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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
a Jewish festival held on the 14th and 15th of Adar, the last month of the Jewish calendar. According to Jewish tradition it is held in celebration of the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted against them by their enemy Haman in the time of Artaxerxes, who fixed upon the former date by casting "lots" (= Hebrew loan-word Purim) . It is preceded by a fast on the 13th day of Adar, known as the Fast of Esther, based upon Esther iv. 16.
Purim is the carnival of the Jewish year. Friends exchange gifts, and thus occasion is taken to relieve the necessities of the poor in the most considerate manner under the guise of gifts. The children masquerade, and their parents are enjoined to drink wine until they cannot distinguish between blessing Mordecai and cursing Haman. The Megillah or Roll of Esther is read both at home and in the synagogue, and wherever, during the reading, the name of Haman is mentioned, it is accompanied with tramping the feet. In former times Haman was burnt in effigy, holding on to a ring and swinging from one side of the fire to the other (see L. Ginzberg, Geonica, 1909, pp. I, 419; Davidson, Parody, pp. 21-22). This custom, which is still observed among the Jews of Caucasia (Tchorni, Sepher ha-Masaoth, pp. 191-192), is very ancient, as it is mentioned in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 64). From the 17th century onward Purim plays were performed mostly by the children, who improvised a dramatic version of the story of Esther. This grew to be the characteristic folkdrama of the ghetto, and has not died out in eastern Europe to the present day.
Much ingenuity has been spent upon the name and origin of the feast. As regards the name, we may dismiss at once the suggestions of J. Fuerst (Kanon des Alten Testaments) that it is derived from the Persian bahar, " spring," and of Hitzig (Geschichte Israels), who derives it from the modern Arabic Phur, " the New Year." These conjectures were made in the pre-scientific era of philology. Scarcely more is to be said in favour of the suggestion made by Von Hammer; but better known in connexion with the name of Lagarde, who connects the name Purim with the old Zoroastrian festival of the dead, entitled Farwardigan. Lagarde, who is followed by Renan, connects this form with the LXX. variant of the Hebrew (4 poupal); but there is absolutely nothing about Purim which suggests any relation with a festival of the dead. Graetz's suggestion (Monats. .Tud. xxxv. 10 seq.) that it is derived from the Hebrew purah, meaning wine-press (Is. lxiii. 3), obviously fails to connect a spring festival of joyousness with the autumn vine harvest. Zimmern (Zatw xl. 157 seq.) connects Purim with the puchru or assembly of the gods, which forms part of the Babylonian New Year festival Zagmuku, but the inserted guttural is against the identification.
The most plausible etymology connects the name with the Assyrian guru, either in the sense of "turn" of office at the beginning of the New Year or in that of "pebble" used for votes or lots. as with the Greek k40s. It is a curious coincidence, to say the least, that Dieulafoy found among the ruins of the Memnonium at Susa (the ancient Shushan, given as the scene of the events narrated in the Book of Esther) a quadrangular prism bearing different numbers on its four faces. This etymological connexion, suggested by Jensen (Kosmologie, 84), brings the festival of Purim into close relation with the Babylonian New Year festival known as Zagmuku, in which one of the most prominent ceremonials was the celebration of the assembly of the gods under the presidency of Marduk (Merodach) for the purpose of determining the fates of the New Year. Meissner (ZDMG, i. 296 seq.) and others have suggested that the drunkenness and masquerading current at the period of Purim are directly derived from the general period of licence allowed at the Sacaea festival of the Babylonian New Year. Even the fact that this latter was celebrated on the first of Nisan, or a fortnight after the Jewish date for Purim, is confirmed by the Book of Esther itself, which states that "In the first month, which is the month Nisan, they cast Pur, that is, the lot, before Haman" (Esther iii. 7 - ix. 26). The change of date may have been made in order not to conflict with the Passover on the 15th of Nisan. The connexion that has been suggested between the names of Mordecai and Esther and those of the Assyrian deities Marduk and Ishtar would be a further strong confirmation of the proposed etymology and derivation of the feast (see Esther). Going still further, J. G. Frazer connects Purim with the whole series of