Tag Archives: Purim

Between the Lines of the Scroll of Esther

Dear Josep,

As you know, I have always dearly loved the holiday of Purim. But not only because of the costumes. The story of Esther is really a great story, and the Scroll, if you look at it carefully, is quite a literary masterpiece. Especially when you learn how to cantillate it (or parts of it) for the congregation, as I have, you notice some really interesting things about it.

I wanted to share some of the thoughts that occurred to me this year when I read along at the Megillah reading.

First: “Esther would not tell her lineage or her nationality, as Mordekhai had commanded her, for Esther kept Mordekhai’s orders as she had when she was raised by him.” (Esther 2:20)


Seriously, why did Mordekhai tell her to keep her lineage secret?

This wasn’t, like, Nazi Germany here. The king was clearly indifferent towards Jews, seeing them as just another group of people in his vast empire. There isn’t a clear indication in the text about the general feeling of the population towards Jews–just that of Haman, the villain.

And, I mean… think about this. You saw me trying to observe Judaism in a non-Jewish environment that was indifferent to my practices. Imagine if I had tried to keep the fact that I was Jewish secret. Wouldn’t that have made life so much harder for all of us?! Not that telling them that I was Jewish and had certain religious needs actually helped me, but it certainly didn’t hurt. The Judaism of Esther’s day was quite different from how we practice today, but she still had to keep kosher and observe Shabbat. Imagine a queen who refuses to eat anything but fresh vegetables at the royal banquet–or one who insists on only hiring Jewish cooks, and mysteriously retreats into her quarters and does nothing one day per week. Couldn’t she just have told them to begin with that she was Jewish, and made it clear that attending to her needs would be more trouble than it was worth? “Look, guys, this is all a big misunderstanding; I may be pretty and all, but I am high maintenance on a totally different level than all these other ladies here. Maybe let’s just call this off and I go home?”

“Seriously guys, I am super uncomfortable with all this.”

But actually, she comes off as extremely low-maintenance: “And when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Avihayil, Mordekhai’s uncle, who had taken her for a daughter, came to go in to the king, she requested nothing, except what Hegai, the king’s chamberlain, the guard of the women, would say, and Esther found favor in the eyes of all who beheld her.” (Esther 2:15)

So. Why didn’t she tell?

My theory about this is that the Scroll of Esther assumes that we know about an unspoken hatred of Jews that existed throughout the kingdom.

The reason I think that is because otherwise–the whole story with the decree against the Jews and then the decree against the decree just doesn’t make any sense.

Here’s what I mean. The story goes that Haman issued a decree in the king’s name that on the 13th of Adar, they would basically have a “Kill Jews Day.” (Like matar judíos, just without the lemonade. 😛 ) It wasn’t a Nazi-style systematic extermination of the Jews he was planning. He didn’t need it to come from the government or the army. All he needed to do was give permission for people who wanted to kill Jews, to just go ahead and do so.

Basically, the only thing standing between the Jews and genocide was the law.

That’s pretty disturbing.

Furthermore, when Esther begged the king to cancel the decree, he said he couldn’t–that once something had been decreed and sealed with the king’s seal, it could not be repealed. (That’s a pretty dumb rule to have, IMHO, especially when the king seems to be pretty moody and change his mind about things every few minutes. But no one asked me.) However, he said, you can issue another decree that the Jews may defend themselves when attacked.

In other words, all these decrees did, was give the green light for a war to happen. It unleashed the dark forces of hatred that were lying there in plain sight, but reined in in the name of law and order. “To destroy, kill, and cause to perish all the Jews, from young to old, little children and women, and their spoils to be taken as plunder.” There were people out there, tens of thousands of people, who were perfectly happy to take a day to just slaughter their Jewish neighbors in cold blood and steal their property–and this was a fact that was known and accepted as a given.

So no, maybe it wasn’t like Nazi Germany. It was more like Nazi-occupied Ukraine, where the local population, once given the green light to murder and plunder their Jewish neighbors, rose to the occasion with great enthusiasm.

In Chapter 9 of the Scroll of Esther it recounts the day of the war. The Jews gathered together and stood up to their enemies, and killed around 76,000 people–“but on the spoils they did not lay their hand.” They wanted it to be clear that this was a war of self-defense, not for personal gain.

Good thing the UN wasn’t around at the time, because we all know how they would have spun it. 😛

Anyway, back to Esther and Mordekhai. In the middle of the story, you find a highly poignant conversation between the queen and her uncle. Mordekhai tells her she must go to the king to plead for the lives of her people. This is how she responds:

All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who comes to the king, into the inner court, who is not summoned, there is but one law for him, to be put to death, except the one to whom the king extends the golden scepter, that he may live, but I have not been summoned to come to the king these thirty days.” (Esther 4:11)

Okay. Back up a minute here.

Why was it necessary for Esther to physically walk into the king’s inner court? We know from the rest of the story that all she did when she was there was invite him to a party, where she would invite him to another party, where she would finally plead with him for her people. Clearly, she was in no rush. Couldn’t she have sent a messenger to invite him to the party? Why did she have to risk her life?

