By Rabbi David Weiner / Knesset Israel
I have been chanting the Megillah annually for nearly 30 years, since the first Purim after my bar mitzvah. I enjoy the dramatic scenes, the punchy and ironic dialogue, and the book’s multiple levels of meaning. Studying the text in depth brings any number of profound messages, some of which stand in tension with each other. This book is about disguises and hierarchy, exile and power, patriarchy and politics, God’s role in history and God’s absence from it. Fanciful, the book is meant to appeal to children; still, adults find in it a sophisticated commentary on some of the most challenging struggles in the story of the Jewish people. Yet for me, even just holding the scroll and chanting from it is a religious experience. Like a Torah, every scroll of the Book of Esther is the original.
Sometimes, holding the Megillah, I wonder about the origins of this distinctive holiday. Surely there was a time, decades or centuries after the fall of the Persian Empire, that the ink was fresh on the first copy of the Book of Esther, and Purim was a brand new holiday. Unlike Passover or Sukkot, even the most pious among us cannot argue that this book or this holiday is a part of Judaism because God put them there. So discussions of the establishment of Purim recorded in the Talmud, rather than avoiding questions of the holiday’s origins, provide us with insights into religious creativity and the beginnings of tradition.
From the Talmudic conversation, we learn that popularity was a key factor in establishing this holiday. Rav Shemuel bar Yehuda imagines:
Esther – perhaps the queen, perhaps the book - once sent a message to the sages, “Set my day as a holiday for the generations!” The sages nervously responded, “But you stir up jealousy among the nations of the world!” And Esther replied, “My story is already written in the Chronicles of Medea and Persia” (Megillah 7a).
Despite its potential for incitement, despite its cheeky political humor, despite the Jews’ status as a people living under the thumb of other nations, Purim simply could not be suppressed. The cat was already out of the bag. No matter what ‘they’ might say, this triumph demanded a grateful, celebratory, and enduring national response – an annual holiday. The impulse came from the people, not their leaders.
Next, the Talmud turns to the question of who decided the book was holy, and why. Several rabbis proffer specific verses from the book that prove the prophetic gifts of the author. Rabbi Eliezer notes that the scroll informs us of Haman’s thoughts, a report no ordinary human being (besides Haman) could make with confidence. Rabbi Akiva reflects on the impression Esther left on a crowd, which implies that the author reads the minds of the multitude. But these possibilities and others are dismissed – literary devices like narrative style and figurative language testify to the author’s skill as a writer, not to his credentials as a prophet.
So if Esther isn’t holy because it is a work of prophecy, then why is it in the Bible? The matter remained unresolved for hundreds of years until Samuel taught: “Had I been among those earlier scholars discussing this subject, I would have given a better reason. The book says, ‘Kiyemu v’kiblu haYehudim,’ which I understand to mean that the Jews accepted Esther’s word and decree, and then their decision was upheld on high.” Rava, Samuel’s friend and study partner, agrees wholeheartedly. The Jews chose Esther. The Jews chose Purim. Long before their leaders finished deliberating the pros and cons, the Jewish people established a new tradition, and God decided that was alright.
It turns out that chanting Esther from the scroll is not only a mitzvah, it’s an excuse for a spring party, a connection with the Jewish people all over the world and throughout time, and an opportunity to start conversations about important themes. Chanting Esther is also a tribute to Jewish religious creativity. So are the other rituals of Purim – listening to the Megillah, sending mishloach manot food baskets, making gifts to the poor, and attending a Purim party. Including Purim in our people’s calendar underscores the message: Every generation inherits tradition. Every generation creates tradition.
Just like choices made by our ancestors, our religious choices, as a community and as a generation, will leave an impact. Purim might remind us of the high stakes – and great reward – of innovation in Jewish life.
Rabbi David Weiner is the spiritual leader of Knesset Israel in Pittsfield.
Image: Painting of Purim by Arthur Szyk. Published in Arthur Szyk: Six paintings of Jewish holidays (1948)