Capturing and testing the spirit of Purim, which was observed yesterday and Sunday.
In memory of our late colleague Lawrence Henry, who responded in March 2005 to a piece discussing Esther: “Jay, I always like your columns, but I particularly admire this one, translating one of the richest stories in the Bible for modern eyes, ears and sensibilities.”
The Jewish holiday of Purim was celebrated in most of the world on Sunday. In Jerusalem and Tiberias, indeed any city which was walled in ancient times, it was observed on Monday. The day commemorates the Jews being saved from the evil Haman, who used political clout to convince the Persian emperor to issue an edict allowing open season to wipe out the Jews. His plot was foiled by Queen Esther, who had hidden her Jewish identity until that time. The Biblical Book of Esther tells the story in detail and is read twice during the holiday.
This Book is unique in that it is the only one in Scripture not to mention the name of God. No open miracles are recorded in the tale. This is taken to symbolize the notion of God’s hidden hand in history, how He manipulates events without noticeably altering the course of nature. In recognition of this, plays and costume parties are customary, communicating that God disguises Himself in history. Humor is also used, in sharp contradistinction to the general reverence, expressing the notion of the divine comedy in human events. Such as, say, dropping cascades of snow every time Al Gore shows up to make a Global Warming event.
With this in mind, I sent all my friends a special quiz this year, reviewing the events in the Book of Esther through a series of jokes. Herewith my little exam, answers thoughtfully provided.
1) What did people think of King Ahasuerus’ party?
A: They found it intoxicating.
(The text carries on at some length about all the tippling at his inauguration. This is the Hebrew spelling; the Persian form is Chashiarsh and the Greeks called him Xerxes.)
2) Why did Queen Vashti refuse her cameo?
A: She didn’t want to be listed at the tail end of the credits.
(The king wanted his queen to appear before the assemblage but she refused. The tradition says she had developed a swelling which made it look like she had a tail.)
3) What was Haman’s advice to Ahasuerus about Vashti?
A: He should head off any future insubordination.
(The text states he issued a decree against Vashti and he then needed a new queen. Tradition says he had her executed, off-with-her-head as it were.)
4) Why did Esther have to win the contest on the first round?
A: She didn’t want any makeup.
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