spring festivals current in western Asia, in which the old god of vegetation was put to death and a new human representative of him elected and allowed to have royal and divine rights, so as to promote the coming harvest (Golden Bough, 2nd. ed., vol. iii. p. 154 seq.). The death of the god, he suggests, is represented by the Fast of Esther on the 13th of Adar, the day before Purim, while the rejoicing on Purim itself, and the licence accompanying it, recall the union of the god and goddess of vegetation, of which he sees traces in the relations of Mordecai and Esther. There may possibly be "survivals" of the influence of some such celebrations both on the Book of Esther and on the ceremonies of Purim, but there is absolutely no evidence that the Jews took over the interpretation of these festivals with their celebration. Nor is there any record of royal privileges attaching to any person at the period of Purim such as occurs in the festivals with which it is supposed to be connected by Frazer. His further suggestion, therefore, that the ironical crowning of Jesus with the crown of thorns and the inscription over the Cross, together with the selection of Barabbas, had anything to do with the feast of Purim, must be rejected. The connexion of the Passion with the Passover rather than Purim would alone be sufficient to nullify the suggestion. However, it is practically certain, both from the etymology of the word Purim and from the resemblance of the festivals, that the feast, as represented in the Book of Esther, was borrowed from the Persians, who themselves appeared to have adapted it from the Babylonians. This is confirmed by the fact that the Book of Esther contains several Persian words and shows throughout a familiarity with Persian conditions. This renders it impossible to accept Haupt's suggestion that Purim is connected with the celebration of Nicanor's Day, to celebrate the triumph of Judas Maccabaeus over the Syrian general Nicanor at Adasa (161 B.C.) on the 13th of Adar, since this is the date of the Fast of Esther, and, besides, the Second Book of Maccabees, which refers to Nicanor's Day, speaks of it as the day before Mordecai's Day (2 Macc. xvi. 36). if, as seems probable, the earlier Greek version of the Book of Esther was made about 179 B.C. (Swete, Introduction of the Old Testament in Greek, p. 25), this suggestion of the connexion of Purim with the Maccabean period made by Haupt and, before him, by Willrich, falls to the ground.
At the same time it is difficult to understand why Jews in Palestine and Egypt should have accepted a purely Persian or Babylonian festival long after they had ceased to be connected with the Persian Empire. One can understand its adoption during, or soon after, the reign of Cyrus, whose policy was so favourable to the Jews, and it might easily have become as popular among them as Christmas tends to become among modern Jews. When The exiles returned from Babylon they probably brought back with them the practice of keeping the festival.
The date at which the feast of Purim was first adopted by the Jews from their Persian neighbours would be definitely determined if we knew the date of the Book of Esther. The festival is first mentioned in 2 Macc. xv. 36, and from that time onwards has formed one of the most popular festivals of the Jewish calendar. It became customary to burn an effigy of Haman at the conclusion of the feast, and this was regarded as in some ways an attack on Christianity and was therefore forbidden by the Theodosian code, XVI. viii. 18. This prohibition may have been due to the fact mentioned by Socrates (Hist. eccles. vii.) that, in 416 A.D., the Jews of Inmester, a town in Syria, illtreated a Christian child during some Purim pranks and caused his death. It has even been suggested that this gave rise to the myth of the blood accusation in which Jews are alleged to sacrifice a Christian child at Passover; but this is unlikely, since it has never been suggested that this crime was committed in connexion with Purim. But Jewish sources of the 10th century state that the custom of burning an effigy of Haman was still kept up at that time (L. Ginzberg, Geonica, ii.), and this is confirmed by Albiruni (Chronology, tr. Sachau, 273) and Makrizi, and indeed the custom was carried on down to the present century by Jewish children, who treated Haman as a sort of Guy Fawkes. Frazer suggests (loc. cit. 172) that this is a survival of the burning of the man-god, like Hercules or Sandan, who again represented the old spirit of vegetation which was dying away in spring to revive with the new vegetation. The earliest mention, however, of this burning of Haman in effigy cannot be traced back earlier than the Talmud in the 5th century.
