Today is the second day at of the Jewish festival of Purim. Historians debate whether the events described in the book of Esther, on which the Purim festival is based are historically accurate, but in any case, the story is interesting and teaches some useful lessons.

According to the Book of Esther, during the reign of King Ahasuerus in Babylon, the king decided to pick his wife by holding a beauty contest. The winner and new queen was a beautiful young woman named Esther. She was Jewish, but the king did not know it.

A wicked counselor named Haman convinced the king to order the destruction of all the Jews. Messengers were dispatched throughout the kingdom announcing the extermination of the Jews to take place several months later. Haman had picked the most auspicious date by casting lots.

Esther's wise uncle Mordecai urged her to petition the king, but Esther was afraid that she too might be killed. Mordecai replied that Esther, despite her privileged position, would not escape what would befall the rest of the Jews. Moreover, it might be that Esther had been elevated to the queenship for this very moment.

So Esther invited the king and Haman to a banquet, a banquet which Haman thought was in his honor. At the banquet, Queen Esther told the king how Haman was plotting against Mordecai the Jew, who had earlier saved the king from an assassination attempt. She then accused Haman to trying to kill her, for, Esther confessed, she was a Jew.

The enraged king ordered Haman to be hanged—-ironically, on the gallows that Haman had been building for Mordecai.

According to Babylonian law, a king's decree could not be rescinded. So the king sent forth throughout Babylon a second decree, allowing the Jews "in every city to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and the province that would attack them." The language precisely matched the previous decree which had ordered the destruction of the Jews.

On the day that the destruction of the Jews was scheduled to begin, the people who hated the Jews attacked. The Jews fought back, assisted by provincial governments which sought Mordecai's favor. "Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would unto those that hated them."

Forever after, Jews have celebrated the Feast of Purim ("lots"). It is a joyous springtime festival, full of children's games.

Esther is the only book of the Bible in which God is not mentioned. Yet it is easy enough to see who is doing God's work: wise Mordecai, brave Esther, and the fighting Jews throughout Babylon.

On Purim, Jews are supposed to drink until they can no longer distinguish "Blessed be Mordecai" from "Cursed be Haman." Some people say that this means a person should drink until he can no longer do the mathematical calculations with the Hebrew letters showing that Mordecai and Haman each add up to the same value, namely 520. (All Hebrew letters have a numeric value.)

Other people say that because the blessing of Mordecai and the cursing of Haman both manifested God's goodness, a person should drink until he realizes the fundamental similarity of God's superficially diverse good works.

Whether or not there was a historical Queen Esther, history shows that Esther and Haman are archtypes who will always be with us. When the Nazi war criminal Julius Streicher was being dragged to the gallows in his underwear, he screamed "Purim Feast, 1946." (Abram L. Sachar, The Redemption of the Unwanted: From the Liberation of the Death Camps to the Founding of Israel (N.Y. St. Martin's Pr., 1983), p. 123.) Streicher was publisher of the ultra-anti-Semitic weekly newspaper Der Stuermer. He was convicted of crimes against humanity for inciting the murder of Jews. Even with the context of Nazi politics, Streicher was an extremist in his early, frequent, and insistent demands for Jewish extermination. As an inciter of genocide, Streicher did have much in common with Haman.

Many Jewish families and communities celebrate an additional Purim based on their own miraculous deliverances. For example, according to the 1991 book Purim: Its Observance and Significance (Mesorah Pubs.), the Jews of Algiers celebrate an additional Purim to commemorate the Turkish defeat of a 1775 Spanish invasion (retaliation for Algerian raids on the Spanish coast), which saved the Jewish quarter from almost certain destruction by the Spaniards.

Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
>Messengers were dispatched throughout the kingdom
>announcing the extermination of the Jews to take place
>several months later.

If you are intending to murder a large group of people, it seems to me rather foolish to announce this to them several months in advance...
3.14.2006 6:33pm
Ahasuerus was Xerxes I, by the way, of Herodotus fame.
3.14.2006 6:34pm
Hag Sameach!
3.14.2006 6:43pm
William Spieler (mail) (www):
If I recall correctly, Esther's purported grave in Iran is a shrine for local (non-Jewish) women.
3.14.2006 7:18pm
Bob Leibowitz (mail) (www):
David -- I've always appreciated your writings on guns and shooting. Thank you, too, for this fascinating lesson about the history and culture from which my own is directly descended. -- Bob
3.14.2006 8:48pm
Urijah (mail):
Isn't it Persia, not Babylon?
3.14.2006 8:49pm
A Berman (mail):
Just one minor note-- The story of Purim is both a children's story and an adult story. In the children's story, it's a beauty contest. In the adult version, the King sleeps with each of the women and those he doesn't pick, get sent to his harem. Haman also represents a centralization of power in one man (as the King's chief of staff) away from a more balanced structure amongst several ministers. That's why one of the ministers helps Mordechai and Esther at the end of the story.

