In a few days, on March 16th and 17th, Jews will be celebrating the feast of Purim. It is one of the most joyous of Jewish holidays, and that is probably because of what it ultimately commemorates: the state-approved slaughter of at least 75,000 people by Jews.
That’s not the whole story, of course. The feast of Purim is a holiday directly ordained by the Bible, at the end of the book of Esther. In the story it is very clear, more so than in other parts of the Old Testament, that the Jewish identity is a racial one rather than a religious one. In fact, God is not mentioned in the book at all (there is a major qualification to this which will be discussed later).
What is Purim?
Understanding the Book of Esther and the commemoration of Purim provides important insight into the Jewish worldview. It’s not just a story of a bloody revenge massacre, it’s a fable that is woven into the way Jews think about the world today and their role in it.
From Rabbi Jonathon Hughes of the Jewish Chronicle:
“On Purim this week, we will read the two-millennia-old Book of Esther. At the outset of the narrative, we find another Jew demonstrating his inflexibility. Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman and the idols hung around the infamous antisemite’s neck… Mordechai’s defiance does not stand in isolation. From the Maccabis at the time of Chanukah to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, it seems this is what Jews often do.” – Rabbi Jonathon Hughes
From another article on the Jewish Chronicle, by “the JC Leader”:
“When Russian forces first crossed into Ukraine, after an extended period of massing threateningly on its borders, there was a widespread assumption that President Zelensky would capitulate. Outnumbered and outgunned, what chance did he have? But he defied expectations by standing tall. And look at the difference it has made. The vast majority of the world is rooting for Ukraine to survive and remain independent.” – The JC Leader
Back to Rabbi Hughes, who relates President Zelensky directly to Mordecai:
“Perhaps the spirit of Mordechai resides in Jewish Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky. Faced with the terrifying Russian aggression and intimidation, lesser people would have abandoned ship. Many would have given up hope when realizing how they were so dramatically outnumbered. But Zelensky walks in the footsteps of Mordechai, who refused to bow down.” – Rabbi Jonathon Hughes
To get a better view of what is being referenced here, let’s review the narrative found in Esther.
The Book of Esther
“The Talmudic Sages describe the events recorded in the Book of Esther as the last of the miracles to be written and canonized as part of Scripture. Clearly, the Prophets and Sages determined that this first attempt at genocide and the way it was thwarted were relevant to the Jewish people throughout the ages… It is the only Book of Scripture where God’s name is never mentioned.” (emphasis mine)
The bit about this being the only book of the Bible where God is not mentioned needs some qualification. This is true of the Hebrew Old Testament and therefore true of most Christian Bibles. However, the Septuagint (an ancient translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek) has an expanded version of the Book of Esther, which makes references to God throughout. Eastern Orthodox Christians use the Septuagint for their Old Testament.
The Jewish contention is that the Greeks added God and religiosity to Esther in the Greek version. The eastern Christian contention is that the Septuagint, being older than existing Hebrew texts, is far closer to the original Hebrew Scriptures than anything floating around now.
This qualification aside, there is no reference to God in the Book of Esther as far as Jews interact with it. Whatever its meaning for Christians may be, for Jews this is a racial tale.
Esther as Queen of Persia
The story opens with the king of Persia, who lived in excess luxury, having a drunken party with golden cups (degenerate monarchs of this time period were similar to Donald Trump, in that they had all kinds of things made out of gold).
“Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. And drinking was according to this edict: “There is no compulsion.” For the king had given orders to all the staff of his palace to do as each man desired.” – Esther 1:7-8 (ESV)
So far, this king seems like a fairly likable guy. He was being generous with his wine, but he wasn’t hazing anyone or pressuring them to drink more than they felt comfortable with.
Not only was the king generous in sharing his wine, he decided to be generous in sharing his wife too. He summoned the queen to come to the party and show off her body to all his friends.
The queen refused to be paraded around for her husband’s drunken friends, and this disobedience caused a national scandal.
“Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” – Esther 1:16-17 (ESV)
As a response, the king banished the queen and issued a proclamation (which was to be sent to each province translated into the local language) that wives must respect and obey their husbands.
Years later, the king was bored and decided to gather up a bunch of hot virgins from around the empire so that he could pick one to become the new queen.
The Jew Mordecai was part of the diaspora in the capital city of Persia and had custody of his young cousin Esther. He encouraged her to enter the competition but to conceal her Jewish identity. She went along with this plan. Either because of her natural beauty or because of the schemes of Mordecai’s shadow network within the government, Esther was chosen to become the new queen.
Here come the rabbi commentators to cast shade on the honeymoon joy:
“The Talmud explains that Esther was taken by Ahasuerus against her will and was never an active participant in their marital relations. See Sanhedrin 74b.”
Later, Mordecai, who had gotten a job at the palace, claimed to have overheard people plotting to assassinate the king. He informed the security service and a note that he had saved the king in this way was added to the log books (this detail is important).
