Why Talmidis don’t observe Purim

It may seem an odd thing to have a difference over, but did you know that Talmidis don’t observe Purim? The difference is due to the traditions of Babylonian Jewry (whose biblical canon and theology modern Rabbinical Judaism was influenced by), and those of Galilean Jewry, which influenced the traditions of ancient Followers of the Way.

Purim is considered a “local” Jewish festival, and not a national one (like Chanukkah), nor a biblical festival ordained in Torah (like Passover or Sukkot).

As far as we can tell, until the destruction of the Temple, the celebration of Purim was restricted to Babylonian Jewry in Babylonia and Judea; it was never popular with Jews in the Galilee (and therefore was not a festival that Yeshua` and his followers would have celebrated). After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Babylonian Jewish practice became the dominant strain, and as a result, Purim and other Babylonian Jewish practises (such as the one-year Torah reading cycle) became the norm.

The T’nakh – the canon used by mainstream Jews and Karaites – is therefore called by us, the “Babylonian canon”, and the canon we use, the “Galilean canon”.

Copy of ‘Esther’ recently identified among the scrolls from Qumran

It was previously thought that The Book of Esther was absent from the biblical scrolls at Qumran. However, tiny sections of a wine-soaked copy have been examined, that were originally found with the other scrolls, but were too delicate to open until recently. New scientific techniques have allowed them to be identified as the opening verses of the Book of Esther.

This still doesn’t change why it is not included in the canon of the Talmidi Miqra (Hebrew bible). Numerically, it was not included in the total that the Galilean Josephus considered to be the number of books in the Hebrew Bible. We also have some practical and theological objections to it (that it was based on a pagan Babylonian festival – the birthday of Marduk, and has nothing to do with the God of Israel; also, part of that festival was getting drink to the point of unconsciousness).

The figure of Esther is indeed a strong female role model for Jewish women. However, it is vital to understand that the story is not true (see ‘The Jewish Festivals’, Hayyim Schauss, page 238, line 2-3).

Nothing told in the Scroll of Esther ever happened

The events in the story of Esther never happened. There never was a heroine called Esther, or a hero called Mordecai, or an antagonist called Haman, and the real King Ahasuerus was never married to someone called Queen Vashti.

In Babylon, at this precise time of year, the Babylonians celebrated their New Year, the birthday of their king, and also the birthday of their principal god, Marduk. Marduk’s birthday was celebrated with feasting, outlandish costumes, and drinking to the point of unconsciousness.

It should also be pointed out, that not once is ‘God’ mentioned anywhere in the book. Not only does it not mention the Holy Name, it also does not even mention ‘God’ – not once. Historians think that the probable reason for this, was that the Jewish writer of the story did not think it proper to mention the God of Israel, in a story that had such obvious pagan origins (at least, it was obvious at the time Esther was written in the 3rd century BCE).

The character of King Ahasuerus is likely based on that of Xerxes the Great of Persia (reigned 486-465 BCE). His only wife during the whole of his reign was Amestris. He never had a wife called Vashti, nor a wife called Esther. In fact, there is no historical evidence that any of the events recounted in Esther actually happened. This is also a reason why we don’t celebrate it.

Hayyim Schauss says, ‘We get the impression that the writer was somewhat afraid to mention the name of God with this book’, as if afraid to connect the God of Israel with a tale that has its origins in heathen mythology. He goes on to say that, ‘it is easy to see that we have to deal here, …… not with a true story….., but with fantasy and poetry.’

The immoral Pagan origins of the Book of Esther

The likely origin of the Book of Esther is the festival of the birthday of the Babylonian god Marduk, the patron god of the city of Babylon. It was celebrated each year around the 25th of March. During that festival, Babylonians dressed up in outlandish costumes, and drank alcohol to blind excess. There was quite a lot of debauchery going on as well.

Jews living in Babylon began indulging in the pagan festivities of Marduk’s birthday. The local Jewish elders of the community were disturbed at this – no doubt, memories of the golden calf came to mind! They found that they could not completely stop their fellow Jews from indulging in Marduk’s birthday festivities, so they sought an alternative aetiology for the festival, by making up an origin-story for an artificially Judaised version of Marduk’s pagan festivities.

It makes you wonder – if these people had been in charge of the worship of the golden calf, they would probably have found a way to Judaise it and incorporate it into Jewish tradition!

Thus the story of Esther was invented. Most of the trappings of Marduk’s birthday were transferred onto the new festival of Purim. It is therefore generally understood by historians, that the book was written to given a Jewish reason for celebrating what was originally a raucous and disorderly pagan festival. This is the main reason why we don’t celebrate it.

In the Judaised festival, the god Marduk became the character Mordechai, the goddess Ishtar became the character of Esther, and the god Humban became the character of Haman (although Haman also has story-elements of Nergal, god of the underworld).

Purim is therefore a Babylonian Rabbanite festival with pagan origins, so Followers of the Way do not observe it in any way or form. While we do not berate any Rabbanite for observing a festival which is part of their historical Babylonian heritage, we do not observe it ourselves, in witness to our Galilean religious heritage; our non-observance of Purim is there to emphasise where our tradition comes from.

My personal feeling in this matter is that, if mainstream Jews wish to celebrate Purim, then fine – it’s a feature of their historical tradition, and witnesses to their identity.

However, the main point I would make here is that Purim is not part of our identity; it’s probably best that it isn’t, given where it came from.

Sources: Encyclopedia Judaica, and Hayyim Schauss’ “The Jewish Festivals”.