The Origins of Purim
What is the real origin of the festival of Purim? Many scholars believe that the biblical Book of Esther has no basis in historical fact. Indeed, the text starts out with the words, “And it was in the days of Achashverosh” implying that at the time of writing there was no reigning king by that name. Towards the end of the story, we see that the scribe is actually trying to give a reason for a festival that has already been established for generations by concluding, “and this is why these days were called Purim.” In other words, the festival called Purim has been around for a while, the author appears to be be saying, and now you know the story behind it.
Since we cannot be certain that the account given in the Megillah is the actual reason for this festival, we need to look for alternative theories. Here I will propose one possible explanation for the origins of this festival, that, while somewhat controversial and novel, may be nearer to the truth.
Before the Hebrew calendar was fixed according to established rules, dates on the Hebrew calendar were fluid. Each month the high court decided when the new month was to start, and each year the wise men, the “knowers of times,” had to decide whether to add an extra month to the year. According to the biblical instruction, the festival of Passover was to be held during “chodesh ha’aviv,” the month in which spring arrived. However, due to shifting seasons in relation to the lunar-based calendar, the court looked to prevailing weather conditions to determine whether spring would arrive in time for Passover. But sometimes weather conditions were unpredictable, and the month of Nissan would arrive and still the sages were unsure. They looked to the crops for blooming buds, but none were seen. It is quite likely, therefore, that on more than one occasion people would have completed their Passover preparations, the shopping, the slaughtering, and perhaps even some cooking – only to learn that the elders announced that, unfortunately, there was as yet no sign of a blooming bud. Passover is cancelled!
What then was to be done with all that food? People would take to the streets in song and dance, laughing and celebrating a mock festival. Some of the food was given to the poor, some was shared with neighbors and friends, and the rest was eaten in semi-festive meals. All in all, people took it in good humor and spirits were high. A bonus holiday! Perhaps some even considered it a joke of some sort, and they celebrated by acting silly and getting drunk on the wine that was prepared for the Seder. Eventually, due to it’s popularity, the festival became an annual celebration and was held even after the modern calendar was established, similar to the way the second days of Yom Tov were kept even when they were no longer relevant.
There are many similarities between Purim and Passover. Both are celebrated around the same time of the month, and both have some sort of fast day on the day before. (In the early days, many people may have already been fasting when it was announced that Pesach was cancelled.) Curiously, there remains a tradition that the climax of the Purim story actually happened on the eve of the Seder.
This explains why Purim is celebrated on the second Adar in leap years, because it was primarily a second-Adar celebration. It also explains why the main rituals of the day involve giving away food. The Book of Esther does not provide an adequate reason for this specific ritual and its relation to the festival.
Finally, we get to the etymology of the word “Purim.” The reason given in the Megillah for the name “Purim” is quite far-fetched. It is a reference to an insignificant detail of the story, the drawing of lots, and it’s referred to by a widely unknown term. So much so, that the writer of the Megillah assumed the readers would not be aware of this word, hence the inline translation: “Hipil pur, hu hagoral.” So this is unlikely to be the real reason it was called “Purim.”
But there is another meaning to the word, one that is more relevant . The root of the word Purim is the Hebrew word “hafarah,” which we might translate as disruption or annulment. The Hebrew words “yemei ha-Purim,” the days of Purim, translate directly to “the days of annulment.” Purim was called “the Annulment Festival” because that’s what it was: a cancelled Passover.Printable Version