Purim Origins

There are many theories as to how this holiday developed.

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Excerpted with permission from Every Person's Guide to Purim (Jason Aronson, Inc.).

According to many modern Bible scholars, the festival of Purim did not have its source in the story told in the Book of Esther. According to Hayyim Schauss, Purim originally appeared among the Persian Jews and was adopted by them from their non-Jewish neighbors. The Jews of Persia observed, along with their neighbors, an annual festival that was celebrated in the middle of the last of the winter months. From the beginning, it had the characteristics of a spring masquerade and was a festival of merriment, play, and pranks. A very popular festival with both Persian and the Babylonian Jewry, it eventually spread to Palestine. 

Theodore Gaster presents several theories for the origin of Purim in his volume Festivals of the Jewish Year. In one theory, Purim is asserted to date back to the Babylonian New Year Festival. On this day, the gods were believed to determine the fate of men by lot, and the Babylonian word for lot was puru. It was also postulated that the festival was characterized by a ritual pantomime that portrayed the conquest of Babylonian gods over those of its neighbors. The problem with this theory is that the Babylonian New Year Festival fell in Nisan (April), not in Adar (March), and it lasted a full 10 or 11 days.

Another theory starts from the fact that both the ancient Greek version of the Bible (the Septuagint) and the historian Josephus call the festival not Purim but "Furdaia," which is contended to be a distortion of the Old Persian "Farwadigan," a feast held toward the end of the month of March. The fact is, however, that the Feast of Farwadigan lasted at least five days and was primarily a commemoration of the dead.

A third theory connects the name Purim with the Hebrew word purah--"wine press"--and assumes that the festival arose in the Greek period as an adaptation of the Greek festival of Pithoigia, or "Opening the Wine Casks." Again, this theory has its problems. The opening of wine casks occurs in the fall rather than in the spring, and the plural of the word purah is purot, not purim.

Gaster concludes that the story of Esther is not a historical fact and that the reason for associating it with the feast of Purim could have been that the details of the feast were conveniently explained. He points out that the original form of that feast had these components: the selection of a new queen, corresponding to the selection of Esther; the parade of a commoner qua king, corresponding to the parade of Mordecai in the streets of Shushan (Esther 6:11); a fast, corresponding to Esther's fast (4:15-16); the execution of a felon, corresponding to the hanging of Haman (Esther 7:10, 9:25); and the distribution of gifts (Esther 9:22). Furthermore, that festival must have taken place around the time of the vernal equinox, for it is then that Purim occurs.

All of these aforementioned conditions are satisfied if one assumes that the festival of Purim dates back to an earlier pagan new year festival. Indeed, at new year it is customary in many parts of the world to appoint a new ruler in order to symbolize the renewal of communal life. Likewise, the installation of a commoner as temporary ruler between the end of one year and the commencement of another was quite commonplace. The Babylonian new year was also known to feature a type of scapegoat ritual whereby a condemned criminal was led through the streets in a processional. Finally, there indeed was a custom of distributing gifts at the new year, as there is today on Purim.

Some scholars have suggested that the Scroll of Esther was written long after the Persian period and was a kind of historical novel intended to comment on the situation of the Jews under Hellenistic rule.

In any event, whatever the true history of the festival of Purim, it had long become established by the second century of the Common Era when a whole tractate of the Talmud, called the Megillah, was devoted to the details of the observance.

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Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.