Purim: You are What You Wear – and What You Don't

What the Queens’ Robes Reveal About Identity and Power

The central event during the celebrations of Purim is the reading of the Purim story from the Megillah (The Book of Esther) on the eve of and during the day of the 14th of Adar. The Book of Esther recounts events in the court of the Persian King Ahasuerus (the name is believed to refer to Xerxes I, who ruled from 486 to 465 BCE), whose minister Haman wants to take revenge on a Jew and thus plots to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. The Jewish community is saved from this fate through the cunning initiative of Esther (her Hebrew name is Hadassah) who is a Jew by birth but has hidden her religion and marries the King of Persia. Pur is a word of Persian origin that means “lot”; in Est 9:31, it is called jome purim, which means “days of lots”; Purim itself is mentioned in Est 9:29 and 9:32. Since the Jewish people in Persia were saved by a woman, the Talmud prescribes, “It is obligatory for women to hear the reading of the Megillah, because they benefited also by the same miracle.” (Meg 4a).

The Eternal Miracle of Israel’s History

Along with Hanukkah, Purim is among the most popular holidays in the Jewish calendar, and there are diverse traditions for celebrating it. It is notable, however, that the Book of Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that does not mention God. In his Purim Prologue of 1903 Martin Buber called Purim a “joyfully modest festival” and labeled it “a festival of merriment and colors.” Whenever the name of Haman is mentioned during the reading of the story, children in the synagogue drown out his name with noisemakers or “groggers”. This custom is based on God’s command to blot out the name of Haman’s ancestor Amalek, who stood in the way of the people of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. Haman became synonymous with hatred of Jews. Hitler and Saddam Hussein were also branded as Hamans in some Jewish circles.

Today, there are also many feminist interpretations of the story that examine the roles of Vashti, Ahasuerus’s first wife, and Esther to elucidate the status of women in Judaism. In these interpretations, Vashti and Esther become opposing poles that embody two levels of feminist consciousness, namely resistance and political maneuvering. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Jewish Renewal reminds us that Esther was a symbol of hope for the Marranos, the Jews in medieval Spain and Portugal who had been forced to convert to Catholicism. Many Marranos practiced Judaism in secret. “The women in the Marrano communities saw themselves as Queen Esther,” because they led Jewish lives in secret while living as Christians in public, says Gottlieb. “They led the community prayers, conducted weddings and developed rituals surrounding the fast of Esther, which became one of the most important holidays for the ‘conversos.'”

Liberal Jews have often criticized the Purim story because it ends with the Jews killing all their enemies throughout the empire. To quote but one source, the religious philosopher Schalom Ben-Chorin, who left Munich for Palestine as a young man, explains in a text from 1938, “I propose to strike Purim from the Jewish calendar and remove the Book of Esther from the canon of sacred books. The festival and the book are unworthy of a people that intends to make enormous sacrifices to bring about its own national and ethical regeneration. They constitute a glorification of assimilation, brownnosing and the unrestrained worship of success.” The German liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann, on the other hand, understood Purim symbolically. In 1930, he writes, “It is the eternal miracle of the history of Israel. Israel is always in the minority, always surrounded by threats, always at the brink of annihilation, always near the end. If it had to rely on its strength, it would surely be lost. If it had to rely on human beings, it would be powerless. The fact that it remains and endures is the sovereign will of God as he guides history. As we observe Jewish history and Jewish experience, Purim is the source of our insight that a miracle cannot be fathomed or quantified. Purim is the day on which we remember that God can remove the burden of worry and fear from our shoulders.”

The Purim story also illuminates how clothing signifies identity. It is precisely due to this connection between clothing and the identity of its wearer that Queen Vashti refused to appear wearing nothing but the crown in front of her husband and his guests. The orthodox Rabbi Meier Leibusch (1809- 1879) explains Vashti’s refusal to do King Ahasuerus’s bidding as follows: Since Ahasuerus was not of royal lineage himself, he gained his position as the ruler of the Persian empire by marrying the Princess Vashti, who later became Queen. With his demand that his wife appear naked before the waiting audience, King Ahasuerus wanted to prove two things to his subjects: First, that he had married Vashti for her beauty alone and not to become King. Second, that Vashti could only wear her crown when he called her to him. By taking off her clothes, Vashti would have merged her own individuality and identity with that of her husband. She would have become merely King Ahasuerus’ wife and ceased to be Queen Vashti, an independent person and a legitimate monarch in her own right.

A Taste of the Messianic Era

The heroine of the Purim story, Hadassah, uses clothing to conceal her true identity. Attired in sumptuous clothing and carefully made up, she appears to King Ahasuerus as a Persian beauty named Esther, which means “hidden.” By hiding her Jewish heritage, Esther was able to become queen. And by revealing her true identity at the right moment, she was able to save her people from annihilation.

Concealment and cloaking, which play such a central role in the Purim story, are themes that also find expression in Purim celebrations. One of the most important characteristics of the Purim plays is the donning of costumes. Purim is the time of year during which observant Jews are allowed to be boisterous and the rules of conduct in the synagogue are suspended. The Talmudic saying that every man is obligated on Purim to drink so much wine that he no longer knows whether he is cursing Haman or praising Mordecai is taken literally by even the most earnest of Jewish scholars. According to Jewish tradition, Purim will be the only feast still to be celebrated in the Messianic era. In the Messianic Era, mankind will triumph over all regressive norms and overcome the pressure that tyrannical leaders exert to prevent the spiritual and intellectual development of their people.

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