What’s in a name?: A Day Like Purim
By Cody Bahir
When we think about the holiday of Purim, we usually associate it with dancing, costumes, loud noises, and general merrymaking. One thing we may not think of, however, is repentance. Nevertheless, self-introspection and a call to work on one’s self is what the holiday is in fact about.
Unlike the names of other Jewish Holidays, Purim is not Hebrew. While academic scholars currently debate the etymology of the word, our rabbis taught that the name comes from the Persian word pur referring to the “lots” that Haman cast when attempting to determine the perfect date to destroy the Jewish people according to astrological influences (Esther 3:27 and 9:26). Thus, the word “Purim” refers to an implement used in a Persian divination ritual. So, when we say “Purim Sameach!” (Happy Purim) we are actually saying “Happy Astrological Ritual Implements!”
According to the Megillah (3:27), this ritual was performed in the Hebrew Month of Nissan, the first month in the Jewish calendar, and the lot (pur) that Haman cast fell on the Month of Adar, the last month in the Jewish calendar. The famous biblical commentator, Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), explains that the result of the ritual was in fact an act of divine intervention—rather than due to astrological influences—as God wanted to give the Jewish people the maximum amount of time to repent for their sins, return to their traditions, and thus warrant being saved. This is why God made sure that the Jewish people had close to an entire year to repent before Haman would attempt to annihilate them.
This would indicate that repentance of the common people, rather than the heroism of Esther and Mordechai, was in fact what prevented Haman’s plan from coming to fruition.
The importance of repentance to the holiday of Purim has been highlighted by other rabbinic figures as well. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), the paragon of Lithuanian Jewry, noticed a striking similarity between Purim—the most rambunctious of Jewish Holidays—and Yom Kippur, the most solemn one. While the word “Purim” is of foreign origin, the biblical name for Yom Kippur—Yom haKippurim (the Day of Atonements)—can be read as “yom ha ki-purrim,” which would mean “The day LIKE Purim” in Hebrew. According to this reading, Yom Kippur is the secondary day of repentance, while Purim is the paramount day to conduct self-reflection and contemplate how to become a better person.
This can definitely seem perplexing. On Purim, we eat, drink, dance, wear costumes, and enjoy ourselves. On Yom Kippur, we fast, stand a lot, pray a lot, and beat on our chests. So, how can Purim be MORE of a day of repentance than Yom Kippur?
This perplexity speaks directly to the challenge that living a meaningful and ethical life, regardless of external circumstances, poses. It is much easier to locate one’s moral compass and act accordingly when the stage is set for us as it is on Yom Kippur. However, when we go out into the world and try to live our best lives and are engrossed in our individualistic mindset, it can be much harder to keep in mind what is truly important. On Purim, as we partake in revelry and the pleasures that the world has to offer, it takes a much more conscious effort to do so in a way that is consistent with our values. Thus, one of the major lessons of Purim is that while it is great to have fun and enjoy ourselves, we must be mindful of how we do so.
This lesson can be applied to all aspects of our life. While we may don a physical mask (or Zoom filter) as part of our costume on Purim, every day we put on different masks for different situations. We may have one persona at school or the workplace and have an entirely different one with our family or when alone. Nevertheless, the person behind that mask or filter, who we truly are, needs to reflect the best self that we can be.
Accomplishing this level of mindfulness and authenticity on Purim is a much greater accomplishment that doing so on Yom Kippur. Hence, the latter is simply the day LIKE Purim!
Purim Sameach Kehillah!