What REALLY Happened on Purim?
In December we told you what REALLY happened on Hannukah (lecture by David Biale: watch it here) and in late March you can learn about what REALLY happened on Passover with world-renowned Biblical scholars Robert Alter and Ron Hendel (register here). But now, as Purim arrives, you might wonder What REALLY happened on Purim?
Well, sorry to burst another beloved bubble, but it seems like the answer is “Nothing!” Biblical scholars and historian of antiquity cite the fact that there are absolutely no corroborating details in contemporaneous Persian texts, such as a Persian king with a Jewish consort, to argue that the Book of Esther, Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) is pure fiction. Perhaps, some suggest it was a diaspora counter-tradition to the story of Hannukah in the Book of Maccabees; if you will, a diasporic response to persecution.
That said, by the 2nd century CE the story and book were well known and an integral part of the rabbinic world, enshrined it a Tractate Megillah. Did you know that? Either way, it’s being studied in our Talmud Circles! You missed the first half but you can still join), and after Passover you can hear Prof. Erich Gruen expound on “Esther: Triumph or Travesty?” as part of his 4-session course, “Smiling Through Tears: Jewish Humor in Antiquity”.
Traditionally Purim was focused on reading the Megillah, sending gifts of food to the poor (mishloa’ch manot), blotting out Haman’s name with groggers, and drinking so much that one “Cannot tell Haman form Mordechai.” The tradition dressing up in fancy costumes harks back to Carnival in renaissance Italy. In addition, many communities, documented as early as the 12th century in France, celebrated their own unique “Purim Katan” (Small Purim) marking a historical date when they were delivered from persecutions and other calamities such as floods and fires. Individual families did so as well, from the family of Shmu’el HaNagid in 11th century Spain, to Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller rabbi of Prague in the 17th century, and many more.