Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The origins of Purim

by Lurker

Last year, Makor Rishon carried a very interesting, thought-provoking article about the origins of Purim and Megillat Esther. Among other things, the article addressed the following questions:

  • Why is Esther the only book of the Tanakh not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls? Is there, in spite of this, any trace or hint of it to be found among the scrolls from Qumran?

  • Was Megillat Esther canonized when it was first written, or was it incorporated into the Tanakh only during a later era?

  • How was the holiday of Purim celebrated (if it was indeed celebrated at all) in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora during the period of the Second Temple?

  • Why are the dramatic events described in the Megilla not mentioned in the book of Ezra, which covers the same time period?

  • Who is the central figure in the Megilla -- Mordekhai or Esther? If it is Mordekhai, then why is the book called "the Scroll of Esther"? And if it is Esther -- then why did the Jews originally call the holiday "the Day of Mordekhai"?

  • Why does the Megilla make a point of telling us that Mordekhai was from the tribe of Benjamin, and that he (or his ancestor) was exiled exiled together with King Yekhonia of Judah?

  • Why did Mordekhai order Esther not to tell anyone that she was Jewish?

  • How could Esther instruct the Jews of Shushan to fast during the holiday of Pesah?

  • What does the Megilla mean when it says at the end that when Mordekhai became a great figure among the Jews, he was "speaking peace for all his seed"? Who were "his seed"?

As a public service, the Muqata presents here (after the jump) a full English translation of the article. The text has been supplemented with several additional notes (which appear in brackets or as footnotes) and hyperlinks.

(The original Hebrew article from Makor Rishon can be read here.)

Makor Rishon

12 Adar, 5770 / 26.02.2010

Yoman, pp. 18-19

The Hidden Chapters of Megillat Esther

by Avinadav Witkun

Why was not even one copy of Megillat Esther discovered among the sacred writings found in Qumran? Why does the Book of Ezra fail to mention the tale of Purim, and how could Esther have asked the Jews to fast for her in the middle of the Pesah holiday? Researchers attempt to decipher the secrets of the Megilla in which there is no mention of God’s name or the Land of Israel’s name.

The holiday of Purim and Megillat Esther arouse no small amount of mixed feelings and emotions. It seems that many have a difficult time accepting the holiday’s unusual customs, the Megilla in which the concealed outweighs the revealed, the concealment of God’s name, and the concealment of Zion. On the other hand, the Megilla spins an amazing, dramatic tale, carrying in its wake an abundance of interpretations on the levels of allusions, homiletics, and mysticism. It practically cries out to the reader not to accept it on its plain, initially understood level. In addition, the Rabbinic commentary that spices it up – sometimes to the point of making one blush – intensifies the story, presenting a stormy tract of tangled, political intrigues, loving relationships that touch the heart, and sobering, bitter episodes in the relationship between Israel and the nations.

Cave 4 in Qumran, where the 4Q550 scroll was found

In academic research, by contrast, it has become common over the years to cast doubt upon the holiday’s origins, and to portray it as a late creation, without roots; a creation whose roots are alien to Judaism, whose characters are of dubious authenticity, and whose connection to reality or history is between tenuous and nonexistent. In point of fact, there is no reference to or evidence for the holiday of Purim from the era prior to the Mishna, except for two interesting sources: One is in the book of II Maccabees, and the second is in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that was deciphered only in the last few years.