If you are interested, 'The Dawn' by Yoram Hazony is a fascinating political analysis of the Story of Esther.
3.14.2006 9:08pm
Lena Matis (mail):
Josef Stalin suffered a massive stroke on Purim Day 1953
He died two days later (the official date of death is March 5).
Prior to that Purim Day, Stalin was executing his own mad
well-calculated plan of deportation of the Soviet Jews into
Far Eastern concentration camps.
Thus Stalin's collapse on Purim Day, followed by his death,
prevented the otherwise inevitable distruction of the Jews in the USSR
3.14.2006 9:27pm
O:K then who or what does 666 repesent in Hebrew?
3.14.2006 9:32pm
That seems like a lousy constitutional structure.
3.14.2006 9:59pm
666 is the numerical value of Moses's prayer asking for G-d's mercy on behalf of the Jewish people. ("Ata yigdal na koach Adonai/Now let the power of my Lord grow." --Numbers 14:17). The number six also has some import in Jewish mysticism since 6 correlates with the letter vav which is associated with G-d. Also, according to the Torah, the world was created in 6 days.
3.14.2006 10:04pm
Bergamot (mail):
I find two things really weird about Haman.

First, as far as I know, he's the only villain to rate the "noisemaker treatment". Pharaoh doesn't, Antiochus doesn't, Hitler doesn't, etc.

Second, given the taboo associated with his name, why name cookies after him? Doesn't that completely defeat the purpose?
3.14.2006 11:03pm
SenatorX (mail):
Ok, first off let me say I love this story. I have never heard this before but I have always been fascinated by the Sumerian/old testament times. Here is my quick analysis:

Esther was a plant. Mordecai who was her Uncle."Mordecai the Jew, who had earlier saved the king from an assassination attempt", seems like someone who would be rather well known. The king knows him, he knows the king, he saved is life somehow! And when the fighting breaks out "The Jews fought back, assisted by provincial governments which sought Mordecai's favor". Nice! The provincial governments currying for Mordecai's favor?? Why would they do that? What power does he hold?

So big boy on the block(does everyone know he is Jewish?). Well we know HE knows he is Jewish. So he lets his brother's daughter or his sister's daughter to marry the King but keeps it secret from the guy whose life he saved.

So his niece who is HOT is settling in with the King and all of the sudden that bastard the "wicked counselor named Haman convinced the king to order the destruction of all the Jews". WTF? How did he ever manage that and why would the King agree to order something as insane as:

a)kill all the Jews and
b) do so when he knows the guy who saved his life Mordecai is Jewish?(he didn't know?) When Esther busts the news in a surprise(ambush) she sets up as a banquet in Haman's honor the King is swayed by the argument that Haman tricked(?) him into sending an order to everyone in the kingdom to "kill all the Jews" because he really was the enemy of Mordecai and surprise(?) he was a Jew too! That Haman was either so tricky that not only did he convince the King somehow to send out this order(gotcha!) he got him to do it at a pre-set date determined by Haman by "casting lots". So "chance/gods" say in several months time is the best day so let everyone know(including the Jews...well at least Mordecai found out and since he is a big man around one must at least figure anyone else he wanted to know would know of the orders and pre-set day of genocide).

It is revealing when: "Esther's wise uncle Mordecai urged her to petition the king, but Esther was afraid that she too might be killed. Mordecai replied that Esther, despite her privileged position, would not escape what would befall the rest of the Jews. Moreover, it might be that Esther had been elevated to the queenship for this very moment"

So he and Esther both knew each other and both knew each other were Jewish and were keeping it secret from the King. Also let's be clear also about how she was picked to be queen. The King decided to pick his wife by holding a beauty contest. Here one must assume either a)the girls volunteered to enter the contest because they wanted to win or b) someone forced them to enter. Either the King(the law) or their families(Mordecai).

