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.
(She was not looking to win the queenship because she wanted to marry a Jew, so she requested no cosmetics for her session with the king, but she was chosen anyway.)
5) Why did Esther's story about poison have to check out?
A: It was registered under another name.
(Her uncle and adoptive father, Mordecai, overheard two palace guards plotting to poison the king. He told Esther, who reported it to her husband in Mordecai's name. This is the source for the great virtue ascribed in Judaism to giving credit to sources.)
6) What made Haman change his position concerning Mordecai?
A: He couldn't take the bow so he went to the stern.
(Haman was angry because Mordecai refused to bow when he passed, so he sternly initiated a vendetta. Tradition indicates Mordecai could not bow because Haman wore an idolatrous totem around his neck.)
7) Which capital featured in the meeting between Haman and Ahasuerus?
A: The Kikar.
(The currency, i.e. capital, Haman offered as a bribe is called Kikar in Hebrew. Kikar also means a public square, and in Israel the Defense Department complex in Tel Aviv is called the Kikar, the equivalent of our Pentagon. The actual capital city was Shushan, today known as Shush or Shustar in Iran .)
8) How did Haman suggest Ahasuerus contemplate the Jewish problem?
(Haman offered 10,000 Kikar.)
8) What happened when Mordecai went to sleep?
A: He tried to hit the sack but the sack hit him instead.
(The text says Mordecai heard of the decree against the Jews and he donned sackcloth and ashes. Tradition adds that this was revealed to him in a dream.)
9) Why did it take Esther three days to get to the king?
A: You know her and the girls! That was their idea of fast.
(Esther and her loyal attendants fasted three days before she approached the king. This sort of self-deprivation served as a sort of prayer for God's assistance.)
10) What did Esther say when the king offered her 50%?
A: "Great! Let's halve a party!"
(The king said she could request up to half the kingdom. She said she would reveal her request in a party honoring the king and Haman.)
11) How did Haman react to driving Mordecai around?
A: He was down in the dumps.
(Haman ended up leading Mordecai around town on a majestic horse to honor Mordecai for saving the king's life. Tradition says his daughter thought it was Mordecai leading her father, so she dumped trash from an upper storey onto the head of the person on foot.)
12) What did Harvona say about Haman?
A: He was hanging at the wrong party.
(Harvona turned up at the exact moment the king was enraged at Haman to inform the king Haman had prepared a gallows for Mordecai. The king angrily instructed Haman be hanged thereon.)
13) Why did Haman leave before the end of the Megilla?
A: He couldn't take the suspense.
(A bit of gallows humor there.)
14) Why did Esther suggest adding Haman's sons?
A: To help Ahasuerus build up his pole numbers.
(The gallows wound up holding eleven men at once, Haman and his ten sons.)
15) Which element of the Purim celebration commemorates Haman's fate?
A: The hangover.
(It is customary to drink to the brink of excess, a line often too fine to be smoothly negotiated.)
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