Prof. Hanan Eshel, z"l

At issue is a scroll written in Aramaic[1], which was found in Qumran in 1952. Its crumbling fragments were deciphered only recently, but they have yet to receive the public attention they deserve. This is how Prof. Hanan Eshel [z"l] of Bar Ilan University explains it: “[The scroll] tells of details that are documented in Megillat Esther, but as opposed to the Megilla which is written in Hebrew, these are written in Aramaic. We’re only dealing with a portion of the biblical plot of the Megilla. There are no details to be found regarding Mordekhai, Esther, or Haman, but it does relate that the king couldn’t sleep at night, and that his servants would bring him books dealing with the tales of his father, Daryavesh [Darius], in which there was testimony to the effect that a Jew saved the king, but received no reward. Similarly, there is mention there of a man from the tribe of Benjamin”. The scroll, or more accurately, the crumbs that remain from it, is dated to the year 100 BCE, while the tale of the Megilla happens in approximately the year 490 BCE. “But the main part is missing from the book,” continues Eshel. “Where is the miracle? In I Maccabees [7:43], we see that one of the important battles of Judah Maccabee [the Battle of Adasa] happened on the 13th of Adar, a day before Purim. In II Maccabees [15:35], which was written in Greek outside the Land of Israel, it specifies that the battle took place one day before the “Day of Mordekhai”, but in I Maccabees, which was written in Hebrew in the Land of Israel, there is no such reference to this day. It would seem that in the Land of Israel, they were in no hurry to accept and sanctify the story of the miracle of Purim, as opposed to the Diaspora communities, where they accepted the holiday upon themselves”.

Through the eyes of Diaspora Jewry

Dr. Yigal Levin

In Rabbinic sources as well, one can find hints of criticism against the sages of the generation who opposed the pleadings of Mordekhai and Esther. “Write [my story] for [all] generations” [TB Megilla 7a], Esther demanded of the sages, but in spite of this – it appears that until the promulgation of the Megilla in Hebrew, which gave it sacred validity, quite a few generations passed. “We know nothing about the creation of the Megilla itself, or about the creation of the holiday, until the end of the Second Temple period”, says Dr. Yigal Levin of Bar Ilan University. “The earliest mentions are towards the end of the Second Temple period, in the time of Flavius Josephus and the Book of Maccabees. There is an earlier source, in the form of the Greek translation of the Megilla, in a somewhat different form, in the Septuagint of the 3rd century BCE. This is a source in which it’s unclear whether it contains additions, or whether we possess a version with omissions. In the Greek version, the name of God appears, and there is an explicit statement that what happened to the Jews in Shushan was a miracle. We don’t know when the translation was written.

“In the Dead Sea Scrolls, we have not found to this day even a small portion of Megillat Esther itself. There are researchers who ascribe this fact to the idea that residents of the area didn’t recognize the holiday, but in my opinion there’s no need to ascribe importance to things that are not found. Maybe one day someone will enter a cave and find Megillat Esther there.” Either way, says Levin, in spite of the lack of external historical evidence for the story in the Megilla, it is evident that the Megilla – which is saturated with Persian words – provides a rich portrayal of the Persian court in a fairly credible manner. “We assume that King Ahashveirosh was the Persian king Xerxes I, who reigned in Persia between the years 486-465. He was the fourth king of the Persian Empire after Koresh [Cyrus the Great], and not his direct descendant. He is known primarily from Greek historical works of the period, since it was in his time that the war between Persia and the Greeks reached its climax. Ahashveirosh invaded Greece – this is perhaps alluded to in the verse at the end of the Megilla: “And King Ahashveirosh laid a tribute upon the land and the islands of the sea” [Esther 10:1] – but in the end he was routed by the Greeks, in spite of his success in reaching Athens and burning the temples on the Acropolis. The banquet in the seventh year of his reign most likely marked this battle. Interestingly, Greek history also describes him as a hedonistic, weak-willed king, an image consistent with his character in the Megilla. Regarding Mordekhai, we know of someone by the name of Mordekhai who was a minister to one of these kings, but with no indication of his Jewish identity, or any particular importance beyond his being a senior minister.”

According to Levin, one would expect the miracle of Purim to be mentioned in the Book of Ezra, which deals with that period. “The Persian kings are mentioned there, the accusatory delegations sent by the [Samaritan] inhabitants of Israel are mentioned, but the story [of the Megilla] itself is not mentioned. From the perspective of the date, it would have been appropriate to mention the story of the Megilla. It would appear that in that period, they didn’t see a 'big story' in the story of the Megilla. Even if they were aware of it in Israel, it may be that they had no interest in mentioning the story. There are other strange details in the Megilla, for example Esther’s request to fast for her on Pesah. It is possible that at that time, after the destruction of the Temple, the festivals were not commemorated in the Diaspora in any special manner. Pesah was completely connected to the Temple. This theory strengthens the perception that this is a story that was written through the eyes of Diaspora Jewry."

