Purim: A Gantze Megillah by Nechama Reisel
Purim: A Gantze Megillah by Nechama Reisel
Volume 2 , Issue 3

Purim: A Gantze Megillah

By Nechamah Reisel

A megillah is a scroll. There are, according to tradition, five megillot in the section of the Bible known as kituvim (writings): Esther, read on Purim: Ruth, read on Shavuot; Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), read on either Shemini Atzeret or on the Intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot: Lamentations (Aicha), read on Tisha B'Av: and Shir Hashirim (The Song of Songs), read on Pesach. All but Megillat Esther may be read from a book: however, Esther must be read from a kosher parchment scroll. It is this book which is referred to when we hear the word megillah.

The Megillah is the entire story (complete with details) of the events pertaining to a period in the history of the Jews after the destruction of the First Temple, when they were living in exile in Persia. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg points out in his hook, The Jewish Way, the Megillah reads like a melodrama.

The cast: a besotted, insecure, not-too-perceptive, vacillating ruler, Ahasuerosh; his defiant, beautiful wife, Vashit, who refuses to degrade herself by appearing naked before her inebriated husband and his celebrants, and is, therefore, banished/executed; the king?s villainous, scheming, arrogant, ambitious adviser, Haman, and Haman?s evil, ambitious wife; Zeresh. Vashti is supplanted by the virtuous, lovely Esther, niece and ward of the perceptive, gentle Jew, Mordechai.

The setting: The king's palace in Shushan, the capital of Ancient Persia. (Picture the setting of Scheherezade, its harem, and the gossip and intrigues that such surroundings engender. Picture, also, the bacchanalian feasts and licentiousness which took place there.).

Intrigues and Counter-intrigues

The plot centers around the intrigues of the enemies of the Jews and, in some instances, the enemies of the king, and the The villains plot against the lives of the Jews. Good struggles against evil and triumphs over it. Virtue and right are restored and rejoicing is the order of the day (and for all times). This is one of the few times in Jewish history that events, so dire in prospect, actually end happily.

Because the events narrated in the Megillah took place in post-Pentateuchal times, the festival of Purim (named after the ?purim? or lots which Haman cast in order to determine the propitious day on which to slaughter the Jews) is considered a minor holiday, like Chanukah, and working, cooking, traveling, etc., are permitted. Fasting is prohibited, and shiva is modified. There are, however, many prescribed halakhot and customs which are followed. Most of these serve to help us relive the events narrated in the Megillah and to empathize with the good characters in the story.

The Sabbath preceding Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance, when the portion of Ki Tetseh referring to Amalek (Deuteronomy: XXV, 17-19),is read in addition to the regular portion of the Torah. Haman is said to have descended from Amalek, who had attacked and attempted to destroy Israel while they wandered in the desert. Both the tale of Amalek and the story of Purim, are especially poignant in the light of contemporary Jewish history.

Megillat Esther: Required Reading

Purim, which is celebrated on the fourteenth day of Adar (Adar II in leap years), is preceded by a fast from dawn to star-rise, in commemoration of Esther's fast before approaching Ahasuerosh with her request for an audience and her extending an invitation to him and Haman. At the end of the day, prior to the conclusion of the fast, the Megillah is read, as it also is the following morning. Hearing the reading (from a kosher scroll) is a mitzvah required of all men, women and children. Even scholars studying the Torah are required to interrupt their studies in order to listen to the reading of the Megillah. At this time it is customary for children and adults, if they wish, to dress in costumes depicting the villains and heroes of the narrative. This is part of the merrymaking to celebrate the defeat of Haman's nefarious plan.

Prior to the reading of the Megillah, it is customary for all adults who have reached the age of twenty to donate three half dollars (one-half or rnachtzit shekel) to the synagogue to commemorate the half shekel customarily given in the Temple. This is money which the synagogue uses for special charitable purposes.

In commemoration of the letters order?ing the reprieve of the Jews -- letters sent by Mordechai and Esther to the outlying provinces of Shushan -- the scroll from which the reader chants the Megillah is folded to form the shape of a letter. As he reads the narrative, the reader then unfolds the letter. At the completion of the reading, it is rerolled as a scroll. (This is a custom which has become halakha -- see,World of Judaism, The Jewish Review: Vol.2. No.2.)