Even if she couldn’t have sent a messenger, couldn’t she have done what Haman does two chapters later?  “And the king said, ‘Who is in the court?’ And Haman had come to the outside court of the king’s house, to petition the king to hang Mordekhai on the gallows that he had prepared for him.” (Esther 6:4) Meaning, apparently, there was an outer court, where people who wanted to see the king could come wait for permission to have an audience with him. Why couldn’t Esther go to the outer court and wait there? Surely someone would notice her and tell the king!

I was not able to find anyone asking this question in the rabbinic commentaries I checked. (If anybody finds something on this, let me know!)

So here’s Perush Daniella–based on the bits and pieces of related teachings I have heard. I’m going to do that Weird Jewish Thing where I answer a question with another question: Speaking of Esther’s method of getting the message across to the king, why the whole song and dance, with the two banquets? Why didn’t she just tell him right away? Okay, so maybe in his court there were a bunch of other guys around and she didn’t want everyone to hear what she needed to say to him. So she invited him to a private banquet with Haman. That makes sense. But then she still didn’t tell him! She said, “Come to another banquet tomorrow, and then I’ll tell you.”

Why all the mystery?! Spit it out, girl!

I took a class once where the teacher argued that Esther was making skilful use of dramatic tension to turn the tides against Haman. She wanted to make 100% sure that she had the king’s attention and sympathy on this matter, and she only had one chance to ask. So she did everything she could to pique his curiosity and make him crazy to know what she wanted. And we know she succeeded, because “On [the] night [after the banquet], the king’s sleep was disturbed…” (Esther 6:1) It doesn’t specify what was troubling him, but it’s easy to imagine him tossing and turning over his wife’s mysterious request. If you’ve ever had a woman tell you “We need to talk” and then make you wait to find out what is bothering her, you will understand his agony!

So I think the reason Esther needed to appear in his inner court was just that. “And it came to pass when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, that she won favor in his eyes, and the king extended to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand, and Esther approached and touched the end of the scepter.” (Esther 5:2)

“When the king saw…”

He needed to see her.

He needed to see her lovely face, sad, pale, and weary from three days of fasting. It would be easy to shrug off a messenger or written invitation to a banquet. But to have the queen standing there, risking her life to come speak to you… he must have been crazy with curiosity. And that’s exactly what she needed.

Well, that’s my take on it, anyway.



From the Archives, March 2014: Purim

This letter was written two years ago, a few months after Josep and I renewed our correspondence after a long time we’d been out of touch. He hadn’t recalled much of the information I’d given him on the Jewish holidays many years ago, except for this one detail about Purim: that it involves wearing costumes. In fact, this stood out to him so much that he seemed to be under the impression that all Jewish holidays involved wearing costumes. My theory is that this is because of the picture you will see in a moment, which apparently seared this information into his memory for all eternity, for reasons that are fairly self-evident. 😛

I posted this letter last year, but it messed with the formatting somehow and I decided to remove it and repost it this year. (And it will appear in the book–edited to suit the medium, and sans pictures, unfortunately!)

An easy and meaningful fast to those observing the Fast of Esther, and a joyful Purim to all!

Dear Josep,

So……. 🙂

I don’t know what gave you the impression that dressing up in costumes is a thing we do for every holiday. Eitan was correct, it really is only for Purim! Could be that you got that impression because I was particularly fond of that tradition and used it as an outlet for my theatrical silliness. …Hence the Hassidic Jack Sparrow when I was 17. 😀

Don't even ask, dear reader. Don't. Even. Ask.
Don’t even ask, dear reader. Don’t. Even. Ask.

I used to take the opportunity to express some personal joke from that year. But I guess my life has become more boring as I got older, because my costumes have gotten simpler and more tame, and I’m out of personal jokes to dress up as… this year H decided to dress up as Darth Vader (don’t ask me why… I think he saw someone with that costume last year), so I’m going along with the theme as Princess Leia. (I told Eitan he should be Chewbacca. He was not amused.)

Anyway, let me set you straight: the common denominator in Jewish holidays is not costumes, it is food. 😀 There’s a joke that all Jewish holidays follow the same theme: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” It’s true for almost all of the holidays, and Purim is not the exception. 🙂 Much as we joke about it, it really is reflected solidly in halakha (Jewish law): every celebration is marked with at least one festive meal, including most holidays, weddings and circumcisions. On Shabbat, we are required to eat three festive meals. 🙂 It’s one expression of the concept of channeling the material world to bring us to greater spiritual heights. We use the worldly pleasures and enjoyment to help us connect to the spiritual.

So, Purim! 🙂 The holiday commemorates the story of Queen Esther and and the Jews of Persia (which you can read about in your Bible under the Book of Esther–give it a read, it’s not long. I’d say read Wikipedia on it, but the article in Catalan has some glaring inaccuracies! Read the English one if you need a summary!) (And then go fix the Catalan one! 😛 ). If you want a very brief summary… repeat after me… “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” 😛

The remarkable thing about the Book of Esther is that even though it is clearly a story of God rescuing the Jews from a terrible fate (…as per usual…), it does not mention God’s name even once. One might think that it was Esther’s actions that saved the Jews, or her uncle Mordekhai’s advice. One might even go so far as to argue that it was all just a bunch of lucky coincidences–the right people being at the right place in the right time…

But we know that there is no such thing as a coincidence. 🙂 And that is the main theme of Purim: “things are not what they seem”. This is where the tradition of dressing in costumes comes from–as well as the tradition of eating foods that have some kind of “hidden” element in them, the most famous of these being hamentaschen:

Remember these?
Remember these?

