Purim: The First Jewish Holiday

The festive holiday of Purim is the last in the Jewish calendar year. Most have heard the basic story: the Jewish people are dispersed across the vast Persian Empire, where an evil minister (Haman) has devised a plot to exterminate them all on one fateful day. Mordechai and the secretly-Jewish Queen Esther save the day. The whole narrative is recorded in Megillat Esther, a short text at the end of the Tanakh. While every Jew (and most gentiles) have heard of Passover, the High Holidays, and Chanukah, Purim remains among the lesser-known Jewish holidays. And yet, in several places across our holy texts, Purim is recognized as being essentially the greatest of holidays, and the only one to remain following the coming of Mashiach. For example, the Midrash of Yalkut Shimoni (in Passage 944) states:

…כל המועדים עתידין ליבטל וימי הפורים אינן בטלים לעולם

“All the holidays are destined to be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified for eternity…”

An 18th-Century Megillah

An 18th-Century Megillah

Purim is not only the last holiday on the Jewish calendar year, but the last to remain in the future. What are we to make of such statements? What makes Purim so special that it stands alone among holidays that will be commemorated by Jews for eternity?

To properly answer this question requires first answering a more fundamental question: When did Judaism begin?

The First Jew

What is the starting point of Judaism? When can we say for sure that the Jewish people had their beginning? Who was the first Jew?

Some erroneously believe that Adam and Eve were the first Jews. This is, of course, grossly incorrect, as the Torah views Adam and Eve simply as the first civilized humans. More commonly, people point to Abraham as the first Jew. Though he is certainly the first of the forefathers, and the point at which the tradition – in some shape or form – begins, it is very hard to describe him as “Jewish”. After all, the Torah in its full form wouldn’t be revealed until centuries later. So, it must be Moses and the Israelites, who received the Torah at Sinai following the Exodus. Surely, they were the first Jews! Indeed, most people would pick that moment as the official start of the Jewish people.

Yet, the truth is that those Israelites were practicing a very different religion. There were no synagogues in those days, no amidah prayer and no tehillim, no volumes of Talmud to study, and the events of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, Chanukah, Purim, and Tisha b’Av (among others) wouldn’t happen until far in the future. This was a religion whose rituals mostly centred on sacrificial offerings.

Today, we have no korbanot, no pilgrimage festivals, no Temple or Mishkan, no death penalties, no polygamy, no prophecy, no slavery, no tithes, no priests, no Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites, or Amalekites. Although we read parashat Zachor to remember the evil Amalekites and remind ourselves to destroy them, we have no idea who the “Amalekites” actually are in our times!

The Judaism of today – focused on Torah study, prayer, and halakhah – is completely different than the ancient Israelites’ religion of sacrifices, agricultural laws, and priestly laws. And, of course, those Israelites certainly weren’t known as “Jews”.

Having said that, we are undoubtedly bound by a chain of tradition, and there is a clear evolution from ancient Israelite to modern Jew. At which point did everything change?

The Birth of the Jewish People

Some 2500 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, together with its Holy Temple. While the previous destruction of the Kingdom of Israel resulted in most of its populace being scattered across the Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Judah did not suffer the same fate. Instead, the people of Judah (among them many Benjaminites and Levites, as well as refugees from the other Israelite tribes which fled to Judah when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed) were taken captive to Babylon.

The Temple, with all of its sacrifices and offerings, was gone, and so were the priestly rituals. The people were no longer farmers on their own lands; the many agricultural laws of the Torah no longer applied. Pilgrimages festivals in Jerusalem were no longer possible either. To survive, the religion had to undergo a major transformation.

In Babylon, offering sacrifices was not possible, so the people began to offer prayers instead. Making pilgrimages was not possible, so people gave the festivals new meanings, and celebrated them with feasts at home. In Babylon, observing the Torah’s laws directly was not possible, but studying the laws was, so this is what the people did, preserving the law in their hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, those who best knew the law were most respected. The priest gave way to the rabbi. And perhaps most importantly, across the Babylonian domain, as the various Israelite tribes blended together and assimilated, ancestral history became blurry, and everyone simply became known as a “Yehudi”, from the name of the most populous of the tribes, and the last surviving kingdom, Judah.

Thus, it is really at this point, in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples, where Judaism as we know it is born. And this is precisely the time of Purim.

The First Rabbi

Purim takes place during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, and shortly before the construction of the Second Temple. It is in Megillat Esther that we are first introduced to the “Jews”:

There was a Yehudi man in Susa the capital city, and his name was Mordechai, the son of Yair, the son of Shim’i, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite. (Esther 2:5)

'The Triumph of Mordechai' by Pieter Lastman (1624)

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)

Mordechai is from the tribe of Benjamin, yet he is described as a Yehudi. As we continue reading, we see no more mention of any specific tribes of Israel. Rather, the text always refers to the people, wherever they were across the 127 territories of the empire, as Yehudim. They had now officially become, not Israelites or Hebrews, but Jews.

Their leader is Mordechai: not a priest, not a Levite, not a king, and not a prophet (at least, not according to the plain text, though later traditions suggest that he really was a prophet). Back in the land of Israel, the leadership used to be held firmly by the Kohanim in the Temple, and by the royal family in the palace. In Babylon, none of that mattered. Mordechai was simply a wise man, a respected communal leader and advisor. One may even argue that Mordechai is history’s first “rabbi” in the proper sense of the term.

Purim as Independence Day

By the time the Jews were permitted to return to Israel, and finally rebuild the Temple, they had become accustomed to their new religious ways. Soon, the Great Assembly compiled the Tanakh, and laid down the first texts of prayer and blessing. The Second Temple was not nearly what the First Temple had been; it was devoid of the Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Tumim. The age of prophecy had ended, too, as did the monarchy. Though there was a return to Torah law, the law was superseded by imperial law, now that Israel was a vassal of the Persian Empire, and then the Greek, and finally the Roman.

A split among the Jewish people was slowly developing: There were those who wanted to return to the ways of ancient Israel, centred on the Temple, together with its priestly and agricultural laws. And then there were those who wanted to maintain the ways that had developed in Babylon. Ultimately, they would form two groups: the Tzdukim, or Sadducees, and the Perushim, or Pharisees. Their names reveal much:

Though it is thought that “Tzduki” comes from the name of their founder, Tzadok, it nonetheless shares a root with tzedek, as this group thought they were the correct ones, following the proper ancient way. Meanwhile, “Perushi” literally means “separatist”, as these were the “reformers” trying to change the ancient system. Not surprisingly, the Tzdukim were primarily composed of the priestly classes, who wanted to restore their central role among the people, while the Perushim were composed primarily of the scholarly class. Perhaps to distance themselves from the Perushim, the Tzdukim rejected any concept of an “Oral Tradition”, and stuck firmly to what is written in the Torah. The Perushim, meanwhile, maintained that there is an ancient tradition dating back to Moses. (Click here to read about the validity – and necessity – of the Oral Tradition.) 

As the priests, the Tzdukim controlled the Temple, and relegated the Perushim to the sidelines. Ironically, this sealed their doom, for when the Second Temple was destroyed, the Tzdukim and their faulty ideology collapsed with it. Not dependent on a Temple, the Perushim survived. Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Torah thrived along with them. And here we are today.

This entire chain of events was set in motion with the story of Purim, which describes the rise of the Jewish people, and their salvation from the brink of destruction. Had it gone another way, Haman would have finished off what Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar started; the Israelites would have perished, and Judaism as we know it would have never emerged. And so, Purim is a sort of “Independence Day” for the Jewish people. The Midrash describes Purim as the last of Jewish holidays because, ironically, it is really the first of Jewish holidays!

We can now better understand, beyond the chronological reasons, why the short Megillat Esther was included in the last sections of the Tanakh. What began at the birth of humanity with Adam and Eve, then progressed through Abraham and the start of monotheistic faith, and was propelled onwards by Moses and the prophets that followed, culminated with the final formation of the Jewish nation. The Tanakh thus presents us with a clear, sequential evolution from start to finish. Abraham was called Ivri, a Hebrew, and Jacob became Israel, with his twelve sons founding twelve tribes that ultimately came out Egypt. Those tribes settled in the Holy Land, but were later scattered across the successive Assyrian-Babylonian-Persian Empires. And it was in the Persian Empire that we truly became Jews. The Tanakh essentially ends on that note, its central narrative having been completed.

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

Sefer Yetzirah famously states the principle that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning is wedged in the end.” Based on this, we can see a far more profound reason for why Purim alone will be celebrated in Messianic times. As the story of the Jewish people’s official beginning, Megillat Esther also encodes within it the secret of the end.

The Megillah describes a world where Jews are scattered from East to West, fractured apart, assimilating. God is nowhere to be seen. In fact, Megillat Esther is unique in that it makes no explicit mention of God anywhere in the text, as if everything is simply up to chance, hence the name Purim, literally “lotteries”.

Indeed, the world we see today is a mirror of that described in Esther: Jews are once again scattered all over the world, fractured and assimilated, living in a seemingly Godless universe. Once again, we are confronted with intense hatred, and many seek our extermination. The rest of the world is blind to this, appeasing those very people who openly state their aims of annihilating the Jews. It goes without saying that, once again, Persia is at the centre of this threat. With everything that’s going on in the world, there seems to be little hope.

But Purim comes along and reminds us that God is with us, as hard as it might be to see. Salvation will surely come, and from the unlikeliest of places. In the final moments, everything will flip upside down. Just as Haman was hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordechai, those who seek to eliminate the Jews will succumb to their own evil devices. And the Jewish people will once again have, to quote the Megillah (8:16), “light, joy, happiness, and honour.”