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Purim, Liminality, And Communitas

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Jeffrey Rubenstein
Columbia University, New York, N.Y.
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“Fever is no sickness and Purim is no holiday.” So runs a surprisingly self-reflective proverb concerning the festival of Purim, the strangest Jewish holiday. Ostensibly the celebration of the triumph of the Jews over the wicked Haman described in the Book of Esther, at a popular level something much larger and far more complex is going on. Folk customs throughout history have always transcended the celebration of the triumph of Mordecai and Esther. Elaborate pageants, grotesque masks, drunken revelry, noisemaking, buffoonery, burning of effigies, costume parades, feasts with special delicacies, and every manner of carousing and merrymaking have characterized Purim since rabbinic times. A diverse body of Purim literature has accumulated, including drinking songs, short stories, parodies, and intricate plays.

Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1992

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1. Lewinski, Yom Tov, ed., Sefer hamo′adim (Tel-Aviv, 1961–63), vol. 6, Yemei mo′ed vezikaron. p. 30 (hereafter cited as Sefer hamo′adim).Google Scholar

2. An excellent collection of material pertaining to Purim, including descriptions of Purim customs from all over the world, legal and liturgical sources, and examples of Purim songs, parodies, and stories, can be found in Goodman, Phillip, ed., The Purim Anthology (Philadelphia, 1973) (hereafter cited as PA). A comprehensive bibliography appears there, pp. 495–512. Another extensive anthology is Sefer hamo′adim (see previous note), pp. 1–325. See also Isaac Levitas, “Purim,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 13:1390–96; Henry Maker, “Purim,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 10:274–283.Google Scholar

3. Summaries of the different theories:Grayzel, Solomon, “The Origin of Purim,” in PA, pp. 314;Google ScholarLewy, Julius, “The Feast of the 14th Day of Adar,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939): 127131;Google ScholarDoniach, N. S., Purim or the Feast of Esther (Philadelphia, 1933), pp. 2353;Google ScholarGaster, Theodor, Purim and Hanukkah (New York, 1950), pp. 311.Google Scholar

4. Hoschander, Jacob, The Book of Esther in Light of History (Philadelphia, 1923) defends the historical accuracy of Esther.Google Scholar

5. Grayzel in PA, pp. 10–13.

6. Graetz, Heinrich, “Der historische Hintergrund und die Abfassung zeit des Buches Esther und der Ursprung der Purimfestes,” Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 35 (1886): 425–42, 473–503, 521–542. The author hoped to bolster the faith of the Jews during the Hasmonean revolt with the message that God delivers His people from oppression.Google Scholar

7. Lewy, “Feast,” pp. 145–151.

8. Frazier, James, The Golden Bough, 3rd ed. (New York, 1935), 9:345415. Frazier noted the similarities between Purim and the Babylonian Sakaia and Zakmuk festivals. In the larger context, all these festivals are types of “scapegoat rituals” often found in primitive agricultural societies. To ensure a successful harvest, these societies appointed a temporary king to impersonate the god of fertility and subsequently put him to death in the hope that he would rise again with renewed virility and power. Unfortunately, Frazier becomes carried away with his own argument. He suggests that at some point Jews may have actually killed a Haman-figure and conjectures that Jesus was killed by Jews precisely in this manner! See “Note: The Crucifition of Christ,” 9:414–423, reprinted from the second edition.Google Scholar

