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    How Purim was saved

    By Boris Shapiro

    The popularity of Purim is wildfire. Spiels, deals, meals … all are part of the celebration. You can’t visualise the year without it.

    But it was nearly squeezed out of the calendar more than once and there were times when it was in danger of being abolished, sanitised and (probably worst of all) completely ignored.

    What saved Purim and strengthened its hold is, perhaps paradoxically, antisemitism. The more that Jews were persecuted, the more they needed a light-hearted response, and Purim provided the answer.

    The Purim story is not the same as the story of Purim. The Purim story is the narrative of the weak-kneed king, the villainous Haman and Zeresh, the heroic Mordechai and Esther.

    The story of Purim is something different – the rise and fall of the festival, its rejection and rehabilitation. It took great effort before the Book of Esther was admitted to the scriptural canon. A Biblical Book that doesn’t mention God? Events that ignore Eretz Yisra’el? Preposterous, some say!

    Every now and then the scholars even question its historicity – maybe the events never happened, maybe Mordechai and Esther never were, maybe it’s just fiction, maybe it’s a folk tale that was judaised to save it from being jettisoned!

    Graetz thought it was invented in Maccabean times to raise the morale of the Jewish people. Julius Lewy thought it chronicled a foreign colony in the Persian realm. Others noted that ancient peoples celebrated the end of winter with fables about their gods.

    The Jews themselves valued the day so much that by the time of the Mishnah it was part of halachah. Haman was seen as the embodiment of Amalek, a sign that humanity must always guard against the Amalek-spirit.

    Folk frolics crept in, with a tug-of-war between dignity and indecorum. Christians thought that Jews who noisily blotted out the name of Haman and hung Purim effigies were symbolically attacking Jesus. Cecil Roth thought this was the origin of the medieval blood libels. The Jews themselves derived comfort from the thought that Purim proved that God would never let them down.

    There are serious adult themes on Purim – God’s protecting hand, the heroism of dedicated individuals, the complexity of the “dual loyalty” theory, the psychology of the victim who says gam zeh ya’avor (“This too will pass!”), and the women’s contribution to Jewish survival.

    Immanuel Lewy said, “Haman denounces Mordechai as morally inferior, because in reality he fears his moral superiority”. We constantly find new fascination in the political machinations and palace intrigues of the story.

    Jews depressed about antisemitism can always find hope in the Talmudic view that descendants of Haman learnt Torah in B’nei B’rak (Gittin 57b, Sanh. 69b).

    Purim has a future; the rabbis said that even in messianic times there will be a Purim. There will be no more sorrow, but it will always be possible to laugh.

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