The importance of Purim

There are two teachings in the Jewish tradition in relation to Purim that are striking. The first teaching concerns the name Yom Hakippurim, which in Hebrew literally means “like Purim”. Yom Hakippurim is the most holy day of the Jewish calendar – and, strikingly, according to this teaching, the literal meaning of the name Yom Hakippurim implies that Purim is a more important day than Yom Hakippurim (for Yom Kippurim is to be like Purim, and not Purim like Yom Hakippurim). The second teaching is found in the law code of Maimonides (the great legal scholar and philosopher who lived in the 12th century), and according to this teaching, strikingly, all the Biblical books of the Prophets and Writings will be annulled in the days of the messiah except for the Book of Esther telling the story of Purim (Megillah and Chanukah, 2, 18). The Hebrew Bible according to the Jewish tradition is divided into 3 parts – the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), the Prophets (8 books of prophetic writings of Biblical prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and the Writings (11 books of writings regarded as Divinely inspired such as the Book of Psalms and the Book of Esther). According to this teaching of Maimonides, in the days of the messiah all the books of the Bible will be annulled except for the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the Book of Esther.

 

There are two questions then in relation to Purim? First, in what sense is Yom Hakippurim (according to the literal meaning of the name Yom Hakippurim) like Purim – implying that Purim is even greater than Yom Hakippurim? Second, in what sense is the Book of Esther of such importance that in the days of the messiah all the books of the Bible will be annulled except for the 5 Books of Moses and the Book of Esther telling the story of Purim?

 

In my view, the key to understanding the importance of Purim is a Biblical verse (Exodus 17, 16), which relates to the commandment of the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) to wipe out the memory of Amalek. On the Sabbath before Purim, called Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath of remembrance), we read the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (25, 17-19) in which the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek appears – and, in the passage there is also a commandment to remember what the Amalekites (as a symbol of evil) did in attacking the tired and weak of the Israelites in the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. On Purim, we read the passage from the Book of Exodus (17, 8-16) in which God declares – “I will wipe out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17, 14). Immediately following is the verse (Exodus 17, 16), which is the key, in my view, to understanding the importance of Purim – “the hand upon the throne of the Lord, the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation”.

 

Parenthetically, I want to point out that in the plain meaning of Scripture (Deuteronomy 25, 19), the command is not to wipe out the Amalekites but to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Samuel the prophet clearly understands the command in a literal sense of wiping out the Amalekite people without distinction between innocent and guilty, and including women and children (1 Samuel 15, 3) – “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass”. However, in my view, this is a misunderstanding on the part of Samuel, and in the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 15, 1-2) it is written that Samuel says that God has commanded the extermination of the Amalekites – and, not that God has so commanded. In the Biblical conception it is indeed possible for a prophet to misunderstand the will of God. The great example of a Biblical prophet who in the plain meaning of Scripture misunderstands the will of God is the prophet Jonah who does not understand that God is much more a God of caring and compassion than strict justice and truth when God is forgiving of the people of Ninveh who repent of their sins.

 

In the passage from Exodus (and, this is the biggest problem, in my eyes, with the understanding of Samuel) it is written that God has a war with Amalek “from generation to generation” (Exodus 17, 16). If the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is understood as extermination, and the Amalek nation is exterminated, then God cannot have war with Amalek “from generation to generation” as written explicitly in the Torah. Thus, the command in the Torah is not to wipe out the Amalekites (extermination) but to wipe out the memory of Amalek – and, the wiping out the memory of Amalek in the plain meaning of Scripture is then in the metaphoric sense of overcoming evil of which Amalek is a symbol.

 

Before addressing in what way the Biblical verse (Exodus 17, 16) “the hand upon the throne of the Lord, the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” is a key to understanding the importance of Purim, I want to discuss the meaning of Yom Hakippurim.

 

In the Jewish tradition, we connect Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim, which are ten days apart, by referring to them as the “ten days of tshuva”. Tshuva (תשובה) is a central concept of the Jewish tradition and the term is often translated inadequately as repentance but comes from a Hebrew root that means return (שוב) – and, the concept of tshuva is a return to the path of right living.