In connexion with Purim many quaint customs were introduced by the Jews of later times. All means are adapted to increase the hilarity of the two days, which are filled with feasting, dancing, singing and making merry generally. In Germany it was even customary for men to dress up as women, and women as men, against the command of Deut. xxii. 5. In Frankfort the women were allowed to open their lattice windows in the synagogue in honour of the deliverance brought about by Esther. Execration of Haman, as the typical persecutor of the Jews, took various forms. In Germany wooden mallets were used in the synagogue to beat the benches when Haman's name was read out from the scroll of Esther, and during the festivities these mallets were sometimes used on the heads of the bystanders. Cakes were made of a certain shape to be eaten by the children, which were called, in Germany, Hamantaschen (Haman-pockets) and Hamanohren (Haman-ears), and in Italy, Orecchie d'Aman. In Italy a puppet representing Haman was set 'up on high amidst shouts of vengeance and blowing of trumpets. In Caucasus the women made a wooden block to represent Haman, which, on being discovered by the men on their return to the synagogue, was thrown into the fire. Besides gifts to friends, parents made Purim gifts to their children, especially in the form of Purim cakes. To preside over these festivities it was customary to have a master of the ceremonies, who was called king in Provence, somewhat after the manner of the Feast of Fools. In later days the same function was performed by the Purim Rabbi, who often indulged in parodies of the ritual.
With Purim is connected the only trace of a true folk-drama among Jews. The first Spanish drama written by Jews was entitled "Esther," by Solomon Usque and Lazaro Gratiano, published in 1567; and there is another entitled "Comedia famosa de Aman y Mordechay," produced anonymously in Leiden in 1699. Among the German Jews Purim-Spiele were frequent and can be traced back to the 16th century, where there is reference to their being regularly performed at Tannhausen. The earliest one of these printed was entitled "AhasweroshSpiel," appeared at Frankfort in 1708, and was reprinted by Schudt in Juedische Merck-Wuerdigkeiten, ii. 314 seq. These were followed by a large number of similar reproductions, none of any great merit, but often showing ingenuity in parodying more serious portions of the Jewish ritual (F. Davidson, Parody, pp. 2 7, 5 o, 199 Besides the general festival of Purim, various communities of Jews have instituted special local Purims to commemorate occasions when they have been saved from disaster. Thus the Jews of Cairo celebrated Purim on the 28th of Adar in memory of their being miraculously saved from the persecution of Ahmed Pasha in 1524. The Jews of Frankfort celebrate their special Purim on the 10th of Adar because of their deliverance from persecution by Fettmilch in 1616. The Jews of Algiers similarly celebrated the repulse of the emperor Charles V. in 1541, by which they escaped coming once more into the yoke of the Spaniards. Similar occasions for rejoicing were introduced by individuals into their families to celebrate their escape from danger. Thus Abraham Danzig celebrated in this manner his escape from the results of an explosion of a powder magazine at Wilna in 1804. Rabbi Enoch Altschul of Prague recorded his own escape on the 22nd of Tebet 1623 in a special roll or megillah, which was to be read by his family on that date with rejoicing similar to the general Purim. David Brandeis of Jung-Bunzlau in Bohemia was saved from an accusation of poisoning on the 10th of Adar 1731, and instituted a similar family Purim celebration in consequence.
See Biblical Dictionaries of Hastings and Cheyne, s.v.; Jew. Ency., s.v. " Purim"; "Purim Plays," "Purims, Special"; W. Erbt, Die Purimsage (Berlin, 1900); Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages; Lagarde, Purim, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Religion (Gottingen, 885); Steinschneider, Purim and Parodie (Berlin, 1902); P. Haupt, Purim (Leipzig, 1906); I. Davidson, Parody in Jewish Literature, pp. 21, 27, 30, 135-9 (New York, 1908).1908).
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Purim'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​p/purim.html. 1910.