(I usually make my mother’s oatmeal hamentaschen, which are way better than the standard fare. 😀 I have very fond memories of helping her bake them back in Pittsburgh in my childhood and Rehovot in my adolescence.)

Purim is a celebration of the Divine game of hide-and-seek; of God “hiding” himself in the mundane, behind science, behind history, behind strong and charismatic people, and waiting for you to recognize Him behind these disguises.

Purim is also about Jewish unity. One of the things the “bad guy”, Haman, says to King Ahashverosh (Xerxes) about the Jews is that they are “scattered and separate among all the nations” (Esther 3:8). We strive to counter that “separateness” Haman noted, by expressing our unity and love for one another, by giving charity, sending food to one another, and having a big feast (of course…) with our friends and family. These things are not just recommendations or traditions; they are mitzvot, commandments, required by Jewish law on Purim day! Most people send each other gift baskets, usually of sweets.

The other commandment of Purim is to hear Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) cantillated aloud in the synagogue both night and day. Like this.

(Geez, where was YouTube seven years ago?!) Don’t bother watching the whole thing. I’m having it start you at the beginning of chapter 3; you’ll notice something odd at about 10:27 minutes… that’s what happens every time the name of the bad guy of the story, Haman, is mentioned during the reading. 🙂

Since the obligation to hear the Megillah is equal for men and women (unlike the obligation to hear the Torah, which is only for men), women can read the Megillah for themselves, and in my community we have a reading by women for women. I learned how to cantillate from the Torah and Megillah from my mother, and I usually participate in these readings. (I also read part of my Torah portion at my bat mitzvah, but just at the party, not as part of the service.) This year, like last year, I’ll be reading chapter 8. 🙂

Purim being a very joyful holiday, there is a tradition to get drunk during the feast… which I am not a big fan of. 😛 I never particularly liked drinking. I’ll enjoy the occasional wine or sweet liquor, but only a little. The only time I ever got drunk I was eighteen months old. Yes, I said months. But that’s a story for another time. 😛

In most of the world Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar. In cities that were walled at the time of the reign of Ahashverosh and Esther, however, such as Jerusalem and Hebron, it is celebrated on the 15th. This is called “Shushan Purim” (Shushan=Sussa, the royal city where the events took place). Why the difference? Because apparently the big war between the Jews and their enemies took place on different days depending on location; in the walled cities, it took place a day later.

A joyful Purim to you and yours!



From the Archives, February 2007: HAPPY ADAR!

The following is an introduction to the joyful month of Adar, from my hyper, 20-year-old self. Happy Rosh Chodesh (beginning of a new month)!


Subject: …SURPRISE!

It’s me again! (Have you forgotten me yet? No? I make that rather difficult, don’t I?)

I have an important announcement to make!


Now that we have that out of the way…

LOL. Today (like, as of sundown) is the 30th of Shvat, the first day of the two-day Rosh Chodesh Adar! Next month is… you guessed it… Adar. And there is a famous saying about the month of Adar that all Jewish kids sing in the schools, and it is: Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha! A very rough translation: “From the time Adar enters, spread the joy!” The month of Adar is exceedingly joyful (and usually rather silly). Attempts are made to make life easier for everyone–the kids at school make funny regulations for the teachers and switch jobs around and stuff, they dance through the halls singing that all-famous line at the top of their lungs in long trains… And I am not just talking about my school, man. I don’t know about the secular schools, but all the religious schools I’ve heard of go crazy during Adar. Even politicians get into the spirit, wearing silly hats and stuff.

Why all the happiness and craziness? Well, the star holiday of this month is Purim! Remember that whole long complicated story I tried to explain to you and you didn’t get it, the story of Esther? [Blog readers: Worry not. There will be an entry on this. 😉 ] So, THAT holiday. And it is a very very joyful holiday! It’s another one of those that fits into the famous category of the typical Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” It’s celebrated by reading the story of Esther at synagogue, once in the evening and once in the morning, sending gift baskets of food to friends and family (and poor people), giving charity, having a feast during the day (because you know, all the cakes and candies from the gift baskets or “mishlochei manot” aren’t enough to fill you up… :-/ ), and my favorite part of it: dressing up in costumes!

Why do we wear costumes on Purim? Well, in the entire scroll of Esther, God’s name is not mentioned once. But He is obviously behind the miraculous events that led to saving the Jewish people. Purim is about the “hidden face of God” and how He works behind the scenes, and about how things are not always what they seem… something that seems terrible can actually turn out for the best. So we wear costumes to symbolize this idea that things are not always what they seem.

Elaborations will be forthcoming, of course. 😛

Shavua tov and chodesh tov!