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Purim and the Scroll of Esther Use right or left arrows to go forward or back Unit 1:1 Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black Leo Baeck Centre, East Kew Revised for on-line course 2012/5772
The Scroll of Esther The ‘Megillat Esther’ is one of the five megillot of the Hebrew bible PURIM – Esther PESACH – Song of Songs SHAVU’OT – Ruth TISHA B’AV - Lamentations SUKKOT - Ecclesiastes
When is it set? The Scroll of Esther is a story set in Persia 559 BCE–330 BCEDated to the Achaemenid Empire (written in Persian: هخامنشیان) of 559 BCE–330 BCE.Achaemenid Empire It was the first of the Persian Empires to rule over significant portions of Greater Iran, the famous foe of the Greek city states. It was the first of many successor Persian Empires to figure significantly in history— most often as a local superpower, or major regional power.
That sounds pretty big! Encompassing approximately 7.5 million square kilometers, the Achaemenid Empire was territorially the largest empire in antiquity. At the height of its power, it spanned three continents, and eventually incorporated modern Afghanistan and beyond into central Asia, and Pakistan, to the East.
There’s more! In the north and west, it covered all of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the upper Balkans peninsula (Thrace), and most of the Black Sea coastal regions. In the west and southwest it extended to modern Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, all significant population centers of ancient Egypt and as far west as portions of Libya.Saudi ArabiaJordan LebanonSyriaEgyptLibya IsraelEven the land of Israel was part of the empire!
‘The Medes and the Persians’ The empire began as a vassal state of the Medes but ended up conquering and enlarging the Median empire to include Ancient Egypt and Asia Minor.MedesAncient EgyptAsia Minor Under Xerxes I (485–465 BC), Persia even came very close to conquering Ancient Greece. Ancient Greece
So this is the setting for the Megillah: In the days of Ahasuerus who reigned from India to Ethiopia over one hundred and twenty seven provinces… he gave a banquet for the nobles and governors of Media & Persia. (Esther, 1:1,3)
Do we know who Ahasuerus was? No. The version of Esther included in the Greek Septuagint is a retelling of the Hebrew Book of Esther rather than a translation. It records additional traditions, in particular the identification of Ahasuerus with Xerxes’ son Artaxerxes 465 BC to 424 BC. Others identify him as Artaxerxes II 404 – 358 BC, in tenuous light of the names used in the Hebrew and Greek sources and other contextual information.
Did the Persian king really agree to kill his Israelite subjects? Israel (Judea)On the contrary, Persia under Cyrus was the empire which conquered Babylon, freed the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity and allowed them to return to the land of Israel (Judea). Babylon Babylonian JudeaFurthermore, it was Xerxes I who appointed Ezra the Scribe to rule Judea and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Just a Hypothesis We know, and could readily imagine, that the Israelites settled well in Babylon, and maintained their identity: this was not the idea of resettlement!We know, and could readily imagine, that the Israelites settled well in Babylon, and maintained their identity: this was not the idea of resettlement! Perhaps there was a concern about ‘these Jews’? What to do about them?Perhaps there was a concern about ‘these Jews’? What to do about them? ‘What if we foment hatred and kill them all?’ ‘No: better – let’s let them return!’‘What if we foment hatred and kill them all?’ ‘No: better – let’s let them return!’
It’s a story! The Scroll of Esther is not true – it does not describe factual events. It’s a story. But stories often contain ‘core truths’. A similar story was well known in Persia well before Esther was written. EstherMordechaiEsther & Mordechai were not names in use in the Jewish community. IshtarMardukBut Ishtar & Marduk (Persian dieties) were well known!
What happened to the great Persian Empire – and the Jews living there? The vast majority of Jews in Babylon did not return to Jerusalem, though they sent money to rebuild the land! The Achaemenids were finally overthrown by the conquest of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Alexander the Great The Jewish communities in Babylon stayed where they were and flourished!
The Scroll of Esther The primary source relating to the origins of Purim is the Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther), probably the last of the 24 books of the Tanakh to be canonized by the Sages of the Great Assembly (between Biblical & Rabbis). Great Assembly It is dated to the 4th century BCE and according to the Talmud was a redaction by the Great Assembly of an original text written by Mordecai himself.