The king appointed a man named Haman to be his vizier. Haman is of disputed ancestry: he is called an Agagite, which might make him a descendant of the Amalekites. But he also may have been a Macedonian, or something else. Haman was not Persian.
The king made a law that everyone had to bow to Haman when he passed. Mordecai refused to do this, and when Haman asked him why Mordecai said it was because he was Jew and was therefore completely special and above the law. Haman determined that the best response to this was to destroy all Jews within the Persian empire.
Haman cast lots (or “purim”) to decide the exact date on which to exterminate all Jews, and he came up with the 13th day of the month of Adar. He then presented his plan to the king:
“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.” – Haman, per Esther 3:8-9 (ESV)
The king casually agreed to Haman’s proposal that all Jews be exterminated on Adar 13th. He commanded that the people rise up against Jews, and sent this out to the entire empire the same way he sent all the other messages (to each province, translated into the local language). In this way he gave all Jews many months written notice about the pending Holocaust.
Mordecai sent a message to Esther, explaining the situation and asking her to intervene. She was nervous about asking the king not to genocide all her people because going to the king’s room without an invitation was a capital offense, even for her. She wasn’t likely to have a chance to legally talk to the king because he had stopped inviting her to his room (this may have had something to do with the aforementioned rabbinical claim that she was “never an active participant in marital relations”).
All the Jews began fasting. According to the Greek version of the Book of Esther, Esther and Mordecai prayed to God for the salvation of their people.
Then Esther barged into the king’s room without invitation. What the king did next will shock you: he declined to execute the person he had recently decided was literally the hottest person in the Persian empire. Instead, he offered her whatever she wanted (up to half his kingdom). She invited both the king and Haman over for dinner, and at that dinner she invited them back for dinner again.
Meanwhile, Mordecai was still refusing to bow down to Haman. The latter complained to his wife about that, and she suggested that he make himself feel better by commissioning the construction of a gallows and then hanging Mordecai on it.
When Haman showed up to work the next day, he was instructed by the king to throw a parade in honor of Mordecai. The reason was that the king had been flipping through the logs the previous night and was reminded that Mordecai had saved the king’s life awhile back. Haman found this greatly humiliating. This is a key irony that Jews like to laugh at when reading the Book of Esther on Purim, and this is exactly the kind of thing they like to have happen to their enemies.
When Haman told his wife about this latest development, she said this:
“If Mordecai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the Jewish people, you will not overcome him but will surely fall before him.” – Zeresh, in Esther 6:13 (ESV)
At the second dinner, the king asked Esther what was on her mind. This time she finally explained the whole situation: that she was a Jew and that Haman was trying to destroy her people. The king was shocked and outraged at Haman over a policy that the king himself had approved, and had Haman hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai (this is another important Jewish “twist”).
After the execution, the remaining matter at hand was the upcoming destruction of Jews. Esther wanted the king to rescind the extermination order, but there was one problem. For some unfathomably retarded reason, it was just against the rules for the king to rescind a policy. He had to make a new policy. In his new decree he made sure to remind people that Haman wasn’t a Persian:
“Thus Haman, the son of Hammedatha, a Macedonian, certainly not of Persian blood, but differing greatly from our kindness, and having been hospitably received by us…” – Esther 8 (Greek version)
He eventually got to the point:
“The king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods.” – Esther 8:11 (ESV)
So, the situation that the king had created was this: bands of his subjects were required by edict to rise up against the Jews and kill them, and the Jews were permitted by edict to rise up against the people who were obeying the other edict (which was still not in any way revoked). Again, because of the bureaucrat-gang constraints of the Persian government, simply resolving the issue by having nobody kill anybody just wasn’t on the table.
“And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them.” – Esther 8:17 (ESV)
Eventually, Adar 13th arrived.
“On the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them. The Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who sought their harm. And no one could stand against them, for the fear of them had fallen on all peoples. All the officials of the provinces and the satraps and the governors and the royal agents also helped the Jews, for the fear of Mordecai had fallen on them. For Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful. The Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the citadel itself the Jews killed and destroyed 500 men.” – Esther 9:1-6 (ESV)
The king then asked Esther if she wanted anything else. Of all things she could choose (up to half the kingdom), she decided she wanted Jews in Susa to have another full day to freely murder people. She also requested that the 10 sons of Haman (who had already been killed for the crime of being related to Haman) be hanged in public for all to see. So the Jews killed 300 more people in Susa on Adar 14th. Throughout the empire they killed 75,000 people (That’s the estimate in the Book of Esther, I personally think it was more like 7 million).
By the king’s decree, they would have been able to seize the assets of those they killed, but they chose not to. According to the rabbinical commentators, this was “to make it clear that they did not act for mercenary reasons” – they just wanted blood.