9. Gaster, Purim, pp. 10–16.

10. Harris, Monfred, “Purim: The Celebration of Dis-Order,” Judaism 27 (1978): 161170.Google Scholar

11. A note on methodology is apposite. The current trend among anthropological approaches to the study of religion eschews large-scale studies in favor of smaller, well-defined analyses. Judaism (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) and for that matter Purim (Christmas, Ramadan, etc.) are no longer legitimate subjects for study, for there is no one, “normative,” standard Judaism, no one, normative, standard Purim festival. The Judaism of Kurdistan in 1850, or the Purim of the Jews of Fez in 1937, can be studied, but Judaism and Purim are abstractions, pure constructs in the mind of the scholar. No Platonic “Purim” exists, but only Purim as practiced by a certain community in a certain time and place. There is undoubtedly much merit in this trend, and methodological awareness should be admired. However, this methodological cautiousness must not be pushed to an extreme. To deny that general topics such as Judaism or Purim possess any essence is as methodologically suspect and destructive to the pursuit of knowledge as are gross generalizations and reductionism. Without broaching knotty ontological problems (much better left to philosophers), it is clear that Judaism (Christianity, Purim, Mass, etc.), no matter how varied its manifestations, can be intelligibly described, if not precisely defined. Proper methodology requires an abstract, more general model and numerous examples or case studies. Working back and forth dialectically between model and data allows the scholar to modify his model on the basis of individual studies and simultaneously to understand particular cases in light of the model. In this paper I propose a model which sheds light on many different aspects of Purim, its festivities, customs, and traditions as celebrated in different times and places. The goal is to apply anthropological theory to elucidate a certain problem in the study of religion, not to mimic a field-worker in situ. I cull examples (data) from diverse centuries, cultures, and settings, since these disparate illustrations share common characteristics that give Purim an overall coherence. Does this imply that Purim fulfilled the same function and role in every society, that every community celebrated Purim in exactly the same way? Certainly not. Does it even mean that similar customs functioned identically the world over? Not necessarily. The model will suit some communities better than others. But many different aspects of Purim, varying in accord with cultural setting, time, and place, can be explained. Different Purim celebrations, heretofore considered unrelated, will be seen to possess unifying traits. Indeed, when diverse examples fall into patterns and become intelligible, a model gains more credence. The ultimate test of a model is whether it explains phenomena convincingly and thereby makes sense of what was not understood. Hopefully, more detailed studies of particular communities will both refine this model and confirm its usefulness.

12. Turner, Victor, The Ritual Process (Ithaca, 1977), pp. 94203; From Ritual to Theatre (New York, 1982); The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, 1967); Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (Ithaca, 1974).Google Scholar

13. Turner, Ritual Process, pp. 167–203.

14. Ibid., p. 168 Cf. p. 200.

15. Gaster, Purim, p. 66; PA, p. 339.

16. PA, p. 78, fromSachs, A. S., Worlds That Pawed (Philadelphia, 1928), pp. 227235.Google Scholar

17. PA, p. 52. See also PA, p. 358. Cf.Fishman, Y., Ifagim umoadim (Jerusalem, 1944), p. 127. According to Volozhin tradition, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin instituted this custom incase he had done something inappropriate during the year but his students had not dared to point it out to him. He resigned the office of rosh yeshiva on Purim in order that the Purim rabbi would have the power to criticize him and recount to the yeshiva officials and supervisors their sins and deficiencies.Google Scholar

18. Singer, Zvi, “Hagigat purim shel bahurei hayeshiva,” Mahanayim 54 (1961): 126, notes that in Worms, yeshiva students extorted wine from wealthy householders, having previously assessed how much each household could give and having received a stamped authorization from the congregation officials.Google Scholar

19. This and other interesting descriptions of Purim “rabbis” can be found in Ashkenazy, Shlomo, Dor, dor uminhagav (Tel Aviv, 1977), pp 107108.Google Scholar

20. Ibid., p. 109.

21. Abrahams, Israel, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 1886), p. 447.Google Scholar

22. Ibid., p. 282.

23. Ora vesimha ′al′inyanei purim (Jerusalem, n.d.), p. 80; Alfasi, Yishak, “Purim behevrat hasadiqim,” Mahanayim 54 (1961): 118120.Google Scholar

24. PA, pp. 39–43.

25. Pollack, Hermann, Jewish Folkways in Germanic Lands, (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 189190. Note that this behavior “in the spirit of Purim” spilled over onto the following Sabbath.Google Scholar

26. For a description of similar status reversals borrowed from Purim which took place on Simhat Torah, seeYaari, Abraham, Toledo hag simfiat tora (Jerusalem, 1964), pp. 376378.Google Scholar

27. In Sefer haminhagim leqehilat vermes (Worms; quoted in Menashe Unger, “Purim sameah–minhag ufoklor,” Mahanayim 104, [1966]; 22) the reversal is spelled out; “In the synagogue they [the young men] sit on the stage. During the whole year the rich [ba′alei batim] sit on the stage, but on this Sabbath the rich evacuate their places for the young men.”

