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Jewish Journal

Purim Questions You May Have Wanted to Ask But Never Did – From the Very Basic to the Most Difficult

by Rabbi John Rosove

March 12, 2014 | 1:54 pm

Who are the heroes and villains of the Purim story?

Depending on how you read the story and your values, your notion of what makes a hero might differ from others. Therefore: Possible Purim Heroes/Heroines = Esther, Mordecai (?), Ahashuerus (?) and Vashti (?);  Possible Purim Villains = Haman, Ahashuerus (?), and Mordecai (?).

What kind of a document is the story of Esther?

Usually called a megilah (scroll), it is in fact an iggeret (letter) suggesting its impermanence, much like the Jewish people’s experience during our 2000 years of exile living around the globe until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

What are the 4 principle mitzvot of Purim?

[1] To hear the story – Sh’miat Megilah/Iggeret; [2] To take pleasure in a festive meal – Hana’at Seudah; [3] Sending gifts - Sh'lach manot; [4] Giving gifts to the poor - Matanot l’evyonim.

What is the meaning of the Hebrew word “Purim”?

Purim means “Lots” and refers to “lottery tickets” used by Haman to determine the date for his planned destruction of the Jews of Persia.

Is the story of Esther historically true?

Probably not, though it is based on real experiences of Jews at the hands of their enemies over time. Some scholars hypothesize that Ahashuerus was Xerxes I, who ruled Persia from 486-465 BCE. Historical records, however, make no mention of Haman, Esther or Mordecai, nor do they refer to any of the incidents recounted in Esther.

How did the story of Esther come to be written?

Some say that Purim co-opted and Judaized popular pagan carnivals. Others say that Esther was written at the time of the Maccabean revolt (165 BCE). In the flush of victory the story reinforced the national mood of confidence in deliverance. A third theory opines that the Babylonian creation god Marduk and the fertility god Ishtar cast lots to determine each other’s fate. Then, elements of the pagan festival were borrowed, rewritten and transformed into Purim with Marduk becoming Mordecai, Ishtar becoming Esther and “Lots” (Purim) playing a pivotal role in the plot.

Why do we make noise when Haman’s name is said?

Exodus 17 describes a bitter battle between the Israelites and the soldiers of Amalek who sought to destroy the Israelites and humiliate the God of Israel. In response, God instructed Moses: “Write this for a memorial in the book…I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the Heavens.” Haman is identified as a descendent of Amalek.

What is the basis of Jews getting drunk on Purim?

“Rava said: A man is obligated to become drunk on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Megilah 7b). Rabbi Yehiel Michel ben Aaron Isaac Halevi Epstein (19th century) warned: “Those who cannot hold their liquor or are alcoholics should certainly refrain from the ‘requirement’ to drink.’”

What is likely the most overlooked “detail” in the story of Esther?

In chapter 9, after Queen Esther persuaded King Ahashuerus that Haman intended to murder all the Jews (based on intelligence she received from Mordecai), the King appointed Mordecai as his chief advisor/Prime Minister in the place of Haman. Mordecai then led a campaign of blood-vengeance that included the public impaling of Haman and his ten sons, the killing of 500 men in the town’s fortress, 300 men in the city of Shushan, and 75,000 men, women and children throughout the Persian Empire. No small wonder that Jewish tradition and Purim celebrations ignore the wanton brutality perpetrated by Jews against the Persians at the end of this story.

Why is this story so popular despite its brutal conclusion?

Perhaps, because the Book of Esther is the quintessential experience of exile (i.e. galut). For 2000 years, until the establishment of the state of Israel, Jews have been subject to the largesse both positive and negative of their rulers. Given the trauma of anti-Jewish hatred throughout our history, Purim offered the Jewish people emotional and psychological release. The danger for contemporary Jewry, though there are still those who hate the Jewish people and the state of Israel, is that we become embittered and hateful like our enemies. Judaism and the state of Israel revere prophetic and rabbinic values as well as democratic norms that promote justice, compassion and peace, and those values are a hedge against the hardening of the heart and the loss of one's Jewish soul. One might read Rava’s Talmudic call to become so drunk that Haman and Mordecai are indistinguishable from one another in a different way – that these two men were, in truth, the same, each driven by unchecked murderous designs.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed his duties as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in November 1988. A native of Los Angeles, he earned a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley...

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