Festival for the founding of a dynasty

Prof. Jona Schellekens

Prof. Jona Schellekens, a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University, opposes the accepted research that sees the Megilla as a non-biblical, mythical work. “Every year, I sit and listen to the Megilla, and I realize how deep it is, how many levels it has. People get caught up with the surface level, which is not the correct one”, says Schellekens, a demographer by training who is also involved in research of genealogical trees and anthropology. In the periodical Journal of Biblical Literature, Schellekens published his hypothesis opposing the negationist approach to the Megilla prevalent in current research. “To start with, the claim that this is a Persian story, and with Persian pagan characters who underwent conversion, is groundless”, he says. “One can see a clear resemblance to other biblical tales in the Tanakh, and to other characters. This is also what led me to idea that it can be proven that the story was a real, human story, and that is what led to the writing of the Megilla the way it was written.

“The story of Mordekhai and Haman reminded me very much of the story of David and Shaul. It’s about a hero whom they want to kill, about a good, honest man, who looks out for his people but doesn’t receive recognition. I am proceeding from the assumption that at the time these things took place, politics was at play. If Shaul had won, he would have told us that David threatened him by seeking to usurp his dynasty. With the passage of time, King David acquired his legitimacy, and this process was supported, together with other factors, by the biblical story that relates how David could have killed Shaul and inherited his throne, but that he refrained – twice – from doing so. Without a doubt, it was critical to preserve and to tell this story for future generations, in order to oppose the slanderers who questioned the purity of David’s intentions.

“In the time of Haman and Mordekhai, too, there was a political struggle for influence. The Megilla describes the raging emotions of Haman ben Hamedata in a detailed and exceptional manner, and undoubtedly – and this is hinted at in the Megilla – there were those who questioned Mordekhai’s motives: Why are you provoking Haman – [especially] at a time when catastrophes have recently befallen the Jewish people – merely to achieve goals of political influence? Because of this, the Megilla comes and tells us that Mordekhai makes Esther swear that she that she would not reveal that she is a Jew, and that Mordekhai the Jew is her kinsman. In other words, the Megilla is clearing Mordekhai’s name, as someone who did not seek glory for himself. Why would it do this if it weren’t talking about a real, living figure? Only real figures find themselves in this sort of political trouble. Back then, they didn’t live in a democratic society, anyone who rose to a position of authority did so by force, and there were murders right and left, that’s why he required strong legitimization.

“The very fact that it writes that he was exiled together with King Yekhonia of Judah – in other words, that he was not an anti-House of David figure – is significant. On the other hand, his lineage is mentioned, just like the lineage of the House of David is mentioned in Megillat Ruth. He most likely did not have an easy time with a portion of the descendants of David, who did not see him as a legitimate leader, not to mention the fact that he apparently founded a dynasty of Jewish leaders under Persian auspices, as the last verse fairly shouts out, ‘and seeking speaking peace for all his seed’ [Esther 10:3]. ‘His seed’ is an explicit reference to a dynasty. The founding of a new Jewish dynasty brought with it the establishment of the holiday of Purim, in my opinion. That’s why its ancient name was the ‘Day of Mordekhai’. Ancient practice was to celebrate the days on which dynasties were established as holidays, just as we celebrate Independence Day today. The Jews rejoiced in their new leadership, at least most of them.

“With the destruction of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great, the prestige of Mordekhai’s dynasty undoubtedly waned, and consequently, in a later period, the Sages transfer the emphasis from Mordekhai’s leadership to miracle of the salvation, and the ‘Day of Mordekhai’ turns into ‘Purim’. In other words, today we celebrate only a portion of the original holiday, which was appropriate for its time. Indeed, the Sages did not think like we do: They emphasized what was appropriate for future generations and what was necessary from here onwards, and not necessarily the minute historical details or the manner of their development. This is why I reject the idea from current research that sees Purim as being based upon a pagan holiday. This is a genuine Jewish holiday, and there is self-evident proof for this in the Megilla itself.”

