36, the oldest historical reference to it, it is called "the Day of Mardochai."
Origin. Purim is intimately associated with the OT Book of esther, which is read in the synagogue on the feast. According to Esther 3.7; 9.20–32, the feast recalls the escape of the Jews of Susa, King Xerxes' Persian capital, from the destruction plotted for them by the evil minister
Haman, who drew lots to determine the date of their death, the 14th of Adar. The danger turned into an occasion of rejoicing when the plot was thwarted by Queen Esther and mordecai, and the Jews avenged themselves upon Aman and their other enemies. The Book of Esther enjoins that the feast be celebrated annually, preceded by a period of fasting and mourning; the celebration is to be marked by feasting, exchanging gifts, and giving alms to the poor.
The real origin of the feast remains obscure, however. Although the Book of Esther is designed to explain the feast and is called a "letter on Purim" (9.29; F. 11), the passages on the "lots" seem to be interpolations and the book itself is not written as a historical account. Various suggestions have been made about a pagan origin of the feast, but no specific pagan feast can be pointed to with certainty. An origin in some historical deliverance of a group of Eastern Diaspora Jews is possible. It is also possible, even likely, that the feast incorporates elements of a pagan festival, perhaps a new year's celebration, which the Jews may have adopted. The setting of the story would suggest Persia; the Babylonian loan-word used as the name of the feast and the names Mardochai and Esther, which may be related to the Babylonian deities marduk and Ishtar, would suggest a Mesopotamian origin. What remains most striking is the fact that Purim does not appear to have originally been a religious feast and has no original connection with the worship of Yahweh.
Historical references to the observance of Purim occur in 2 Mc 15.36; Est F. 11; Josephus, Antiquities 11.290–295, as well as the earlier witness of the Hebrew Book of Esther itself. A tractate of the Mishnah (Megillah ) is devoted to Purim.
Modern Customs. The observance of Purim begins with the fast day on the 13th of Adar (the Fast of Esther). The day after the main feast day is called Purim Shushan, the 15th of Adar, recalling the date of its celebration in Susa (Esther 9.18). When Purim is celebrated in the intercalary month Second Adar in leap year, a limited observance called Purim Qatan (Little Purim) takes place on the 14th and 15th of Adar.
The principal religious ceremony is the reading of the Book of Esther, popularly called Megillah (the Scroll), on the eve and again on the morning of the 14th of Adar. The reading is introduced by three benedictions and concluded by another. When it is chanted, a traditional mode peculiar to Purim is used. The scroll is fully unrolled at the beginning, to distinguish it from Torah reading. The Talmud, which allows the Megillah to be read in any language intelligible to the audience, prescribes that all attend the reading, including women, since it was a woman, Queen Esther, who obtained the deliverance of her people. The names of Aman's ten sons (Est 9.7–10) are to be read in a single breath to indicate their simultaneous death (Megillah 16b). In former times it was a custom, particularly favored by the children, to drown out, by stamping and noisemakers, the name of Aman whenever it was mentioned, thus "blotting out the remembrance of Amalek" (Dt 25.19), the progenitor of Aman. This practice, along with other boisterous variations in the reading, created a din in the synagogue that was not out of harmony with the exuberant spirit of Purim. The Hallel [Ps 112 (113)–117 (118)], customary on religious feasts, is not sung at Purim.
Among the many other customs of the feast, the festive meal in the evening of the 14th is an important one. The joyousness of this feast may be inferred from the rabbinic exhortation to drink until one can no longer distinguish "Cursed be Haman!" from "Blessed be Mordecai!" Special cakes are often prepared for this feast, and where the tradition prevails, special songs are sung. Gifts of choice foods are sent to one's neighbors; when the Purim feast was celebrated as an open house for all, these were brought round and consumed during the long period of revelry. Purim is also a time for almsgiving, which was regarded as a strict obligation for all Jews at this feast. Collections are sometimes taken in the synagogue for this purpose.
Beginning in medieval Italy, probably under the influence of the Roman carnival, and soon spreading through Europe, masquerades and street celebrations also marked the Feast of Purim. A popular but often unruly part of this celebration was the burning in effigy of Aman. The carnival aspect has survived in the public celebration now held in modern Israel. In the Middle Ages dramatic representations of the events of Esther were held on the feast day, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in Germany, there flourished a comic drama form known as Purimspiele, sometimes burlesquing both ancient and modern characters. More recently Purim is the occasion for playlets or satirical farces in the Jewish schools.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 1967–68. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 514–517. j. schildenberger, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und Kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 8:903–904. n. s. doniach, Purim or the Feast of Esther (Philadelphia 1933). j. lewy, "The Feast of the 14th Day of Adar," Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939) 127–151. v. christian, "Zur Herkunft des Purim-Festes," Alttestamentliche Studien: F. Nötscher, eds. h. junker and j. botterweck (Bonn 1950) 33–37. h. ringgren, "Esther and Purim," Svensk exegetisk årsbok 20 (1955) 5–24. t. h. gaster, Purim and Hanukkah in Custom and Tradition (New York 1950).
[g. w. macrae]