Now Mordecai wants her to petition to the King but Esther doesn't want to because she fears it will betray her being Jewish and dying because of the edict. Mordecai threatens her here because if she hasn't been busted by this time she is probably is safe and clearly Mordecai is saying if you don't do what I say then I will let the King know you are Jewish(even if it is a bluff). Then he says hey dummy how do think you got to be queen in the first place? You think it is just luck? Mordecai is either saying God placed her there to save the Jews or he Mordecai placed her there to save the Jews. She acquiesces.

Now it gets really good. She easily outs Haman when he thinks he is about to be honored(hubris of the wicked, getting busted at their smuggest moment). The king is like "are you kidding me? Haman planned this whole thing? He tricked me into ordering genocide on the Jews just so the guy that saved my life Mordecai would get killed too? I don't even want to talk about the fact that you're Jewish Esther and you hid it from me but also you're Uncle is Mordecai?(or was this kept from him still?) what I really care about is that I was tricked by that sneaky deceiver Haman because, damn it, genocide sucks and soon that day will come and once I say something that's it. What can I possibly do to fix things?"

First of course hang Haman and whoa there were gallows already built for Mordecai?? That doesn't even make sense unless the edict to kill "all the Jews" was directly at Mordecai directly or an additional focus of attack on Mordecai as well as the genocide. The king ordered gallows for the guy who saved his life?(which is the saving grace argument later by Esther) or did Haman target Mordecai under the King's broad sweep order to kill all the Jews. But dang he didn't know his buddy Mordecai was a Jew? Now that is a dilemma.

Luckily he thinks of a plan. He will issue another edict with the exact same wording as the first edict but with the goal of making legal to the Jews to be ready and "take an eye for an eye" when the hate filled people attack that follow the Kings first order(or hate filled people using the Kings law as an excuse). Now this edict goes out at least to all the Jews but like the first edicts one must figure everyone knows.

Still the haters attack but get their buts whipped because the provincial governments join the fray on the side of the Jews because they want Mordecai to owe them favor. And because the Jew haters were going to do the same to them(as the wording of the 2nd law points out), "Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction, and did what they would unto those that hated them". So Jews killed the attackers but also "did what they would" which rather implies things like looting, robbing, raping, pillaging, burning property, etc...(they deserved it though because that's what the attackers were going to do to them).

Now the Nazi war criminal yells "Purim Feast 1946"!? The inference clear that he is like Haman who further HE BELIEVES was the good guy in the story. Either because Haman tried(but failed) to get all the Jews killed once, or because he was claiming to be the victim of a "Jewish Conspiracy" where the state was being used by the Jews to unjustly persecute HIM.

Now the Jews celebrate this in a festival. Because there was going to be persecution(genocide maybe) and this was avoided by the wise planning/luck/god of Mordecai, the bravery/cowardice/necessity of Esther, and the rest of the Jewish warriors who did all the justified slaughtering.

Up to this point I am thinking what a mess! Sounds like a bunch of normal people with their power plays to me. But then the blogger(DK) points out:

"On Purim, Jews are supposed to drink until they can no longer distinguish "Blessed be Mordecai" from "Cursed be Haman."

Is this not a mandate to get intoxicated(drink) until you realize the moral of the story? It certainly is not the numbers in the code equaling(unless you think the whole story or at least the names were made up for the purpose of the code and not a contextual message, not to mention a drinking game!). The code stuff is more likely dumb people trying to act smart. Is there Jewish word for fools? Anyway MY opinion is the wisdom of the story is that:

-Mordecai and Haman were both two tricky guys who were enemies.
-Mordecai was smarter and out tricked Haman
-If you are Jewish you are alive because your ancestors were clever and political and this is important because->
-Jews cannot trust "the state" not be manipulated by "Haman(s)" against them and so must be vigilant(the King doesn't come out looking good in this story, just a tool really)
-It seems yet again lust for the HOT Jewish women(Repeated Mohammed theme for eg) is perhaps one of the psychological reasons for anti-Semitism. And if you can't get a hot Jewish chick then don't "love the one you're with" but put her in a burka and treat her like crap. Men resent the power women have over them because of the lust they inspire. That revenge drive unchecked is rampant in Islam for example...just a thought.