Mordecai was promoted to second-in-command (in place of Haman), and he formally established the feast of Purim. This isn’t explicitly stated in the Book of Esther, but I suspect that it was made illegal to question the claim that the Purim murders were justified because everyone else was going to rise up and kill 6 million Jews.
Then everyone lived happily ever after.
The Tomb of Esther and Mordecai
There is currently a structure in Iran that Iranian Jews claim to be the burial place of Esther and Mordecai.
This structure does not date to the time of Esther. It was probably made in the 1600s and was created based on an oral tradition among Persian Jews that Esther and Mordecai went to Hamadan (then known as Ecbatana) before they died. It’s been defaced a couple times (including once in revenge for the Purimesque murder of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani), but it’s still standing there to this day.
The Feast of Purim
Rabbis have identified four basic requirements for Jews to celebrate Purim:
- Listen to a reading of the Book of Esther
- Exchange gifts
- Give to charity
- Eat a celebratory meal
The reading of the Book of Esther is done aloud in synagogues. Jews are encouraged to bring noisemakers in order to drown out the name of “Haman” whenever it occurs.
“When Haman’s name is mentioned (Chabad custom is that this is only when it is accompanied with a title), you can twirl graggers (noisemakers) or stamp your feet to eradicate his evil name. Tell your kids that Purim is the only time when it’s encouraged to make noise during services!” – Chabad Dot Org
The importance of Purim as a celebration of bloodthirsty vengeance cannot be overstated. This was well understood by the German National Socialists, who banned the celebration. Hitler warned in 1944 that a Jewish victory in the way would lead to a “second Purim”.
This is exactly what happened. As you may know, there were twelve German officials who were sentenced to death at once during the war trials, but only ten were hanged together (one of the twelve was absent, and another had already killed himself). That this number matches the number of Haman’s sons murdered is routinely noticed by Jews.
When Julius Streicher, the founder and publisher of The Stormer and one of the Nuremberg 10, was about to be executed, he said “Purimfest” right before he was hanged – noting the same comparison.
The bloody legacy of Purim didn’t end in 1946 either. And the fact that Purim is really bad-optics when outsiders think about it more closely is something that more image-conscious Jews have to wrestle with.
From the Jewish Daily Forward:
“Let us not forget that on Purim we drink to celebrate blotting out the nation of Amalek, of whom Haman is said to be a descendant. The Shabbat before Purim, called Shabbat Zakhor, Jews gather in synagogues to read the only biblically mandated Torah reading of the year, the verses that command genocide against the Amalekites. Perhaps we are commanded to get so inebriated on Purim to simulate the seemingly paradoxical notion of blotting out the memory of Haman through the very act of remembering Amalek. We must remember not only to not forget, but to blot out the enemy — not mercifully, but through genocide.” – The Jewish Daily Forward
One Jew celebrated Purim in true spirit in 1994. A jignat named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim families at a mosque. He killed 29 Palestinian Muslims, including six children, before he was killed by Muslims in defense. Many more Palestinians were killed or injured in clashes that followed. While Israel tries to downplay this, many Israelis venerate the grave of Baruch Goldstein on Purim and consider him a martyr.
When Jews invoke Purim in discussing enemies, it needs to be remembered that they are talking about mass slaughter of their enemies, including children. Note that in the Purim story, a perfectly possible peaceful resolution is eschewed (for highly Talmudic reasons) in favor of the preferred outcome for Jews: violence.
Consider this reference to Iran:
“It’s the attitude that counts. The lessons of Purim in ancient Persia in the 5th century BCE must be heeded today, when we are faced with belligerence from modern-day Iran. Mordechai and Esther knew very well how to face down despots. President Zelensky knows. The Israeli leadership understands it, too. The tragedy of our times is that Joe Biden and his western allies have yet to learn the same lesson.” – The JC Leader
Compare the theme of Purim to the theme of other religious holidays you know about. Many Christians are currently observing the fast of Lent. During this time period, Christians are giving up vices or material habits in order to gain greater discipline, fight against sin, and draw closer to God via prayer. This will culminate in Easter: a celebration of Christ’s victory over death itself. Likewise, the other major Christian holiday is Christmas which celebrates the incarnation and it is near the winter solstice because it represents the beginning of a healing of the fallen world.
Next month, Muslims will begin the fast of Ramadan, which serves a somewhat similar purpose to Christian Lent: refraining from some material comforts to improve self-discipline and to focus on their spiritual growth.
Jewish holidays are nothing like this. They are racial in nature and tend to celebrate the destruction of their enemies. And that is especially true of Purim. Jews will try to publicly downplay this sometimes, but know that this week when you see stuff about Purim remember what it’s ultimately about: slaying gentiles in mass.
“More broadly, Purim inspires me to free myself from being forced to pay homage to things in life that are, in reality, devoid of true value.” – Rabbi Jonathon Hughes