On the “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” paradigm of Jewish holidays.
This is the second part of a trilogy. The first part, It’s all About Rosh Hashana! was published in my personal blog. The last paragraph was about Hanukkah.
For those who prefer video to text — my lecture “It’s all about Rosh Hashana” in Hod ve-Hadar Congregation in Kfar Saba pretty much sums it up:
In Purim and Passover, they also tried to kill us and we won. Much has been written about the similarities between the Egypt and Persia stories: In both cases, our forefathers are in danger and saved by sons of Rachel (Joseph and Benjamin) who initially hide their identity. There are many similar expressions used in the story. The less compared points are that both holidays are around the Nisan New Year (two weeks before and two weeks after), and, in both cases, saving the day involved deception and a great massacre: in Persia the king de facto is killed (Haman holds the signet ring), in Egypt, he wasn’t, which is very odd because he was most probably a first-born, but many other Egyptians died that night.
Both holidays stress Nahafoch-Hu (“to the contrary”) customs. In Purim, these customs are obvious and the words Nahafoch-Hu are explicitly written in the Scroll of Esther. The holiday of Passover is nowadays perceived as the epitome of mainstreamness. I originally wrote normalcy, but the odd food and stressful family gathering and aunties wondering when you’re going to find the one/get married/have children/have more children — I’ve changed the wording. It is to this day a “to the contrary” holiday, but more so in the original thought behind the Seder:
How else could we explain Ma Nishtana? The little boy originally used to ask “what has changed” after the meal. The original Seder included first a feast and then a symposium, copying the Greek feasts, but the Gaonim realized it doesn’t work with Jewish children (let’s face it: It doesn’t work with adults either), and changed the order in order to motivate the celebrators to stay at the table for the whole service. The boy asks this because the Passover feast is unlike any other: We, the usually humiliated Jews, recline like kings, drink four glasses of wine in one night like kings, and do other things that are contrary to our usual habit.
The Mimuna also fits into the same picture, with a traditional table full of sweets and greens with live fish as decoration, reminiscent of that of the Persian New Year (which is conveniently timed at the exact second of the spring equinox). Actually, sweets and fish are also on the Jewish Rosh Hashana table. The Mimuna also resembles Purim, with Jews dressing up as gentiles and girls allowed to make a move on boys. Girls talking to boys without their parents’ supervision is also one of the customs of Sizdah Bedar, the 13th and last day of the Persian New Year holiday. Just like Passover, the Mimuna is about feeding Kol Dikhfin (Aramaic — “anyone who is hungry”), and the blessing at the end of the holiday is “Happy New Year”.
Where do all these “to the contrary” customs come from? Again, we look for clues in the Ancient Near East: New Year holidays like Akitu (Barley) in Sumer, which was celebrated twice a year, both around autumn (sowing) and spring (reaping) equinoxes, the Assyrian (the Greeks say Persian) Sacaea, Saturnalia in Europe, etc. — all show the same “contrary” features and involve sexual promiscuity, reversal of gender or social roles, and/or a story of a great massacre.
Because before the end of the year Chaos rules. Things should get absolutely worse and worse, and culminate in sacrificing the god (Jesus, the 13th of Nisan) or his representative on earth — usually the king. Afterwards everything will go back to normal. A god can be resurrected: In Babylon, Tamuz, the god of fertility who spent the summer in the underworld, is resurrected in Tishrei, and Jesus also comes back to life. In other cultures, where the king was to be executed — well, resurrecting a human king is slightly more difficult than resurrecting a god, hence a temporary king should be nominated.
In the ancient Near Eastern holidays, the king wears white instead of royal purple, sits in the field and is more accessible for the people. This is reminiscent of the Hebrew Piyyut “Hamelekh Basade” — the King (i.e., the Holy One, blessed is He) is in the field, referring to the greater accessibility of God to us on the month of Elul. One of the convicts on death row is made king for the duration of the New Year festival: He eats and drinks on the king’s table, has access to the pleasures of the king’s harem, and is executed at the end of the holiday. Thus we have chaos, to the contrary, a killed king to satisfy the gods, and a live king to run the state again.
In the story of Esther, the would-be king — Haman, who has the signet ring — is executed and so are 75,810 other non-Jews. In the story of Passover, the stories of king de facto (Joseph) and the great massacre are separate. Before the Persian New Year, Nowruz (spring equinox) there’s a black-faced clown named Haji Piruz, who entertains the people in the streets, and is gone when the holiday comes. Some think it’s a degradation of the custom of temporary king before the New Year — which was an honor in pre-Islamic times: the most righteous man in the city becomes king to make sure everyone has all they need for the holiday. This temporary king was not executed. In order to allow this custom to continue on Islamic times, it had to undergo degradation, as did other customs of the New Year. The custom of temporary mayor exists to this day in some places in Iran — in some of these places it has to be a woman. Another view links Haji Piruz to the mythological prince Siyavash, who, upon his death becomes the god of vegetation. Sounds familiar?
Indeed, when looking at the greater paradigm — these two explanations complete, rather than compete.
Next time: Killing the king, the auspicious numbers 10, 13 and 40, and a brand new cosmic conspiracy theory (link when published).
Thamar E. Gindin is a faculty member in Shalem College in Jerusalem, researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf center in Haifa University, lecturer and author of The Good, the Bad and the World, a Journey to Pre-Islamic Iran (Hebrew) and The Book of Esther, Unmasked (Hebrew, English and Persian). This article is based on the 9th chapter of The Book of Esther, Unmasked.