28. Deut. 22.5. B. Naz. 59a.

29. Abrahams, Jewish Life, p. 282.

30. Quoted by Frazier, Golden Bough, 9:363.

31. PA, p. 39.

32. PA, p. 51.

33. Minz, Judah, Responsa (Shklow, 1810), no. 17 (cited by Isserles to Shulhan ‘arukh,’O.H. 696:8).Google Scholar

34. Turner, Ritual Process, pp. 172–177.

35. In Jerusalem, for example, at the beginning of this century, children were allowed to smoke cigarettes on Purim–and only on Purim. SeeGliss, Y., “Mishloah manot biyerushalayim,” Mabanayim 43 (1960): 75.Google Scholar

36. HaCohen, Menahem, “Parpar′ot lepurim,” Mahanayim 79 (1963): 40.Google Scholar

37. Rivlin, Joseph, “Purim,” Mahanayim 43 (1960): 18;Google ScholarBrauer, Erich, The Jews of Kurdistan: An Ethnological Study, ed. and trans, by Raphael Patai (Jerusalem, 1947), p. 277.Google Scholar

38. Ashkenazy, Dor. dor uminhagav, pp. 91–104; Lewinski, Y., “Neqama behaman ′al yedei mishaqim,” Mahanayim 43 (1960): 6872.Google Scholar

39. Ashkenazy, Dor, dor uminhagav, pp. 102–104.

40. This aspect, as played out during the Purim carnival in Tel-Aviv in 1928, moved one observer to the following reflection: “All the demons of antisemitism are here, all the leaders of pogroms, all the champions of the reactionaries according to their countries and nations. It seems that not one is absent–whether a commander of the enemy, or whether one who undermined the existence of Israel, whether a traitor, an apostate, or those who closed the borders of Israel, whether those who initiate new persecutions–all are exposed here as one, all displayed here to be mocked and ridiculed before the thousands who have come to celebrate the holiday.” Sefer hamo′adim, p. 292.

41. One further example: Mitnagdim and Hasidim were known to reverse their distinctive formulas for the qadish. Mitnagdim added vayi$malf purqanei vayikarev meshihei, while Hasidim omitted these words in order to fulfil venahafokh hu. Gliss, “Mishloah manot biyerushalayim,” p. 75.

42. Shulhan arukh, O.H. 695:2. Some authorities, troubled by the requirement of drunkenness, rule that one only need drink more than his normal allowance in order to fall asleep, and thus he will not “know” the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.” See the comment of Isserles ad loc. The obligation to become drunk derives from the Talmud, B. Meg. 7b.

43. Magen david, note 1, to Shulhan ‘arukh.’O.H. 695:2.

44. Hagada leleil shikurim, ed. Sommerhausen, Zevi Hirsch (Brussels, 1847).Google Scholar

45. SeeShuman, A., “Shalekh Mones–Structural Reversals in a Brooklyn Jewish Community,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 7 (1984): 6176Google Scholar (Hebrew). In various communities, and especially in Belgrade, a festive meal was held at midnight following the evening Megila reading where the pariticipants stayed up all night drinking and visiting each other. SeeRivlin, Joseph, “Purim,” Mahanayim 43 (1960): 18;Google ScholarNoy, Dov, “Se′udat purim umita ′ameha,” Mahanayim 43 (1960): 5559.Google Scholar

46. The Holi festival in India, one of Turner's examples of society-wide communitas, began with indulgence in marijuana to help set the mood. See Turner, Ritual Process, p. 185.

47. Shulban ′arukh, O.H. 694:1–3.

48. Avraham ben Natan of Lunel, Sefer hamanhig, Laws of Megila, § 205 (ed. Yisljak Raphael [Jerusalem, 1978], 2:248.)

49. Maimonides, Mishne tora, Laws of Megila 2:17.

50. Tudor, S., “Hahasva′a vehahithapsut,” Mafianayim 104 (1966):3.Google Scholar

51. Cf. Turner, Ritual Process, pp. 102, 188–189.

52. PA, p. 385.

53. SeeMendel, MenahemSipurei hebag purim (Jerusalem, 1981), p. 34.Google Scholar

54. The importance and effects of charity are emphasized by Maimonides, Mishne tora. Laws of Megila 2:17: “It is better for a man to be plentiful in gifts to the poor than in his feast or in his gifts to his fellow man. For there is no greater joy than to gladden the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows, and converts. He who gladdens the hearts of these misfortunates is similar to the divine presence [shekhina], as it is written, ‘[God] revives the spirits of the lowly, [He] revives the hearts of the contrite’ [Isa. 57:15].”

