Purim: Reading and Reliving

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends:

Tomorrow night is Purim, with its costumes, noisemakers, feasting and merriment, at the heart of which is the reading of the megillah, or scroll containing the book of Esther. We learn in the Mishnah, the early part of the Talmud, that one must read the book of Esther from a scroll, and in fact, one is not permitted to declaim it from memory, even if one had memorized the whole thing. (Mishnah Megillah 2:1- see text here.)

Now, that’s interesting, especially when one considers that just a month from now, we’ll sit down at a Passover table to tell the story of the Exodus, but we are not commanded to read a text, per se- just to tell the story and explain the central symbols of the holiday. The Passover text- the haggadah– is a tool, not the central idea. Yet on Purim, a lesser holiday, we have to tell the story by reading it out loud, from the written form, just as written.

Of course, the story of Mordecai and Esther is not more important in Jewish history than the story of the Exodus, but we should note that the story of Purim itself is told through texts- letters, laws, scrolls- from the decrees of Achashverosh and Haman, to the counter-decree which saved the Jews, to the command of Mordecai to remember the story itself, which was propagated far and wide by means of written communication:

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar . . . . .”(Es. 9:20-21, old JPS translation.)

Now we can see a similarity between Purim and Passover: on Passover, at theseder, we re-create the experience of slavery by eating matzah and maror, and then celebrating our freedom with the feast, wine, and grateful prayers. On Purim, we re-create the experience of the Jews in Persia by hearing the story declaimed from a scroll, a text, just as if we are there, receiving the words of Mordecai, enjoining us to observe the day and remember the events which lead to it.

Hearing the megillah, we’re like the Jews who have just been saved, grateful to be alive, determined to replace evil with good, hearing the news proclaimed as if from the royal court itself. We don’t just tell the story, but live it. Just as Mordecai commanded the Jews of his day to give gifts to the poor and gifts to neighbors and friends, we give gifts to the poor and send gifts of food (see herefor details.) As they celebrated and gave thanks, we celebrate and give thanks.

Reading from the megillah isn’t about recounting ancient history, it’s about being in the events, right now- because its greater themes, of life and death, gratitude and celebration, generosity and courage, are not history, but the core of life itself, today.

Happy Purim to one and all,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: