Purim

February 22, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes on Purim.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

WHAT A YEAR SINCE LAST PURIM

We had a lively Purim table last year. Nobody had any inkling of what was to come.

The virus knew precisely when to attack, in the midst of lively spirits and party hats.

We would like to phone around and invite everybody again but we still aren’t sure. We could have a table of lively guests, but would it be a good idea? Nobody knows.

We might have to trade Purim for Pesach. If we want a family Seder on Pesach we might have to limit our Purim.

Whatever we end up doing we will wish each other (presumably virtually) all the blessings that God can give us. May they be blessings of health.

Neither this year nor ever should there be too much inebriation or extremes. Never should anyone go in for binge drinking, which is neither required by halachah nor good for anyone’s health.

BOOK OF THE EXILE

Rav Adin Steinsaltz says that Megillat Esther is the Book of the Exile.

Unlike other parts of the Bible the story takes place outside Israel, though Haman and Mordechai were previously involved in a controversy in the Holy Land itself. The Diaspora Jew is especially challenged if their inner and outer worlds are at loggerheads.

The question in such a situation (e.g. German Jewry in the 1920s and 1930s) is, “Can I regard this as a safe, long-term home? Can I handle my tug-of-war?”

In lands where the Jewish and general dimensions are comfortable with each other there is a question: “What can my Jewishness contribute to my civic identity – and vice-versa – without compromising part of my being?”

ESTHER IN THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS

There is no text of Esther in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Maybe this reflects the debates amongst the sages as to whether Esther deserved to be in the Bible.

Possibly the Dead Sea sect were amongst the opponents of Esther. Or maybe they were amongst those Jewish groups that had not accepted the festival of Purim into their calendar.

Cecil Roth says Esther is one of the few places in the Bible that speaks favourably of foreign rule, but this fails to recognise the Biblical approval of Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar.

FANCY DRESS ON PURIM

Nobody is certain where the idea of fancy dress on Purim began.

There is a 15th century responsum from Rav Yehudah Mintz of Italy who says there is no prohibition on men wearing women’s attire on Purim because everyone knows it is for fun and has no sexual overtones. Rav Moshe Isserles quotes this responsum in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch.

Some historians suggest that Purim fancy dress was an imitation of the Roman carnival which was held just before Lent. People took part in street parades wearing fancy dress and masks.

But this doesn’t necessarily explain our Purim custom. The Apter Rebbe, known as the Ohev Yisrael, acknowledges that the fancy dress minhag existed amongst Jews and was a form of mockery of the European norms that caused Jews such grief.

The Si’ach Yitzchak (Rav Yitzchak Weiss) thought that disguising oneself echoes the wicked Haman, who pretended to the king that he was genuinely concerned for the stability of the regime. The Talmud (Megillah 12a) points out that things often have hidden motives. However, many centuries elapsed between the time of the Talmud and the medieval adoption of the fancy dress custom.

There may be an explanation in a medieval Tosafot in Rosh HaShanah 3a which says that Haman’s ancestors the Amalekites tried to defeat Israel by changing their voices and their clothing. A piyyut (poem) for the Shabbat before Purim actually says “Kesut velashon shinah” – “he (Amalek) changed his voice and his clothing”.

How can we allow ourselves to mimic our enemies, the Amalekites and the wicked Haman? Simply because we see the funny side in our enemies being brought low despite all their pretensions.

(This article is based on an essay written by Rabbi Yair Hoffman in 2010).

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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