55. PA, p. 162.

56. PA, p. 386.

57. B. Meg. 4a; Maimonides, Mishne lora, Laws of Megila 1:1; Shulhan ‘;arukh, ’O.H. 689:1.

58. In Libya, and certain other Oriental communities, the woman did not go to the synagogue to hear the reading. Her husband read the scroll for her at home following the synagogue service. Even this, however, shows that women are included in the rituals to a greater than normal degree.

59. Frazier, Golden Bough, 9:364.

60. Sefer hamo′adim, p. 290.

61. Cited inHaberman, A. M., “’Alhayayin, ve’al hayayin bepurim,” Mahianayim 54 (1961): 8081.Google Scholar

62. Turner, Ritual Process, pp. 102, 106, 188–189.

63. SeeKatz, Jacob, Exclusiveness and Tolerance (New York, 1962), pp. 163.Google Scholar

64. Chazan, Robert, Church, State and Jew in the Middle Ages (New York, 1980).Google Scholar

65. See Abrahams, Jewish Life, p. 175;Sidur rashi, §346 (ed. Freimann, Jakob and Buber, Salomon [Berlin, 1911], p. 169);Google ScholarMahzor Vitry, § 245 (ed. Hurwitz, S. [Berlin, 1893], pp. 210211).Google Scholar

66. PA, pp. 369–370.

67. A gentile once asked Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz (d. 1764) why on Purim you celebrate the night which follows the day of the holiday, while on other Jewish holidays you celebrate the night which precedes the day. (The festival meal on Purim is eaten during the day which follows the first night of Purim, when the festival begins, and lasts into that night. On other festivals the ritual meal is eaten on the first night.) The rabbi answered, “And why do you gentiles usually celebrate the day after the night, but on Christmas you celebrate the preceding night? But both questions have the same answer. Purim came to Israel on account of a gentile [Haman], so we practice the ways of the gentile [′anu nohagim minhag goyim]. Christmas came to you from a Jew, so you celebrate in a Jewish way!” Menahem Hacohen, “Parpa′ot lepurim,” p. 40. This sentiment, albeit meant in the spirit of joking, actually suggests more a reversal than communitas.

68. Josephus, Antiquities 11.6.5; Targum sheni to Esther 3:1; Mafizor Vitry, § 249 (p. 215).

69. Exod. 17:8–16, Deut. 25:17–19.

70. Deut. 22:5.

71. Isserles to Shulban ‘arukh,’ O.H. 695:2.

72. Ibid. Isserles permits kelayim derabanan, mixtures forbidden by rabbinic authority. Mixtures forbidden by the Torah are not permitted.

73. Judah Minz, Responsa, no. 17.

74. Darkei fiayyim, ed.Zimetbaum, Raphael (Satu-Mare, 1939), p. 31.Google Scholar

75. Pollack, Jewish Folkways in Germanic Lands, p. 181. The Talmud, B. Sanh. 24b, disqualifies gamblers from giving testimony, and the Midrash considers dice gamblers sinners “who reckon with the left hand, but add up with the right, and thus rob and cheat one another” (Midrash Tehilim to Ps. 26:7, trans. Braude, William, The Midrash of Psalms, 2 vols. [New Haven, 1959], 1:364).Google Scholar

76. Brauer, Jews of Kurdistan, p. 291.

77. Horowitz, Isaiah, Shnei luhot habrit (Warsaw, 1852), 3:105b.Google Scholar

78. PA. p. 385.

79. Purim is always celebrated in Second Adar (M. Meg. 1:4), although the fourteenth and fifteenth of First Adar are also considered days of happiness.

