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What is Purim? Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is Purim?

A. Purim means “lots.” As described in the Book of Esther in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) evil Haman chose lots to decide the day on which the Jews would be massacred. In the end, the day proved to be a great Jewish victory.

Purim celebrates this Jewish victory over evil Haman who conspired against the Jews. Jewish communities read The Book of Esther from a scroll (megillah). The story tells of great reversals and of palace intrigue. The book employs a melodramatic and satirical literary style.

Jews of all ages dress in costumes and celebrate in raucous fashion.

Q. Did the story, as described in the Book of Esther, really happen?

A. Probably not. The biblical scholar Jon Levenson in his Commentary on the Book of Esther (p. 23) wrote, “[T]he historical problems with Esther are so massive as to persuade anyone... to doubt the veracity of the narrative.” Of course, the Reconstructionist approach does not require us to take the biblical text at face value, and so the “historical problems” of the text are not a religious problem for Reconstructionist Jews. In short, the Esther story is probably fiction which doesn't detract from the purpose or meaning of the holiday.

Q. What are the purpose and meaning of the Purim?

A. Let's briefly explore two ways of looking at Purim.

  1. Redemption can happen, even in exile. At Purim we retell the story of a weak Jewish community in exile who, through the influence of the Jewish queen, turn the tables on the forces of evil. The name of God never appears in the Hebrew text. The power of redemption, like God's name, may be hidden. And yet it is empowering to remind ourselves through the act of storytelling that reversals and redemptions can happen anywhere.
  2. Purim schpieling (self deprecating humorous story-inventing and other mischief) is good for the soul. It has a long and venerated history in the celebration of Purim and takes different forms. Some examples include small children tying rabbis' shoe laces together, service leaders taking humorous liberties with a usually fixed liturgical text, and the performance of Purim plays that retell Esther in contemporary terms, often poking fun at synagogue leadership, teachers, and others in authority. Judaism is often serious. By subjecting our sacred stories, beliefs, customs, and leaders to the sharp light of humor, we avoid turning them into idols. Humor and self-mockery help us keep perspective on the very human and flawed enterprise of creating religious communities.

Q. Isn't Purim a kids' holiday?

A. No. All the lessons described here on this page and elsewhere apply to adults. It is very healthful in the Jewish identity formation for children to see adults taking Purim “seriously” by dressing up and participating in the humor and revelry.

Q. Why do some people get drunk on Purim? Isn't that inappropriate?

A. In the Talmud it says that one should drink to the point of not being able to distinguish the difference between “'Blessed be Mordecai' and, 'Cursed be Haman'.” Drinking has the potential to encourage people to let down their guards and see the world from an altered perspective. Part of the Purim fantasy is to see the potential for redemption, even when that may not seem possible.

Of course, alcohol is dangerous. Used regularly to excess it certainly would not heighten one's awareness of redemption, but rather dull it. In sensitivity to those who struggle with alcoholism, many Reconstructionist communities do not serve alcohol at Purim. Some leave it to adults who want to drink in advance of the public celebration to do so privately. Other Reconstructionist communities provide alcohol at the synagogue. Only adults are permitted to partake.

Q. In Chapter 9 of the book of Esther we read that the Jews slaughtered almost 76,000 throughout Shushan and the provinces. Knowing that the Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshippers and injured many more on Purim in 1994, can't we infer that reading the Book of Esther is dangerous and unhealthy?

A. Sacred texts applied inappropriately to contemporary events can lead to dangerous results. In the context of the biblical Esther story, the Jews may have been defending themselves, since the decree to slaughter the Jews could not be reversed. Only another edict could be written, giving the Jews the right to defend themselves. Baruch Goldstein certainly was not defending himself. Nonetheless, many Reconstructionists do feel uncomfortable with the bloodshed at the end of the story and either leave it out, or chant in an undertone, a traditional custom used to recite a text that the community is uncomfortable with.

Type: FAQ

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