“The True Story of Purim”
(updated and revised from Tetzaveh 5761-2001)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tetzaveh, speaks of the fashioning of the holy garments worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Since next Monday night marks the beginning of the joyous festival of Purim, this week’s message will focus on the Book of Esther, with a brief reference to parashat Tetzaveh.

Many are under the impression that the story of Purim is but a tale of a mad anti-Semite, Haman, who, together with the simple-minded King Ahasuerus and his nasty cohorts, wanted to destroy the Jewish people. It is never clearly established whether their hatred of the Jews was due to typical anti-Semitic resentment or because of the fact that Mordechai the Jew refused to bow down to wicked Haman.

The true story of Purim is far more complex than a simple anti-Semitic tale. It begins in the year 604 BCE when Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonian Empire gains control over the land and the people of Israel. Approximately seven years later, in the year 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar exiles the Jewish king of Judah, Jeconiah, and the Jewish elite, a group that included Mordechai. Finally, in the year 586 BCE the Beit Hamikdash, the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is destroyed by the Babylonians.

Despite its great prominence and power, the Babylonian dynasty of Nebuchadnezzar comes to an abrupt end in the year 535 BCE, with the assassination of Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar. The collapse of the Babylonian dynasty was actually prophesied by the prophet Daniel who interpreted the famed “writing on the wall” (Daniel 5:25). After the decline of the Babylonians, the Persians and Medes, under the monarchy of Darius the Mede, ascended to power.

The prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied at the time of the Temple’s destruction, was able to somewhat temper his ominous prophecies by offering consolation to the People of Israel, predicting (Jeremiah 29:10), that the Temple would be rebuilt seventy years after its destruction. ”For thus says the L-rd, that after seventy years of Babylon are completed I will remember you and perform my good word, concerning you, to make your return to this place.” The prophet Daniel, (Daniel 9:2), prophesied similarly.

In the year 534 BCE, seventy years after the rise of Nebuchadnezzar, the Persians and Medes took control of the Land of Israel. Cyrus, the Persian king, grants permission for the Jews to return to their homeland and build a new Beit Hamikdash. Unfortunately, under pressure from the enemies of Israel, King Cyrus orders a halt to the construction.

When Ahasuerus ascends to the throne, the new king maintains the ban on building the Temple during his entire reign. This has bearing on why, later on in the story of Purim, when King Ahasuerus makes the generous offer to Esther, he limits his gift to only “up to half the kingdom.” According to the Talmud, Megillah 15b, Ahasuerus says, “up to half the kingdom,” but never the whole, to prevent the rebuilding of the Temple, and to forever preclude the Jews’ return to Jerusalem.

The feast described at the beginning of the Book of Esther took place in the year 529 BCE, the third year of Ahasuerus’s reign. King Ahasuerus had mistakenly calculated that 70 years had passed since the “destruction,” which he regarded as, not the actual destruction of the Temple, but rather the exile of King Jeconiah and the Jewish elite. Ahasuerus now rejoiced because clearly, 70 years had passed, and the prediction of the prophet had not come to pass. Now there was no hope that the Temple would ever be rebuilt. The Jews were doomed forever.

This interpretation of the Purim story is further reinforced by the Midrashic insights concerning the grand party which Ahasuerus threw for 180 days. According to the Malbim one of the preeminent bible commentators of modern times, Ahasuerus who started out as a stable hand, according to the Midrash, was really a pretender to the throne, a mercenary who eventually accumulated much wealth, and bought himself into the monarchy. In an effort to lend legitimacy to his kingship, he marries Vashti, the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar and daughter of Belshazzar. Finally, in the third year of his reign, when Ahasuerus feels secure, he tries to dispel the common perception that he bought his way into the kingship, and that he used Vashti as a means to legitimate himself.

The party Ahasuerus throws serves a double purpose: To prove his legitimacy as a monarch, and to celebrate the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people. In order to properly celebrate the destruction of the Jewish people, Ahasuerus dresses up in the vestments of the High Priest, those very garments that are described in such detail in parashat Tetzaveh. According to the Midrashic sources (Yalkut Shimoni), each day of the 180 day celebration, Ahasuerus took six of the 1,080 different treasures which had been looted from the Beit Hamikdash by Nebuchadnezzar, and showed them publicly as a symbol of the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people.

At the end of his 180-day party, Ahasuerus throws a second “bash” in Shushan the capital, for all the local inhabitants. He does this purposely in Shushan, in order to gain the sympathy and loyalty of those who reside in the capital, closest to the royal palace, to ensure his security in times of trouble. He invites everybody to his party, not distinguishing between nobility, officers, the usual elite guests and the common folks. Trying desperately to win the support of the masses, he breaks with the longstanding Babylonian tradition, and allows the commoners to enter the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He does away with all restrictions on drinking, allowing those who can drink and even those who cannot drink to celebrate with him. He passes a host of liberal decrees, allowing local languages and cultures to flourish.

The Book of Esther 1:11 reports that Ahasuerus summons Vashti, his Queen, to come to the celebration, בְּכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת , in her royal crown, לְהַרְאוֹת הָעַמִּים וְהַשָּׂרִים אֶת יָפְיָהּ, כִּי טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִיא , to show off to the people and the officials her beauty, for she was beautiful to look upon. From the particular language used in the text, the rabbis (Rashi) say that Ahasuerus commanded Vashti to come to the party only in the “Royal Crown,” and nothing else, totally unclothed, so that her true beauty could be seen by all, and appreciated, to prove that he did not marry her because of Vashti’s lineage. Now he could show the people that he married Vashti only because of her beauty, since Ahasuerus was now true royalty himself, no longer dependent upon his Queen’s lineage.

Incredible as it may seem, the Midrash relates that the Jews participated with great enthusiasm in Ahasuerus’s party, despite the fact that the party was a celebration of the destruction of the Jewish people and a mockery of the Jewish G-d! Yet, the Jews of the time could not resist being part of this great “happening” in Shushan, and drank to inebriation from the holy vessels that had been defiled by Ahasuerus. The real reason for the sword hanging over the heads of the Jewish people, say the rabbis (Talmud, Megillah 12a), was that despite Mordechai’s insistence that they refrain from attending, they not only attended but also allowed themselves to enthusiastically enjoy the feast of Ahasuerus. A feast of this magnitude simply could not be resisted.

Once again, we see that the enemies of the Jews often serve as Divine instruments. Haman’s anti-Semitic actions were not simply arbitrary hateful deeds. They were a direct response to the Jews’ own improper actions. Haman’s decree now threatened the Jews’ very existence. For the Jews to be spared, it was necessary for someone to arise and publicly affirm G-d’s supremacy.

After five years of serving as Queen, Esther was not very eager to give up the comforts of her royal lifestyle, until Mordechai shook her to the core, by telling her that, if she refused to intervene on behalf of her people at that critical moment, salvation for the Jewish People would come through other avenues. Mordechai soon rallied the Jews to acknowledge G-d’s primary role in their lives, and His supremacy in the universe. Only then does salvation arrive from the wicked schemes of Haman and the anti-Semites.

It is not a simplistic story. In fact, it is a story that reoccurs throughout Jewish history.

Would that we pay close attention to the story of Purim, and to its critical message.

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.

Please note: There is a discrepancy of 165 years between the secular dates used by the academic community and the rabbinic calendar. The rabbis date the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians as occurring in 423 BCE. The popular secular date is usually reckoned to be 586 BCE.

There are a number of attempts to resolve this discrepancy.  The dates used in this message follow the secular dates.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19 about remembering the vile nation, Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

The festival of Purim  marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. For more information about Purim and its special observances, click here.