Why do we celebrate Purim on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Adar? At first glance, this question seems to be simple, its answer self-evident. The Megillah (the biblical Book of Esther) itself not only prescribes the date for celebrating the holiday, but also explains the reason that date was chosen:
The rest of the Jews [other than those in Shushan, who needed an extra day to defeat their enemies], those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil. That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and they rested on the .fourteenth day, and make it a day of feasting and merrymaking….That is why village Jews, who live in unwalled towns, observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar… (Esther 9:16-19, JPS translation)
That explanation seems fairly straightforward, but it begs a more fundamental question. What is it exactly that the holiday of Purim celebrates? Both the second berakha (blessing) recited before reading the Megillah (“Who performed miracles for our fathers in those days in this season”) and the passage Al-haNisim (“For the Miracles”), which we insert into both the Amidah and Birkat haMazon (Grace after Meals) on Purim , express gratitude to God for the miracles that the Purim story recounts. But to what miracles are we referring?
Upon a cursory reading, the narrative set forth in the Megillah appears to be a story of human action and its consequences – both positive and negative — with no apparent role for divine intervention. It is well known that God’s name is not mentioned anywhere in the text, nor is there any direct mention of a miracle. Even when Mordechai is trying to persuade Esther to take the risk of appearing before the king uninvited, his language remains self-consciously secular:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. (4:13-14)
Yet the liturgy of Purim makes it clear, although the text of the Megillah itself does not, that we attribute the salvation of the Jews to God’s miraculous assistance.
But when did that salvation take place? If you read the Megillah carefully, it appears to contain two related but distinct stories. The first is the Purim story we’re all familiar with – the story of how Mordechai and Esther (with a timely assist from Harbonah) foiled Haman’s attempt to annihilate all the Jews of the Persian Empire, leading the king to order Haman’s execution. The second is the story that begins after Haman’s death, as Mordechai and Esther persuade the king to support their efforts to save the Jews from the decreed annihilation.
None of the events leading up to Haman’s execution, took place in the month of Adar. It was in the month of Nisan that Haman drew lots to determine when to kill the Jews (3:7), and it was in Nisan that he persuaded King Ahasuerus to issue the decree permitting the extermination of the Jews. The Megillah tells us specifically that it was on the thirteenth day of Nisan that the king’s scribes and couriers were summoned to promulgate the royal edict authorizing the planned extermination. (3:1).
The Megillah is not clear as to precisely when the other events recounted in chapters 5 through 8 of the Megillah took place. We are left with the impression that Mordechai and Esther acted promptly, which would mean that all those events through Haman’s death took place within a couple of weeks after the edict of extermination was promulgated, i.e., during the month of Nisan. That timeline would leave unexplained why it took until the 23rd of Sivan – nearly two months after Haman’s execution – for the corrective edict, which permitted the Jews to fight off their enemies, to be promulgated (8:9).
Perhaps a brief and seemingly technical discussion in the Talmud may enhance our understanding of the familiar Purim narrative. The Mishna (Meg. 2:1) records a disagreement among three Tanaim (sages who lived during the time of the Mishna) as to how much of the Megillah must be read on Purim in order to fulfill one’s obligation: the entire book (Rabbi Meir, and our practice today); (2) the introduction of Mordechai in Esther 2:5 (Rabbi Yehuda); or (3) the introduction of Haman in 3:1 (Rabbi Yossi). The Gemara (Meg. 19a) brings down from another Tannaitic source a fourth opinion, that of R. Shimon bar Yochai, According to that opinion, we can fulfill our obligation by beginning the Megillah with 6:1 (“That night, sleep deserted the king …”).