 

Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month, is the Day of Judgment according to the Jewish tradition – and, Yom Hakippurim, the tenth day of the seventh month, is a day of atonement in which we are to afflict ourselves (Leviticus 23, 27). Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim are the time period of the Jewish calendar in which all of nature and all human beings stand before God in judgment. The period of Rosh Hashanah to Yom is a period especially devoted to tshuva (self-examination in order to return to the path of right living) – culminating in Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonement, in which we are to elevate ourselves spiritually by afflicting ourselves (in the main by fasting) in seeking forgiveness from God.

 

Yom Hakippurim is thus the culmination of the “ten days of tshuva”, a period that is to be one of intense self-examination in order to return to the path of right living. This process of tshuva that is so central to Yom Hakippurim is a process of spiritual growth and the ultimate goal, then, of Yom Hakippurim in religious terms is our own spiritual and personal redemption.

 

If we return now to the verse (Exodus 7, 16) “the hand upon the throne of the Lord, the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation”, the word throne (כס) is not complete and the last letter of the word (כסא) is missing – and, the name of God (YHVH) translated as the Lord is also written incomplete (YH). In my view, this is teaching that as long as evil exists, symbolized by Amalek, then the throne of God is incomplete and the very name of God is incomplete.

 

The essence of the revelation in the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3, 1-17) is the revealing to Moses of the name of God, YHVH. The name YHVH signifies that God is a moral God of revelation and redemption, as reflected in the revelation to Moses at the burning bush – “Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, the Lord (YHVH) God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you; this is My name for ever…I have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt” (Exodus 3, 15-16). YHVH, in the verse here, is depicted as having seen the oppression and persecution that the people Israel have suffered in Egypt, and the mentioning that YHVH is the name of God in the verse signifies God’s moral opposition to such oppression and persecution. Thus, in the passage from Exodus regarding Amalek, the name of God, signifying that God demands morality, and the throne (dominion) of God are incomplete as long as evil, symbolized by Amalek, exists.

 

There is a central idea of the Jewish tradition, which has deep roots in the Bible – the repair of the world. The Biblical roots of the concept of repair of the world are in the opening account of the creation of the universe. After God creates the universe, God says “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). Strikingly, God does not proclaim that the world is perfect or even excellent but merely very good – meaning less than perfect, or imperfect in need of repair and improvement. The human being created in the image of God is the only animal who has the power to repair and improve – to take what is God given such as wheat and to transform it into something even better such as bread. God creates a world then that is imperfect in need of repair – especially in overcoming evil and immorality.

 

I want to suggest then that the verse from Exodus (17, 16) is teaching that the throne (dominion) of God and the very name of God (signifying that God demands morality) are incomplete as long as Amalek exists. The command incumbent upon the people Israel (Deuteronomy 25, 19) to wipe out the memory of Amalek is a commandment to repair the world by overcoming evil, symbolized by Amalek – and, the repair of the world, and the overcoming of evil symbolized by Amalek, will in turn repair the throne of God and the very name of God that are incomplete until the memory of Amalek is wiped out.

 

Now the connection between Yom Hakippurim and Purim is clear, in my view. Both holy days are ultimately concerned with redemption, a central religious concept of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. Yom Hakippurim is concerned with our personal redemption as human beings – Purim is concerned with the redemption of humanity in overcoming evil (symbolized by Amalek) and repairing the world in overcoming evil. The sense here in which Purim is even greater than Yom Hakippurim is that the redemption of Yom Hakippurim is personal redemption, while the redemption of Purim is of all of humanity.

 

It is also now clear, in my view, why in the days of the messiah, in which we experience the redemption of humanity, all books of the Bible, according to the teaching of Maimonides, will be annulled except for the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses) and the Book of Esther. The term Torah, which literally means instruction or guidance (הוראה), can refer in a specific sense to the 5 Books of Moses, and in a broader sense to Judaism – and Torah in the sense of the 5 Books of Moses is the very foundation of Judaism as a constitution of the Jewish people. The 5 Books of Moses, then, are the guide to redemption of the Jewish people, and will continue to guide us even in the days of the messiah and redemption. The Book of Esther is the story of Purim, and Purim is ultimately concerned with the redemption of humanity – and, thus, the Book of Esther is appropriate to be preserved and read even in the days of the messiah and redemption.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

Leave a Reply