Jews around the world celebrate Purim by reading the book of Esther, containing the origin story of that holiday. In surprising detail, the ninth chapter explains the major rituals of the holiday, when it is to be observed, and from whence it derives its name. While these biblical traditions have persevered throughout the ages, so has the impulse is to extend the celebration far beyond the rituals and dates enumerated in the Bible, as though Purim were a weeklong or monthlong opportunity for celebration. And why shouldn’t we? Purim is a great excuse for fun!
Esther Scroll, Italy, 18th c.
Already with the start of the month of Adar, the various campuses of Hebrew Union College are welcoming Purim with special opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Similarly, many synagogues hold Purim carnivals, likely on the Sunday before the holiday.
This expansion of the holiday is not merely a modern phenomenon. A close reading of the book of Esther suggests that even in the time of Esther and Mordecai, the response to the Jews’ salvation took on a scope even greater than originally planned. In late antiquity, the Talmud further expanded the festival with additional celebration, even suggesting that the entire month of Adar is a joyous and fortunate season. The gragger and other methods of blotting out Haman’s name have been around for about 800 years, and Jews have been performing a Purim spiel for nearly as long.
But not all customs have enjoyed the same popularity. Some traditions come and go. Mid-19th century American Jewish communities threw unparalleled masquerade Purim Balls. In a far darker spirit, at various times and places Jews have burned effigies of Haman. And for the more scholarly inclined, a former highlight of Purim were parody prayers, texts for study and sermons.
Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai
In 1778 Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (“Chida”) was in Amsterdam, on one of his famed tours of Shelichut, i.e. fundraising for the Jewish community of Palestine. In his diary and travelogue, Ma’agal Tov, he describes how Purim was celebrated on a Thursday night and Friday as expected: “they read the Megillah in the synagogue word for word and everyone could hear distinctly…a wonderful and excellent meal, beautiful and immaculate, with all kinds of delicacies and muscat wine.” Friends sent him fruits and cakes, dairy foods and wine, along with a set of recently published books, and he responded with his own confectionary dispatch. The festival concludes with the onset of the Sabbath, or so it seems, until it unexpectedly resumes and reaches it apogee the following night, at the end of the Sabbath:
The Rav kept me there and after Arvit we went back to his house. They had there a table on which was a model building, some two cubits high, of the royal courtyard [of Ahasuerus] with Mordecai, clothed in Persian [garb], sitting in the Royal Gate; and there was a palace with Esther inside on a couch with Ahasuerus and Haman falling on it; and on the other side of this tableau, the street outside with Haman hanging [from the gallows]; and all around the model figures of soldiers surrounding it; and there were beautiful pictures with many colors. Now all this had been made, with the greatest skill, completely out of sugar…The whole table was laden with delicacies, fresh fruits, cheese – on which was written ‘Kosher for Passover’ – and models of pickled cucumbers, out of sugar! It was a veritable ‘table of kings’.
The Diaries of Rabbi Ha’im Yosef David Zulai (‘Ma’agal Tov’ – the Good Journey), trans. Benjamin Cymerman (Jerusalem: Bnei Issakhar Institute, 1997), 229-230.
Ma’agal Tov, Livorno, 1879
Ma’agal Tov, Livorno, 1879
Azulai goes on to describe how the rabbis sat around the table sharing Torah teachings, until one rose to share some doggerel, followed by a humorous parody of a Talmudic lecture. Another continued in similar fashion. At the conclusions of these “lessons,” they dined at a banquet of fine foods, musical performances and general merriment.
So how will you celebrate the holiday?
Contributed by Rabbi Adam Rosenthal, Frances-Henry Library Director, Los Angeles