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Why Do We Ditch Decorum on Purim?

Why Do We Ditch Decorum on Purim?

Anyone visiting a synagogue for the first time would be surprised to see the clergy dressed up in absurd costumes and the worshipers howling “boo” and waving ear-shattering noisemakers. Happening upon such a scene would could lead a person to believe that Judaism is a wild and crazy religion.

On one day of the year – Purim – that would seem to be true.

I asked Shifra Epstein, the former curator of ethnography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, about this world-wide Purim tradition of sanctioning, even encouraging, behavior ordinarily forbidden in the synagogue and in our Jewish communities.

ReformJudaism.org: What do we know about the historical origin of the carnival atmosphere that is now an annual custom on Purim?

Shifra Epstein: Since early medieval times, masquerading, merrymaking, genial satire, light-hearted mock thievery, and even drinking to the point of intoxication have been practiced joyfully on Purim throughout the Jewish world.

The fourteenth-century Italian scholar and satirist

Kalonymos ben Kalonymos described scenes of children pelting one another with nuts and adult horsemen brandishing flaming branches while blowing trumpets. In Holland, weeklong Purim carnivals in public places included masquerades, musical fanfares, and dramatizations.   

Did the most strictly Orthodox Jews join in the merriment?

Absolutely. For example, Rabbi Hayim, the distinguished head of the Volzhin Yeshiva (Talmudic academy) in Lithuania, would “resign” each year and be replaced by a special “rabbi,” selected from among the students, to preside over the Purim celebrations. Dressed in a rabbi’s robe and seated in a special chair, the student delivered a mock sermon in the legalistic style of Talmudic discourse, making fun of the academy’s venerated master – to everyone’s amusement, of course!

How did the Purim traditions of excessive drinking, gambling, and thievery come about?

Permission to get tipsy on Purim dates back to Rava, the fourth-century Talmudic sage, who proclaimed, “It is the duty of man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai.’”

The prohibition against gambling, a distinctive feature of Purim celebrations in German Jewish communities, is connected with a lottery: Haman used a lottery to determine the day the Jews of the kingdom would be massacred. That is why the miraculous delivery of the Jews is traditionally celebrated by participating in various games of chance.

The custom of stealing from the shalachmones plate (the traditional gift of baked goods, such as hamantaschen, exchanged on the holiday) is rooted in the rabbinic legend that the story’s villain, Haman, was hanged on Passover. It relates the tradition of “stealing” the ceremonial afikoman (dessert) at the end of the Passover meal.

Rabbi Moses Isserless, the sixteenth-century Ashkenazi codifier of Jewish law in his Shulchan Aruch, justified the practice of stealing food on Purim as an act done in the spirit of merriment and good will. According to his ruling, from the hour of the reading of Megillat Esther (book of Esther) in the morning until the Purim meal, the stealing of food is not to be considered robbery.

What are the psychological reasons for turning the norms of Jewish decorum and daily behavior upside-down on Purim?

Once a year, through burlesque, Jews were given license to deviate from the rules and norms that helped their communities survive in the face of adversity. Yet, in the final analysis, the disorder associated with Purim serves as a dramatic justification of the need for rules in our lives.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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