It was an interesting story to post here for sure. I rather think it shows why the Jewish faith is so resilient. It is rather self critical and introspective as this story shows. Oh sure some could just say the moral is "God always saves the Jews in a pinch in mysterious ways" but that's a boring argument(and one I don't believe anyway). And it's easy to see where anti-Semites would cherry pick the story for their own conspiracy theories but I think it's easy to see there is more to the story than just Malecai's machinations.

Is this why Madonna calls herself Esther now? Can I just say Ewwww. I don't think Esther comes off all that great in the story. At BEST Mordecai has to put the fear of God(or her life) into her to expose Haman to save ALL THE JEWS. Girlfriend is PUSHING it. But she does obey in the end and that's something to be proud of her for…
3.14.2006 11:03pm
Minor correction: there is no second day of Purim. Since the Jewish day goes from nightfall to nightfall, Purim began on Monday night and ended on Tuesday night. There is only a second day of celebration in historically walled cities (i.e., only in Jerusalem). This day (Tuesday night to Wednesday night) is called Shushan Purim and is only observed in Jerusalem. It is more of a delayed Purim than a second day of Purim.
3.15.2006 12:42am
Walk It (mail):

Regarding your other post, do you think the Israelis plan things like this on holidays just to hype the celebrations. (Yes, it may be an ignorant question, but it is sincere. It just seems like so many of these "actions" are timed to religious celebrations.)
3.15.2006 9:56am
Richard Bellamy (mail):
I am concerned that the recent semi-departure of Orin Kerr is creating unforeseen eddies in the Volokh continuum. As best as I can tell, the Davids (Kopel and Bernstein) are starting to merge, so that we are now getting information on gun laws and Judaism all in the same post.

This may create economies of scale for readers to tend to skim or skip both topics, but could lead to unfortunate consequences, such as extensive coverage of Ireland repealing "the 1181 Act banning Jewish people from owning armour."
3.15.2006 10:21am
BobH (mail):
Most Jewish holidays fall into the paradigm, "They tried to kill us; we won; let's eat." Purim varies from this a bit: "They tried to kill us; we won; let's eat hamantaschen and get drunk."

WAY more fun than Yom Kippur!
3.15.2006 11:02am
Walk It (mail):

Do y'all wear dresses too when getting drunk?

I heard that was true and maybe this site can be known as the place to educate all of us non-birthright chumps. Of course, Jesus opened the door to us all. :)
3.15.2006 11:15am
MJH (mail):
Given how close they are this year, Purim and St. Patrick's Day must occasionally coincide. I think you can see where I'm going with this: serious interfaith drinking.
3.15.2006 11:37am
Mike Schilling (mail):
It's suggestive that Ishtar and Marduk are the names of Persian gods.
3.15.2006 11:43am
Hamantach (mail):
You forgot to mention the Hamantaschen! The yummiest thing about Purim. :)

Apricot is my personal favorite.
3.15.2006 12:07pm
Bob Montgomery:
666 = Nero.
3.15.2006 12:17pm
Bruce J (mail) (www):
You left out the book's turning point -- Esther held not one but TWO banquets for Haman and the king, and what happened between them (=chapter 6) was critical. (By the way, the book is filled with such pairs, beginning with the pair of feasts in chapter 1.)

"That night the king could not sleep"
so he has the chronicles of his kingdom read to him, and it "just happens" that the section read includes the story of Mordecai's heroic act. And the king just happens to take note of it and ask whether this man was ever rewarded (the answer is "no"). While he is considering this matter Haman just happens to show up and the king asks HIS opinion about how to honor someone the king favors. Haman, thinking the king must be speaking about him, suggests a great public display. . . and to his chagrin is immediately instructed that HE is to carry out his own suggestion for Mordecai! It is at this point that Haman begins to realize he is doomed.

The book actually is rich in these "happenstances" of people being in just the right place at just the right time. It's fitting that Haman's plot should be fixed by casting LOTS (called "purim"). As you noted, the name "God" does not appear in the book -- but the timing of all these events makes it clear that the God who redeemed Israel out of Egypt with mighty acts that all could see continues to work for his people in ways that are not, on the surface, so obvious (and so people don't immediately say "God did this") but are every bit as effective.
3.15.2006 1:36pm
JoshL (mail):
A few minor corrections and comments:

1) As has already been pointed out by several people, the story relates to Persia, not Babylon. This is significant, as the Persians were generally much more kind to the Jews than the Babylonians were.

