Purim: The Upside Down Holiday

Shifra Epstein

Purim is the most curious of the Jewish holidays. Rabbis have sanctioned, even encouraged behavior that was ordinarily forbidden by halachah (Jewish law).

Since early medieval times, masquerading, merrymaking, genial satire, gambling, 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 the performance of Yiddish folk dramas.   

The merriment extended to the yeshivot (talmudic academies) of Eastern and Western Europe, where a special “rabbi” would be selected from among the students to preside over the Purim celebrations. To make way for his replacement, Rabbi Hayim, the distinguished head of the Volozhin Yeshiva in Lithuania would “resign” each year on Purim.

On the day before his “ordination,” the “rabbi” would be escorted to the mikvah (ritual bath). Following his purification, he would be dressed in a rabbi’s robe and be seated in a special chair from which he would deliver a mock sermon in the legalistic style of Talmudic discourse. Thus did he make fun of the academy’s venerated masters to everyone’s amusement.

Drinking to excess was generally forbidden ― except on Purim. Rava, the fourth-century Talmudic sage 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.”

Rava’s dictum has invited many interpretations through the centuries. In the tosafot (supplementary commentaries on the Talmud), the sages took it to mean that one is “mellow” when unable to complete the song “cursed be Haman and blessed be Esther, cursed are all the wicked and blessed are all the Jews.” Maimonides (1135-1204) suggested that to fulfill Rava’s dictum properly, one must drink until the onset of sleep. Rabbi Jacob ben Moses (known in Germany as the MaHaRil, 1365-1421) maintained that one is mellow when he can no longer calculate the gematria (numerical significance) of the phrases “cursed be Haman” and “blessed by Mordecai” (incidentally, the letters of both add up to 502).

The lifting of the prohibitions against gambling, a distinctive feature of Purim celebrations in German Jewish communities, is another example of reversing everyday norms. Since Purim is connected with a lottery ― Haman used a lottery to determine the day the Jews of the kingdom would be massacred ― the miraculous delivery of the Jews is celebrated by participating in various games of chance.

Thievery too is permitted on Purim, such as stealing from the shalach manot plate (the traditional gift exchanged on the holiday). This tradition is rooted in the midrash (rabbinic legend) that Haman was hanged on Passover. It mirrors the tradition of “stealing” the ceremonial afikoman (dessert) at the seder (Passover meal).

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

The upside-down aspect of Purim provides relief from the burdens of every day life. It allows time and space for Jews to deviate from the norm.  Yet, in the final analysis, the disorder associated with Purim celebration serves as a dramatic justification of the need for rules in our daily lives.

Shifra Epstein is the former curator of ethnography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This article was adapted from an article she wrote for Keeping Posted magazine.