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Mar 9, 2004 9:21 pm

What Jews Traditionally Did on Purim

Joseph Yahalom, who teaches Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in w w w . h a a r e t z d a i l y . c o m (March 3, 2004):

Anti-Christian texts were the Jews' bread and butter on Purim, providing an opportunity for a good laugh, not to mention fitting in with the"twist of fate" theme that was part of the holiday. Poking fun at the Christians helped the Jews let off steam, making it easier for them to exercise restraint throughout the rest of the year.

The merriment on Purim, which coincided with the spring carnival, may have ultimately helped to reinforce the established social order. But inspired by the verse in the Book of Esther (9:1) -"the Jews got their enemies in their power," i.e., an idea that was more or less taboo all year round - the reveling was liable to get out of hand. So how did the Jews celebrate the"upside-down" character of Purim?

In laws dating back to the early days of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (5th century), one already finds references to an anti-Christian custom featuring a crucified figure who symbolized not only Haman but Jesus. The provincial governors of the time were ordered to prevent the Jews from the ritualistic burning of Haman in effigy on their holiday. This ritual was considered blasphemous and made a mockery of Christian beliefs in that it used a replica of the Holy Cross."They must not be allowed to employ a symbol of our faith in their merrymaking," the emperor decreed.

This custom is also mentioned in the testimony of Byzantine Jews who converted to Christianity. These converts explicitly denounce the burning of a Haman doll mounted on a cross on"Mordechai's holiday," which was done while jeering the Christians.

Christian Bible scholars were also critical of biblical-style Purim celebrations calling for revenge and mass murder. Luther, the great Reformer, expressed sorrow that the Book of Esther was included in the Scriptures. Others could see no justification for wild revelry that underscored Jewish nationalism rather than promoting some lofty universalistic theme.

Evidence of how the Jews celebrated Purim can be found not only in Jewish religious texts but in samples of popular writing in the Cairo Geniza. One such text is a comic disputation between Haman and other evil tyrants in history. The characters speak to one another in the lingo of the times, in a kind of face off between Judaism and Christianity.

Allegorical disputations between inanimate objects or animals date back to early Sumerian literature. Seven literary debates of this kind have survived, in whole or in part, such as the disputations between Sheep and Grain, or Winter and Summer. Each side tries to prove its superiority over the other. The debate takes the form of a symmetrical dialogue, with the right to speak divided evenly between the parties. In ancient Hebrew literature, there is a famous religious disputation between the body and the soul, each claiming innocence on Judgment Day.

Purim, with its tradition of turning things upside down, was an opportunity to parody this genre - and satirize Jesus as well. The text in question adheres to all the rules of the genre with one small exception: The parties are not trying to outdo one another by boasting how great they are; the contest is over who is more wretched and deserving of pity. In keeping with the folk character of the holiday, the debate is conducted in the colloquial Aramaic spoken in Eretz Yisrael before the Arab conquest (see"Jewish Palestinian Aramaic Poetry from Late Antiquity," Yahalom and Sokoloff, poem 33).

In the poem, Haman and the world's tyrants parade their afflictions and complain about what the Jews have done to them. The details become clearer as each of the notorious characters relates his woes. Haman says that the others deserved their fate, but cries about how unfairly he has been treated. He insists that he is the most miserable of them all. Then the next tyrant gets up and says Haman deserved what he got, all the while complaining about how much he himself has suffered.

Pharaoh, for example, tells Haman he should have learned a lesson from his ancient forebear, Amalek, who was vilified and crucified. Speaking in the first person, he says: Who do you think you are, popping an artery over that venerable old man? Me - I raised that little stutterer Moses in my own home but he turned against me and killed my peoples' first-born sons.

Haman calls Pharaoh an unholy bastard who became a dishonest king - mere flesh and blood who set himself up as god. About himself, Haman says: In my youth and inexperience, I thought that the Jews had no god to save them. It was that she-wolf (Esther, of the tribe of Benjamin, symbolized by a wolf) who seduced me.

Amalek describes Haman as"the simpleton from Beit She'an who went to Shushan to wag an evil tongue." He boasts that he was once a great ruler until Moses put a hex on him and his memory.

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