Jewish Mardi Gras

Purim, as I see it, is a Jewish version of Mardi Gras. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any case, it is not in the Torah of Moses and it wasn’t commanded at Sinai. It was instituted, according to the scroll of Esther, which provides the legend of Purim, by the Persian Jewish community, in the days of King Ahashveros or Ahasuerus, presumably a reference to the Persian shahinsha Xerxes (5th century BCE), to celebrate the rescue (after a casting of lots, hence the Persian name of the festival) of Persian Jewry from the evil plot of Haman. Heroine of the story is Hadassah Esther (Ishtar) who braves the great king by approaching him unbidden and, by doing so, she risks her life for the sake of her fellow-Jews. There is also her good uncle Mordecai, a loyal subject to the same king who earlier discovered a plot against the same king. The Book of Esther is the only canonical biblical book not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Hebrew version does not mention God at all. The Greek version adds a prayer, while the Hebrew version plays out entirely on the human plane.

Timed to announce the coming of the First Month of the Jewish calendar, i.e., Nissan, whose New Moon is associated with the birth of the Messiah and which culminates in the Passover, Purim has much in common, in terms of its place in the seasons of the solar year, with Mahdi Gras, which marks the beginning of Lent and leads up to Easter. These liturgical similarities are not coincidental. Both Jewish and Christian celebrations hark back to earlier times, when the natural cycle – and human dependence on the mercy of the gods – was the essence of religion. Both Jewish and Christian celebrations obscure the agricultural origins of these moments in cyclical time by means of narratives about divine providence and salvation in history.

Purim is the only holiday where, as the talmudic rabbis suggest, a man is to drink to the point that he begins to confuse hero and villain of the story, Haman and Mordecai. How so? When the scroll of Esther is read in the synagogue, people are supposed to make noise whenever one of these characters is mentioned. You are supposed to cheer for Mordecai and hiss or boo when Haman appears. Sometimes both appear in the same sentence. It is easy to get confused in the emphatic expression of opposite emotions in short order. It doesn’t take much alcohol to become too sluggish to quickly make the right response.

I once attended a reading of the scroll of Esther at the synagogue of the Satmar Hasidic community in Meah Shearim. Men and children had dressed up. Some looked ornate in their usual Satmar garb, others – especially some of the boys – looked burlesque. As I was trying to find the place in the printed edition of Esther I was handed, a boy dressed as a voyager on Star Trek, complete with a noise making laser pistol, passed me by a number of times. It seemed like everyone around me was moving and making a lot of noise. I stood out by the fact that I quite obviously neither belonged nor had any sense of where we were in the reading. After a while, the boy in the space outfit took pity on me. He took the book out of my hands, leafed for a moment, then gave it back to me, this time opened to the right place. It was a gesture of kindness and inclusion.

In that spirit: Happy Purim, everyone!


Molly Flannery posted on February 25, 2021 at 7:30 am

Enjoyed reading this Michael,. I wonder if the point of hissing and booing until you are confused who is who in the story is supposed to blur the lines between good and evil and make us question what is what. At any rate it sounds like a fun game especially after a couple drinks! Thanks for sharing your story and explaining a bit about purim!

mzank posted on February 25, 2021 at 8:14 am

Thanks for reading, Molly! Glad you liked it.
Cheers, Michael

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