2) As someone else pointed out, Xerxes I is a possible candidate for Ahasueros. The other good candidate is Cambyses III (for reference, the 4 Kings of Persia that factor heavily into both the expansion of the Empire and Western history are Cyrus II/the Great, Cambyses III, Darius I/the Great, and Xerxes I, all consecutively with the exception of a brief period in 522 between Cambyses and Darius). Cambyses' father, Cyrus, let the Jews go back from Babylon to Judea, and begin rebuilding the Temple. At some point (possibly during Cambyses' reign) the work was stopped due to influence from the Samaritans, and restarted and completed under Darius I.

3) The problem that stems from the above issue is that Ahasueros is a Hebrew name that can refer to either Cambyses III or Xerxes I.

4) Confusing things even more is that Esther is not a Persian name, as Mike Schilling pointed out above. The Hebrew name Hadassah is generally ascribed to her. All of this makes it quite difficult to even attempt to find any sort of a basis for it- presumably it didn't happen as told, but at the least one would imagine that there was some issue. That's what leads to my pointing to Cambyses as a more believable candidate than Xerxes- Cambyses is the only Persian monarch I can find who does anything specifically anti-Jewish.

5) Yom is mostly correct. Technically, any city that had walls at the time of the conquest of Israel by Joshua as well as Shushan itself qualify for Shushan Purim. This includes Jerusalem, Susa (Shushan), Jericho, and Damascus (as well as possibly Baghdad).

And of course, BobH is indeed correct. Purim fits into the larger scheme of Passover and Hannukah as a "they tried to kill us/enslave us and failed" so break out the latkes/matzah and horseradish/hamentaschen and wine.

Finally, two amusing places that the Gemarah deals with such things (ignoring the sticky side of this):

One occurs in tractate Psachim (Passover): When the Temple stood, there was no happiness without that the Temple no longer stands, there is no happinness without wine.

The other is directly Purim related: the Gemarah teaches that one must drink until they cannot tell "beyn" (between) "baruch mordechai" (blessing mordechai) "v'arur haman" (and cursing haman). Directly after is the following story: Rabbi Zeira and Raba were at their Purim meal at Raba's house, discussing the finer points of kosher slaughter. Raba was so drunk that he demonstrated on Rabbi Zeira, who died. When the morning came and Raba sobered up, he prayed for Rabbi Zeira to be resurrected, and he was. The following year, Raba invited Rabbi Zeira to his home for Purim. Rabbi Zeira declined, saying "we cannot rely on a miracle every year."

Take that one however you wish.
3.15.2006 1:48pm
Chris24601 (mail):
Drink until you see the value in retributive justice!
3.15.2006 9:11pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
Depending on which manuscripts you look at, the Song of Songs also doesn't contain any name or word for God. The divine name does occur in one manuscript tradition, but it's usually thought to be not original.

The name King of Babylon was sometimes used by the Persian kings, and they set themselves up as continuing the Babylonian empire. They did rule partially from the capital city of Babylon, because they had several capitals and moved about for different parts of the year to demonstrate presence throughout the empire.

I believe the part talking about he irrevocable decrees refers to it as the law of he Medes and the Persians, though, not Babylonian law. We see the same thing in Daniel, when he gets thrown to the lions despite the Persian king's desires, because he couldn't take back his decree.
3.15.2006 11:32pm
JoshL (mail):

I believe the part talking about he irrevocable decrees refers to it as the law of he Medes and the Persians, though, not Babylonian law. We see the same thing in Daniel, when he gets thrown to the lions despite the Persian king's desires, because he couldn't take back his decree.

Good point. Note that based on linguistics, Daniel is probably written later than Esther, though the story dates from around the same period (actually, Daniel is definitely written after Alexander the Great, since most of it is in Aramaic).
3.15.2006 11:57pm
St. Patrick's Day will next coincide with Shushan Purim in 2014, and with main Purim in 2022.
3.16.2006 11:37pm
ronbo (mail):
Most discussions of Purim conveniently ignore the mixed marriage between Esther and the king. Given all the hand-wringing about mixed marriages these days, one would assume that Esther would be criticized for marrying a non-Jew. The fact that she is treated as a heroine clearly suggests that some things are more important than purity of blood.

Every time I read the Megillah I am amazed at how progressive the story is. It would be nice if the rabbinical establishment took some of this history to heart.
3.17.2006 1:50am