In the Gemara, Rabbi Yochanan tries to explain the rationale of each of the opinions based on the wording of 9:29. He understands these four opinions as reflecting. four diffrerent perspectives as to whose actions are central to the story. The three opinions cited in the Mishna attribute centrality to the human characters (i.e., to Ahasuerus, Mordechai and Haman respectively). Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, by contrast, sees the miracle as central.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai sees God as the central character of the Purim story. Since the Megillah does not mention His name, we are left to infer His intervention from those elements of the Purim story that were not the result of human action. The other events leading to Haman’s downfall result from the conscious choices of the individual characters, but nothing they did or said could have prevented the king from sleeping that night; only God could have brought about the sleeplessness, which in turn set the stage for Haman’s downfall. In Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s view of the Megillah’s narrative, the king’s insomnia is as close to a nes niglah (overt miracle) as we can get.
According to the narrative of the Megillah, Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews was a means of obtaining revenge against Mordechai for his failure to show Haman sufficient deference. Haman “disdained to lay hands on Mordechai alone” (3:6), i.e., he considered it beneath him to take revenge merely against a single individual. If that were the whole story, however, then the Megillah should end with Haman’s death – but, of course, it doesn’t. Even though Haman was dead, the royal edict that he persuaded the king to issue was still in force. That edict permitted the wholesale slaughter of the all the Jews in the Persian empire on a specific date eleven months away. Esther asked the king to revoke that decree, but he couldn’t because “an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked ….” (8:8) (The irrevocability of royal decrees under Persian law is also mentioned in Daniel 6:13, 16). To get around that problem , Mordechai persuaded the king issue a new decree which provided:
The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; and if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre and exterminate its armed force, together with women and children, and plunder their possessions – on a single day in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus ….
Not surprisingly, the Jews of Shushan reacted with joy to the news of Mordechai’s success, a joy that we recall each week when we make Havdalah: “The Jews had light and gladness, happiness and honor.” (8:16). Throughout the Persian empire, “when the king’s command and decree arrived, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday.” (8:17). The spontaneous celebration was certainly understandable, for what Haman had conceived as a slaughter had now been transformed into a battle. But the story was not yet over, for the Jews, having won the right to do battle, now had to win the battle itself.
Chapter 9 of the Megillah tells the story of the Jews’ victory in that battle over their enemies, both in the provinces and also in Shushan, the capital. Throughout the empire, they killed seventy-five thousand of their enemies, plus an additional eight hundred in Shushan itself, where they were given an additional day to complete the job. Interestingly, the text offers no explanation of who these enemies were whose hatred was so great that they would still seek to slaughter the Jews, despite the risk to their own lives, months after Haman’s death. Apparently, the fact that the Jewish people always has enemies eager to destroy us was taken for granted.
So why don’t we celebrate Purim on the 23rd day of Sivan, the day that the king’s edict allowing the Jews to defend themselves was promulgated. Or if we agree with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that the miracle is the essence of the story, why don’t we celebrate it on the day of the king’s insomnia, assuming of course that we could all agree on what date that was? (OK, there is that little problem called Pesach – the thought of hamantashen without chametz would no doubt diminish the joy. )
The answer, it seems to me, is hiding in plain sight. The king’s insomnia was not the only element of the narrative that was beyond the control of everyone but God. There is also the purim (lots) that give the holiday its name. None of the human characters in the story could control the outcome of Haman’s lottery. It was one factor that had to be left to God.
But wait, some readers no doubt are ready to object, Haman didn’t use the lottery to determine whether the Jews would be annihilated, only the precise date on which the slaughter would take place. The end result would have been the same in any event.
But would it? As it happened, the lot fell on a date eleven months away, and time was critical. Because the king’s edict could not be revoked, Mordechai had to persuade him to promulgate the counteredict; that alone appears to have taken nearly two months. Then there had to be enough time to notify the Jews in all 127 provinces of the empire, giving them time to get over their spontaneous euphoria and then to organize themselves so as to make sure they would not only fight the battle, but win it.
We can’t celebrate Purim on any of the earlier dates because the victory of the Jews was not yet complete. It’s not enough to trust in God and then express our gratitude to Him for the miracles that follow, whether hidden or overt, that He does for us. We have our role to play as well, and is that role that completes the miracle and impels the celebration.
“The Jews had light and gladness, happiness and honor.” (Esther 8:16) – so may it be for us.
Chag Purim sameach