Purim – How Does a Revenge Plot Turn into a Carnival?
Purim, which takes place on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Adar (this year March 17th), contains tremendous complexity and contradiction. The narrative story describes survival of attempted genocide, yet the holiday is celebrated as a mascarade, replete with all the topsy-turvey convention defying antics that implies. The Book of Esther is written as a very adult farce – filled with stock characters, drunkenness, sexual innuendo, and violence. And yet, the day is celebrated as a children’s holiday with costuming, carnivals and baskets of cookies and treats. Purim is also theologically complex. It is celebrated as a religious holiday, defined by the public recitation of the Megilat Esther, and yet the megillah is one of only two books in the bible that doesn’t mention God at all (the other is Song of Songs).
I think the key to the complexities and contradictions of Purim can be found in the end of the Purim story, the part you likely didn’t learn at the children’s Purim carnival. After our heroes Esther and Mordichai reveal and reverse Haman’s plot to murder all the Jews in the kingdom of Persia, the Jews themselves take up arms against their would-be attackers and kill Haman’s ten sons along with tens of thousands of people throughout the kingdom. It’s not clear from the text whether this eruption of violence is a violent catharsis, a reasonable self-defense in the face of an organized pogrom or a fantasy of revenge. It is possible that within the megillah these killings function as a kind of justified vengeance, meting out justice on would be attackers. Even if we now don’t see them as justified, they may understand how they would have been necessary to stop the orchestrated attacks on the Jews. Once the populus was riled up by the murderous antisemitism of Haman’s plan, it would take more than royal decree to prevent the slaughter. Or, since the whole megillah reads as a broad farce, we might think of this coda as describing the fantasy of power and the possibility of revenge rather than a historical account of real-world violence.
Whatever ultimately motivated the inclusion of this finale into the Megillah, the Mishnaic and Talmudic rabbis who concretized the practices of the holiday knew they had to find a space for these very human impulses of violent revenge, without fully embracing them. As with Chanukah, where the focus turns from guerrilla war to a miracle of everlasting oil, the practices of Purim transform a story of attempted genocide into a holiday focused on joy, community. The elements of masquerade and revelry replace the violent release that marks the end of the story with the catharsis of carnaval.
The megillah describes the period after the decree is lifted and the Jews take their revenge as “days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” (Esther 9:22) Building upon this the rabbis institute four mitzvot (religious obligations) on Purim: listening to the megillah, eating a festive communal meal (seudah), sending gifts to friends (mishloach manot), and giving to the poor (matanot la’evyonim).
Over time these practices of merrymaking, particularly the megillah reading and communal meals, have embraced the fantastical and the topsy-turvy with elaborate costuming that enables people to try on characters and roles far from their daily life, and (for adults) an embrace of drinking that blurs the line between blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman. Through these practices the cathartic explosion of a world turned upside down replaces the orgy of violence that closes the megillah. The inversions of the social order on Purim function to introduce what anthropologist Victor Turner calls communitas, an experience that breaks through the social hierarchy to bond the community together. When ritualized, as in the holiday of Purim, expressions of communitas serve as an outlet for the discordant notes in society, while allowing for their reintegration into the social order.
It is this light that we can understand the role of masquerade and reversal, carnival and fun, in commemorating a genocidal threat and its violent turnabout. In the liminal space of the Purim holiday we can simultaneously express and domesticate the holiday’s violent narrative, while unabashedly celebrating the story’s positive outcome. Through the mitzvot and the practices of Purim the rabbis, and evolving Jewish culture, have transformed a violent catharsis into a socially beneficial one.