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Purim: Strangest of the Chagim

There are curious depths to chag and its central text that need to be examined carefully
Noam Zion, Steve Israel
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Steve Israel

Purim is in many ways the strangest of the Jewish holidays. For one thing: how can we explain the fact that the seemingly secular Purim story, as told in the Scroll of Esther, has elicited such extraordinary praise from the Sages of the Talmudic period and those who followed them?

After all, alone of all the biblical books, the Megillah seemingly omits the mention of God in its text. Nevertheless, we hear for example, the following comment from Maimonides who follows the Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Megillah:

All the books of the Prophets and all the Writings will be annulled in the days of the Messiah, apart from Megillat Esther. It will continue to be binding like the Five Books of Moses and the entire Oral Law which will never be invalidated. Even though all memory of our suffering will be erased…still the days of Purim will not be annulled. -Rambam: M. Torah: Hilchot Megilla 2:18

And another thing: as if the theological vacuum in the text is not enough, the way that the chag is celebrated also raises significant questions. At face value it is merely an example of simple popular rejoicing in a carnival-like atmosphere where people are invited to let their hair down, leave the daily road of routine and celebrate wildly.

As such, it seems an unlikely address to look for issues of deep significance. Even more surprising the usual sobriety of Jewish festivity is replaced with a rabbinic commandment calling for the total disappearance of that sobriety – even to the point of extreme drunkenness.

Hidden messages of understanding

These two strange facts of rabbinic culture – the reverence for a book with a theological vacuum at its heart and the obligation to get so drunk as to lose the ability to make distinctions between good and evil – force us to look for hidden messages in the Rabbis’ understanding of Purim.

How can we explain the fact that this chag is so unlike any of the other holidays? How can we explain the fact that the typical seriousness and restraint that tends to characterize the Jewish holidays, here completely disappears?

Perhaps the only possible explanation is that we must suppose that, like the midrashic understanding of the name of Esther – hester, hidden – there are curious depths to the chag and its central text that need to be examined carefully.

Perhaps a particular perspective on the question of chagim in general can aid us here. The great modern Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught that the Jewish holidays and their texts and ceremonies come to answer some very big questions of crucial importance to us as humans and as Jews.

However, Heschel believed that one of the problems that modern Jews have in dealing with chagim is that the questions themselves have been largely lost. This can lead to mindless and routine observance, based on a mere commemoration of historical facts, without an attempt to penetrate to the depths of what a specific chag is actually asking.

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