80. Exod. 12.

81. Sefer hamo′adim, p. 269; Gliss, “Mishloah manot biyerushalayim.” p. 75.

82. Historically, too, there appears to be some connection between Purim and Passover. SeeSegal, J. B., The Hebrew Passover (London, 1963), p. 239.Google Scholar

83. Turner, Ritual Process, pp. 106, 140–145.

84. Davidowicz, David, “Purim be′omanut hayehudit,“ Mahanayim 43 (1960): 5559; PA, pp. 152–248.Google Scholar

85. Jacob Shatzky, “History of Purim Plays,” in PA, pp. 357–367. For bibliography, see PA. pp. 506–510.

86. PA, p. 221.

87. PA. pp. 153–248.

88. Davidson, Israel, Parody in Jewish Literature (New York, 1907);Google Scholar idem, “The History of Purim Parody in Jewish Literature,” in PA, pp. 330–355; Mala Bitanski, ‘“Al purimshpiel ve’al parodim,” Yeda am 31 (1967): 9–16:Noy, Dov, “Haparodim besifrut yisra′el haqeduma,” Mahanayim 54 (1960): 9299; Sefer hamoadim. pp. 179–201.Google Scholar

89. Epstein, Shifra, “Drama on the Table: The Bobover Hasidim Piremshpiyl,” in Judaism Viewed from Within and from Without, ed. Harvey Goldberg (New York, 1987), pp. 195219, provides a contemporary account of such Purim parody.Google Scholar

90. Consider such midrashic techniques as “do not read x, but rather y.”

91. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre. See too Ritual Process, pp. 127–128.

92. Ibid., pp. 41–50.

93. Ibid., p. 52.

94. I have found only one example of a Purim monstrosity. In Kurdistan they used to select a fat boy and dress him up like a preganant woman by tying pillows around his stomach and fashioning breasts. His face was painted, a beard affixed to his chin, horns placed on his head, and a cow bell hung around his neck. Called a lebukay, he was led through the streets of the city by a string and taunted with various songs, such as “Dead Lebukay, you are male and became pregnant” and “Lebukay, what did you bring?/You brought Haman/Why did you bring him?/To crush his testicles.” The whole affair, however, seems to have been more amusing than frightening. Brauer, Jews of Kurdistan, p. 287.

95. Schwarzbaum, Haim, Studies in Jewish and World Folklore (Berlin, 1968), p. 26: “It should be pointed out that Jews show a definite proclivity towards the satiric element of life in general.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar

96. Kugel, James, “Two Introductions to Midrash,” in Midrash and Literature, ed. G., Hartman and S., Budick (New Haven, 1986), p. 95.Google Scholar

97. See Turner, Ritual Process, pp. 169–171, 185–189.

98. Zborowski, Mark and Herzog, Elizabeth, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl (New York, 1962), p. 78.Google Scholar

99. Shuman, ”Shalekh Mones.”

100. Ibid., pp. 68–73.

101. Turner, Ritual Process, p. 107.

102. P. Meg. 1:5. Cf. B. Meg. 14a: “Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel, and they neither took away nor added anything to what is written in the Torah except the reading of the Book of Esther.”

103. B. Meg. 7a–b.

104. PA pp. 41, 325; Meyer, Michael, Origins of the Modern Jew (Detroit, 1967), p. 133.Google Scholar

105. B. Meg. 5a; Maimonides, Mishne tora. Laws of Megila 2:14.

106. Isserles to Shulhan ′aruch, ′O.H. 695:2.

107. Mordecai ben Hillel HaCohen, cited in Sefer hamoa′dim, p. 31; Jewish Encyclopedia, 10:275.

108. She′ilta for Purim, ed. Mirsky, S. (Jerusalem, 1963), no. 77, p. 215.Google Scholar

109. For sources, see Sefer hamo′adim, p. 31, and Schwarzbaum, Folklore, p. 367. Schwarzbaum notes that this pun was interpreted to apply to an ironic reversal of Purim. On Purim and the Day of Atonement Jews changed places. On Purim “Jews usually disguise themselves as gentiles. On Yom Kippurim, gentiles [=irreligious Jews termed “goyim” (gentiles)] disguise themselves as Jews, praying the whole day in the synagogue.”

110. Sefer hamo′adim, pp. 30–31.

111. Cf. Harris, “Purim: The Celebration of Dis-Order,” p. 170.

112. Sefer hamo′adim, p. 30; Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia, 190938), 6:481; Midrash Mishle [The Midrash to –Proverbs], ed. Burton Visotzky (New York, 1990), p. 66. Cf. P. Meg. 1:7, 70d.Google Scholar

113. P. Meg. 1:7, 70d. Maimonides, Mishneh tora, Laws of Megila 2:18.

114. Turner, Ritual Process, pp. 111–113, 153.

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