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Purim 2022

Purim guide for the perplexed 2022

Eight facts about the holiday.

“Haman begging Esther for Mercy,” Purim story, oil on panel, circa 1618, by Pieter Lastman. Credit: National Museum in Warsaw via Wilkimedia Commons.
“Haman begging Esther for Mercy,” Purim story, oil on panel, circa 1618, by Pieter Lastman. Credit: National Museum in Warsaw via Wilkimedia Commons.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

1. Purim is a Jewish national liberation holiday—just like Passover and Hanukkah—which highlights optimism, commemorating the transformation of the Jewish people from subjugation to freedom. It is celebrated seven days following the birth and death date of the biblical Moses, who is a historical role model of liberty, leadership and humility.

Purim is celebrated (on March 17, 2022) at a time when the relatively cold and stormy winter shifts into the relatively warm and pleasant spring.

2. Remembrance is at the core of the holiday, and the Scroll of Esther, which recounts the Purim saga, is also named “The Book of Remembrance.”

The aim of one of the Purim story’s heroes—Mordechai, who became the chief adviser to the King of Persia—was to alert the assimilated Jewish community of Persia that forgetfulness and detachment from their Jewish roots would lead to oblivion. He reminded them that the systematic nurturing of remembrance is the foundation of productive action, and a prerequisite to growth, security and the respect of one’s fellow human beings.

The pre-Purim Sabbath is called the “Sabbath of Remembrance,” and commemorates the deadly threat of the Amalekites, who aimed to annihilate the Jewish people upon their deliverance from Egypt. Commemorating deliverance from such threats helps us to avoid wishful thinking and encourages a realistic view of the world, which is replete with threats.

Furthermore, the main events and personalities of Purim are connected to major biblical milestones. For example, Queen Esther—the Purim heroine—was emboldened by the legacy of Sarah the Matriarch, and the deliverance of the Jews of Persia by Mordechai was inspired by the legacy of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, and by the determination to rectify the flaws of King Saul.

3. Historical context. The 586 BCE destruction of the first Jewish Temple and the expulsion of Jews from Judea and Samaria by the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar triggered a Jewish exile to Babylon and Persia. Eventually, Persia replaced Babylon as the leading regional power. In 538 BCE, Xerxes the Great, Persia’s King Ahasuerus, the successor of Darius the Great, proclaimed his support for the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Jewish Temple and the resurrection of national Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

In 499-449 BCE, Ahasuerus established a coalition of countries—from India to Ethiopia—which launched the Greco-Persian Wars, aiming to expand the Persian Empire westward. However, Persia was resoundingly defeated (e.g., the 490 BCE and 480 BCE battles of Marathon and Salamis), and Ahasuerus’s authority in Persia was gravely eroded.

4. Purim is celebrated on the fourteenth and fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Adar. “Adar” is the root of the Hebrew adjective adir (אדיר), which means glorious, exalted and magnificent. It is, also, a derivative of the Akkadian word adura (“heroism”).

5. Queen Esther is the heroine of Purim. The Book of Esther is one of the five biblical books highlighted during Jewish holidays: the Song of Songs (Passover), book of Ruth (Pentecost), Lamentations (the ninth of Av, the date of the destruction of the Jewish Temple), Ecclesiastes (Feast of Tabernacles) and the book of Esther (Purim).

Esther was Mordechai’s niece (or cousin), and her role demonstrates the centrality of women in Judaism, as did those of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah (the Matriarchs), Miriam (Moses’ older sister), Batyah (who saved Moses’ life) Deborah (the prophetess, judge and military leader), Hannah (Samuel’s mother) and Yael (who killed Sisera, the Canaanite General).

Esther was one of the seven biblical Jewish prophetesses, in addition to Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail and Huldah. Sarah lived 127 years, and Esther was the Queen of 127 countries.

The name Esther is a derivative of Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of beauty and fertility, as well as Setareh, the Persian morning star, which shifts darkness into light, thus becoming a symbol of deliverance. The name evolved into Aphrodite and Venus, the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, beauty and fertility. The Hebrew word for Venus is Noga, which is a biblical divine light and the second-brightest star after the moon. (It is also the name of my oldest, and very special, granddaughter.)

The Hebrew name of Esther was Hadassah, whose root is hadas, the Hebrew word for the “myrtle tree.” The myrtle tree features prominently during the Feast of Tabernacles. It is known for its pleasant scent and humble features, including leaves in the shape of the human eye. Greek mythology identifies the myrtle tree with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.

6. Mordechai, one of the deputies of Ezra the Scribe, who led a wave of Jewish ingathering from Babylon to the Land of Israel, was a role model of principle-driven optimism in defiance of colossal odds, in the face of a superpower and in defiance of the assimilated Jewish establishment.

The first three Hebrew letters of Mordechai spell the Hebrew word “rebellion.” Mordechai did not bow to Haman, the second most powerful person in the Persian Empire. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, the only son of Jacob who did not bow to Esau. Mordechai was a descendant of King Saul, who defied a clear commandment to eradicate the Amalekites, sparing the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, thus precipitating further calamities upon the Jewish people. Mordechai learned from Saul’s crucial error and eliminated Haman, a descendant of Agag the Amalekite, thus sparing the Jewish people a major disaster.

7. Purim’s Hebrew root is pur, meaning “fate” as well as “casting lots,” commemorating Haman’s lottery, which determined a designated day for the annihilation of the Jewish People. It is also related to the words “to frustrate,” “to annul,” “to crumble” and “to shutter,” reflecting the demise of Haman.

8. “Purimfest 1946” yelled Julius Streicher, the Nazi propaganda chief, as he approached the gallows (Newsweek, Oct. 28, 1946, page 46). On Oct. 16, 1946, 10 convicted leading Nazi war criminals were hanged in Nuremberg (the 10 sons of Haman were hung in ancient Persia). Streicher had studied the Aryan connection to the descendants of the Amalekites—who were the worst enemies of the Jewish people—and particularly, to Haman (who was an Agagite, a descendant of Agag, a biblical Amalekite King) and other Persians. Hence, Streicher’s assumption that Purim was relevant to the fate of the enemies of the Jewish people.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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