During the reading of the Megillah, whenever the reader pronounces Haman?s name, it is customary for the congregants to drown out the name with boos, hisses, foot stamping, and noisemakers. This harassment of the reader is all part of the revelry which is the initial stage of the festivities that follow that night and continue during the entire day of Purim.

On Purim day, after again listening to the recitation of the Megillah, the celebrants perform a number of prescribed mitzvot and then continue feasting and partying. Shalach manor, gifts of food, are exchanged with at least one friend. Each gift should include at least two edible foods. In addition, gifts to the poor (matanot evvonim) must be given to at least two poor people. Generally, this is accomplished through special donations to the synagogue, which dispenses the money.

The festivities (including the consumption of special foods, which vary according to one?s family background and ethnic origins and imbibing in wine) begin at a series of parties that follow the first reading of the Megillah and culminate in a seudah (festive meal)begins during the afternoon of the fourteenth of Adar and may last into the night. Parades and Purim spielers (mummers), and pageants about the characters in the story, as well as good-natured parodies and satires -- of even students' teachers -- are the order of the day.

The excesses of eating and drinking, the often boisterous celebration, the gender reversals during the merrymaking--these are all aspects which are alien to the Jew and, therefore, puzzling to scholars, as are other aspects of the festival. Not the least of these is the history itself -- the dating of the events and the identity of the principal characters mentioned in the story. Even the names Esther (who is also referred to as Hadassah in the Megillah) and Mordechai are not of Hebrew origin. In addition, there is also the question of why there is no mention of G-d's name in the scroll. (Torah scholars find hidden allusions to G-d's name and also have other explanations for this.) Even the vengeance that the Jews take on their enemies is, largely, uncharacteristic of their behavior (although there are other such occasions in our history).

Esther a Vegetarian

Other problems that puzzle scholars are the questions regarding Esther's marriage to Ahasuerosh and her life in his palace. Since some scholars say that she actually was Mordechai's wife, how could she have married the king? If she was an observant and virtuous Jew, moreover, what did she eat during her sojourn in the palace and how was she able to conceal her Jewishness and observances from her handmaidens? (Their conclusions? Esther had seven different maids who did not see or speak with one another and so each thought Esther's behavior on a specific day -- especially on the Sabbath -- was simply idiosyncratic of her. Furthermore, she was able to adhere to the dietary laws by claiming to be a vegetarian.)

These and other problems presented by the text have been discussed and interpreted by many scholars, contemporary and historical, observant and non-observant. Nevertheless, in the minds of non-Orthodox Jews, these questions leave doubts about the authenticity of the book itself.

The Book of Esther is a dark comedy. While good triumphs over evil, all is not bright. As Rabbi Greenberg says, ?Its laughter is Pagliacci's--a hair's breadth away from despair. While Purim's authenticity as history has been challenged, it is really the holiday that grew out of Jewish history.? And ours is truly a history of persecution despite assimilation into prevailing cultures in which we have lived in the Diaspora. Even as we complacently revel in our ?acceptance? and freedom, disaster is not far away.

In the Megillah, we see Esther having to use all her diplomatic skills and feminine wiles to assure her people's deliverance. Even after she had succeeded in having Haman hanged on the gallows he'd erected for Mordechai and the other Jews, she must still remind her husband that Haman's decree against the Jews had yet to be revoked -- belittling herself to achieve her ends. Rightfully, Rabbi Greenberg draws our attention to the Holocaust. What hap?pened in our day could easily have happened in Esther's. In light of our recent experiences, how can anyone doubt the authenticity of the events recorded in the Megillah?

For further reading on the holiday of Purim, see:

The Megillah, The Book of Esther with commentaries from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, Translated and compiled by Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, Mesorah Publications, Ltd. New York. 1984.

The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays by Rabbi Irving Greenberg. Summit Books, 1988.

The Book of Esther by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Trans., The Torah Anthology, Me'am Loez, Maznaim Publishing Corp., New York/Jerusalem, 1978.

Nechamah Reisel is a regular contributor to The World of Judaism.

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