Murder in the bedroom

In Schellekens’ opinion, his interpretation is not overly inventive. “According to the philosophy of science, my theory is more preferable than all the others, since it provides the maximum number of answers to the problems arising from the text. Why does it say ‘his seed’ at the end of the Megilla? Why does Esther conceal her Jewishness? I have one assumption that answers all these problems.” The good ending is manifested, according to Schellekens, in the last verse of the Megilla. “The promise of offspring, of descendants, is the greatest blessing of all”, he says. “In many books of the bible, there is a ‘happy ending’. In my opinion, in the past there was a continuation of the Megilla. It’s true that this is only a conjecture, but it’s possible that the continuation was a listing of Mordekhai’s descendants, just like the one that appears at the end of Megillat Ruth.” It may be that those who were loyal to the House of David had difficulty accepting Mordekhai’s prestige and his kingdom in exile, and this would explain the delay in the acceptance of the holiday in Israel.

And what about Esther, the tragic figure who rises to greatness and then disappears somewhere after Mordekhai’s status in the palace is strengthened? Was it really her fate to spend the rest of her days in Ahashveirosh’s harem? “In the end, Ahashveirosh was murdered in his bedroom, 13 years after the biblical story”, mentions Dr. Levin. Perhaps in the spirit of Purim, we can entertain ourselves with the idea that the unofficial ending of Megillat Esther is hidden in this event? Perhaps Queen Esther said her final word there? Is it possible that in this notion there is an echo of the Sages’ statements concerning Esther’s melancholy and covert marital relationship with Mordekhai, and the legend concerning the “devil” bearing Esther’s likeness that would rendezvous with Ahashveirosh at night, at the same time that Esther was being embraced by her beloved, Mordekhai the Jew? If we attempt to find clues to Ahashveirosh’s bitter end in his spacious bed, then we are dealing with a clever devil indeed…

[1] The scroll, from Cave 4 in Qumran, is designated 4Q550. A discussion of it can be found here.

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Louis said...

See the "Purim that almost wasn't" by Rav David Bar-Hayim:

Quasimodo said...

Some Christian scholars have suggested that the festival Jesus attended in John 5.1
was Purim, because it occurred on a Sabbath, and the only festival to occur
on a Sabbath between 25 AD and 35 AD
was Purim in 28 AD.

If that is correct, then some kind of Purim observance was held in Jerusalem
during that period.

yaak said...

the legend concerning the “devil” bearing Esther’s likeness that would rendezvous with Ahashveirosh at night, at the same time that Esther was being embraced by her beloved, Mordekhai the Jew

Legend?! It's Mefurash in the Zohar! I understand that it's written for a secular audience, but I would have gone with the word "teaching" instead of "legend".

S. said...

>If that is correct, then some kind of Purim observance was held in Jerusalem
during that period.

How on earth can one figure out what day of the week Purim came out on in 28?

josh said...

It is called Megillat Esther and not story of Purim, or story of Mordechai, because the whole story is to reveal the hidden hand of God. Megilah (root legalot) and Esther (hester is hidden). In the genara, we understand that Esther's real name is actually Haddas.

There would be no reason to include a simple dramatical soap opera in the tanack if there was no God in the story which it seems at face value. The story is very deep, I recommend everyone to read the Megillah tractate of the gemara for the story in between the lines.

SF2K01 said...


Esther's name is not a Hebrew name and has nothing to do with the meaning that is read into the name as written in Hebrew. It creates a nice drosh, as many attempts to decipher the story do, but at the end of the day, Esther was just the name of the middle eastern fertility idol.

It's also stated directly in the Megillah that Esther's Jewish name is Hadassah.

Jordan said...

It would have been nice if the article talked about why the main Jewish characters in the Purim story have the names of Persian deities.

It'd be like a modern-day story about two Jews named Christine and Mohammed -- the choice of names demands attention.

Anonymous said...

Talk about his `seed' ids nonsense due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew. It is used here in the Aramaic sense, there is a lot of Aramaic usage in the book, meaning simply family or people or tribe _ see Onkelos's translation of the Torah.

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