Yael Unterman

The Alternative Universe Purim

It turns out that the Jewish people have been shaped by Purim: we can't give it up, and no one can take it away from us.
Illustrative. A Purim celebration in the synagogue of Irkutsk. (Dorit Wagner/The Jewish Community of Irkutsk, via The Times of Israel)
Illustrative. A Purim celebration in the synagogue of Irkutsk. (Dorit Wagner/The Jewish Community of Irkutsk, via The Times of Israel)

You know, I’ve been a religious Jew ever since I can remember (one of my earliest memories is putting my arms around the wrong man’s leg in shul — to my horrible embarrassment, I looked up and it was not my father’s….). I’ve studied and taught Torah for years. And yet every so often some unlit corner of Judaism will pop up and surprise me, making me feel astoundingly ignorant once again. This year it’s the turn of an interesting creature called Purim Katan.

In a Jewish leap year, falling every 2 to 3 years of a 19-year cycle, we add an extra month, called Adar I. The 14th of Adar I (or 15th for Jerusalem) is known as “Purim Katan” — minor/little Purim.

Now I know what a family Purim is; my family, in fact, hold one annually, celebrating the release of our ancestor Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller from jail. But Purim Katan has never made the least impression on my Jewish calendar — probably because I don’t regularly attend morning minyan.

If we visit the very last paragraph of the Shulhan Aruch Orah Hayyim, we find that Purim Katan is indeed a thing. The poskim disagree as to how much of a thing, though. Some (Tur and Rif) hold it is a day full of festivities – exactly like Purim, but sans all external mitzvot. Some (Mishna Berura) take a middle position, that we should celebrate a little, and also not say Tahanun, eulogize, or fast. Others permit even the latter, minimizing the import of the day.

Sounds like an excuse for a party… a little party!

What really strikes me about this day, though, is its nature as a kind of “shadow” Purim, a ghostly or hologram Purim.

Science fiction buffs — and I confess myself to be among them — are excited by the idea of alternative universes. What if there were infinite universes, all of them containing different variations or permutations of our collective or individual history? Universes in which Hitler did not exist, Columbus did not discover America, the Zionists agreed to live in Uganda, or my parents decided to name me Jane.

And it’s not only science fiction; there’s actually a respectable sub-field in the study of history termed “alternative history,” “counterfactual history,” or “allohistory,” exploring these types of scenarios (though probably not the final one), including at least one book dedicated to Jewish “What Ifs.”

The movie industry has jumped on the bandwagon, with such parallel universe films as Sliding Doors, exploring the ramifications of catching or missing a train; a TV show named The Man in the High Castle; and, as far back as 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life explored a number of “what if” moments in the life of one depressed man, without whom the world would have been much poorer (try this on yourself — it will cheer you up).

What is the act of teshuva (repentance), if not going backwards in time to a particular point and creating an alternative timeline in which one did not do that sin. The sin is wiped out completely, and one now moves forward in time without it.

Returning now to Purim Katan. I want to imagine for a moment that Adar I functions as an alternate reality to Adar II. It’s still Adar, but without Purim – simply an empty month, falling in the middle of the winter. This is Jewish life as it would be had Purim never happened – this is the alternative Purimless universe.

I would have thought that the shapers of halacha should have left Adar I alone, with no particular rules for a month that was added simply to recalibrate the calendar. Like an alternative universe, it should bear no trace of the parallel timeline. Yet they don’t; they sense that this month might carry impressions of Purim within it, and struggle to ascertain how strong or weak those might be.

Perhaps this is because we cannot be a people who never had Purim, we cannot have a blank Adar — for we would not be the same people. Just as some posit that simultaneous timelines will somehow bleed into each other; just as when one has done teshuva, one becomes a new and elevated person, not simply one’s old self; so too, one cannot simply add Adar I to the calendar without that Adar carrying in it the seeds of Purim. Because Adar was never the same after Purim; because we are a people shaped by Purim, and no one can take that away from us.

And I find it intriguing that this is the final paragraph in the Shulhan Arukh’s section of guidance in how to live our daily lives. Perhaps the message is that just as we will always be a people shaped by Purim, no matter what, so too we will also always be a people shaped by the halacha, no matter who we have become or how far we have departed from it.

A fascinating thought, to be continued in an alternative blogiverse. Happy Purim Katan!

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
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