Reading the Megilla The reading of the Megilla is ascribed in the Talmud (Megilla 2a). Queen EstherRabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century CE) prescribed that women should attend the reading, since it was a woman, Queen Esther, through whom the miraculous deliverance of the Jews was accomplished.Joshua ben Levi
Talmudic traditions for reading: The reader is to pronounce the names of the ten sons of Haman (Esther 9:7- 10) in one breath, to indicate their simultaneous death.HamanEsther 9:7- 10 The congregation should recite aloud with the reader the verses 2:5, 8:15-16, and 10:3, which relate the origin of Mordechai and his triumph.2:58:15-1610:3
Read it like a pronouncement In some places it is read like a letter, because of the name iggeret ("epistle"), which it calls itself (Esther 9:26,29). It has been also customary since the time of the early Medieval era of the Geonim to unroll the whole Megilla before reading it, in order to give it the appearance of a pronouncement.Esther 9:26,29Geonim According to Halakha - Jewish law - the Megillah may be read in any language intelligible to the audience.
The noisy festival! In many congregations, when the reader of the Megillah mentions Haman (54 times), there is boisterous booing, hissing, stamping, and rattling.Haman This practice traces its origin to the Tosafists (the leading French and German rabbis of the 13th century), in accordance with the verse "Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek" (Deuteronomy 25:19).Tosafists AmalekDeuteronomy 25:19
Blotting out Haman The midrash explained this to mean "even from wood and stones", so the rabbis introduced the custom of writing the name of Haman, the ‘offspring of Amalek’, on two smooth stones and of knocking or rubbing them constantly until the name was erased. HamanAmalek Ultimately, the stones fell into disuse, the knocking alone remaining. Some wrote the name of Haman on the soles of their shoes, and at the mention of the name, stamped with their feet as a sign of contempt.Haman
Greggar For noisemaking, others used a noisy rattle, called a ra'ashan (from the Hebrew ra-ash, meaning "noise") and in Yiddish a gragger or greggar.
Noise it is! Some of the rabbis protested against these uproarious excesses, considering them a disturbance of public worship, but the custom of using noisemakers in synagogue on Purim is now almost universal.
Drinking – excessive alcohol It is not always so easy to determine what is right and what is wrong as it might seem from this story. The Rabbis instruct us to drink until we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman – until we ‘no longer know – Ad lo yada’.
Eating: Hamentaschen–Haman’s ears ‘Oznei Haman’ in hebrew, filled with poppy seeds as traditionally seeds and nuts are eaten on Purim - the Talmud tells us that Esther ate only these foodstuffs in the palace of Ahasuerus, since she had no access to kosher foods! This pastry belongs to the Ashkenazi cuisine; its Sephardi equivalent is a thin dough called Fazuelos.
Dressing up and masquerading. Dressing up in masks and costumes to disguise the wearers' identities is one of the most entertaining parts of the Purim holiday. Mistaken identity plays an important role in the story, as Esther hid her cultural origins from the king, Mordecai hid his knowledge of all the world's languages (which allowed Bigthan and Teresh to discuss their plot openly in his presence), and Haman was mistaken for Mordechai when he led Mordechai through the streets of Shushan.
Haman’s daughter’s big mistake! According to the Talmud, Haman's daughter, thinking that it must be Mordechai leading her father around on the white horse, dumped a chamber pot on her father's head as he passed by, and, after realizing her error, subsequently committed suicide! On this one time in the year, the Rabbis allowed men to dress as women and vice versa – a reversal of the natural order.
God also remains hidden. The one who is truly hidden behind all the events of the Megillah is God. The Jewish Sages referred to God’s role as הסתר פנים (hester panim, or "hiding of the Face“), which is also hinted at in a word play (Megilat Hester) on the Hebrew name for the Book of Esther, & means "revelation of that which is hidden”. The Book of Esther lacks any mention of God's name. We interpret this to emphasize the very point that God remained hidden throughout this series of events, but was nonetheless present and played a large role in the outcome of the story, as always.
Purimspiel By the 18th century in eastern Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe, Purim plays (called Purimspiels) had evolved into broad- ranging satires with music and dance, precursors to Yiddish theater, for which the story of Esther was little more than a pretext!RomaniaYiddish theater
Mishloakh Manot The tradition of ‘sending gifts’ is derived from ‘the sending of portions one to another, and gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22). Each person should send two different foods to a friend, and charitable donations (either money or food) to two needy people, to fulfil these two mitzvot. This custom is sometimes shortened from the Ashkenazi pronunciation to ‘’shlakh manes’.
Adloyada In Israel, Purim has become the opportunity for a public carnival, named after the instruction to drink ‘until you don’t know’ – in hebrew ‘Ad lo yadah’
That’s all folks! You can find further information about the on-line ‘Introduction to Judaism’ course at pjv.org.au/education