Thursday, March 8, 2012


Purim is one of the happiest of all the Jewish holidays in that it is an observance of a victory, rather than one of sorrow. Basically, as I am no Biblical scholar, the story, as I understand it, celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from the wrath of Haman in the book of Esther. One of my friend’s mothers had that name, and she carried herself with all of the elegance one would associate with the good Queen, who helped the Jewish people in their time of need.

In the Book of Esther, in the so-called "Old" Testament, the story begins when King Ahasuerus tells his wife, Queen Vashti, to come to him and his friends at a party and display her charms; which she refuses to do, as she is not sure of his intentions. Accordingly, he finds a new Queen; they were apparently readily available in the old days; and he does this by holding a beauty contest. Think of it as the Miss America pageant, about 3,000 years removed. Esther, a Jewish girl; presumably from Brooklyn; is selected to be his wife. She does not tell him that she is Jewish; only that she is orphaned. In reality she lives with her cousin Mordechai, with the tribe of Benjamin in Persia. Back then they still had Jews there.

Soon after she becomes Queen, Esther's cousin Mordechai angers one of the King's friends, Grand Vizier Haman, by refusing to bow before him. Why, I do not know. But Haman was somewhat taken aback, and in an act of retribution decides to punish him by convincing the King to kill all of the Jews, who have clearly gotten out of hand. The King assents to this plan, ordering the destruction of the Jews, "young and old, women and children", on the 13th day of the month of Adar. See Esther 3:13.

When Mordechai hears of this monstrous punishment he rends his clothes in mourning and sits by the city gate, awaiting the inevitable. Esther, hearing of her cousin’s state of mind, sends her servants to find out what is bothering him so. When the servant returns with a copy of the King's edict she is horrified, and at a loss as to what she should do. The Queen only appeared before the King at his pleasure, and it had been some time since they had last met. To demand an audience with him was punishable by death. This is a woman who clearly needed a pre-nup!

Her cousin Mordechai convinces her that she was made Queen by God in order to be there and save His Chosen People. Esther reacts by demanding that all her fellow Jews fast while she decides what to do. After 3 days everybody got hungry, and Queen Esther had hatched a plan.

She gets all dressed up in her finest robes and goes to see the King. Surprisingly, he is happy to see her and asks what it is that she desires. She asks that the King allow her to attend a banquet with him and Haman.

Haman is furious, and his family urges him to kill Mordechai by impaling him on a pole. Haman sets the pole up but has to stop short of killing Mordechai because the King has heard that it was Mordechai who had stopped a rebellion some time earlier, thus saving the King's life. In a show of gratitude, the King places his own royal robes about Mordechai, and then has Haman lead him, by foot, through the city, astride the King's own horse. In addition he is instructed to call out as he walks, for all to hear, "This is what is done for the man the King delights to honor!" See Esther 6:11.

Later on, at the banquet, King Ahasuerus asks Esther once again, what is it that she desires? Her answer is one of the most plaintive, and beautiful, quotes from the Bible; "If I have found favor with you; Your Majesty; and if it pleases you, grant me my life. This is my petition. And spare my people. This is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated." See Esther 7.

The King, realizing that Haman has tricked him into ordering the death of his own wife, Queen Esther, is rightfully outraged. When he finds out; from the maid by the way, just like in an old movie; that Haman has erected a pole to impale Mordechai upon, he is apoplectic! He then orders that Haman be impaled instead. He also awards Mordechai all of Haman's lands, as well as the signet ring which he is wearing at the moment. The King strips it from him on the spot, awarding it to Mordechai right in front of the stricken Haman. In addition he gives Queen Esther the power to overturn his orders concerning the destruction of the Jews.

In addition, she gives the orders necessary for the Jews to congregate and arm themselves against their oppressors. On the 13th day of Adar they were attacked and defeated their foes. The next day was a day of rest, and became known as Purim due to the meaning of the word "pur", which means "the lot", as in “all of them”, against the Jews, who emerged as the victors. And that is the story of Purim as I remember it. But, as I was very young at the time, I may have gotten some of it wrong.

The painting above is "The Triumph of Mordechai", painted by Pieter Pietersz Lastman.

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