Esther

The book of Esther is not a historical document in the usual sense--but that doesn't undermine its importance as a religious book in the Jewish canon.

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But the Megillah mandate differs from the Torah's in one crucial respect: it is careful not to say that God commanded the observance of Purim. In fact, God is nowhere mentioned in the book and his absence emphasizes the distinction between the Torah and its festivals on the one hand and the Megillah and its festival on the other. The Megillah makes no suggestion that Purim is an ancient festival that had been forgotten or neglected. Purim is clearly a new festival, of recent origin.

The Megillah gives legitimacy to this first post-Torah festival in a mode that is quasi-traditional but at the some time quite contemporary. Following tradition, the book's explanation of Purim as a "historical" event to be commemorated harks back to the Torah's etiologies (stories of origin) for the well‑established holidays. But, calling on contemporary practice, the form in which the holiday was instituted imitates the legal practice of Persia. Purim was legislated in much the same way that all Persian law was legislated--by means of a document written by the king or his authorized agent and circulated throughout the empire.

This rhetorical strategy of calling upon both traditional and current forms must have made the etiology of Purim more compelling to ancient readers. In fact, the Book of Esther, more than anything else, is responsible for the continued celebration of Purim. It also opened the way for the establishment of later holidays that, like Purim, could be instituted without divine command if they commemorated an important event or served an important function in the life of the Jewish people.

The Comic Style

Another successful rhetorical strategy is the combination of a serious theme and a comic style. The threat of the destruction of the Jews is no laughing matter, but the Book of Esther is hilariously funny. The raucous Persian court, with its lavish display of Iuxury, and its pervasive drinking parties, is not the setting we expect for the impending annihilation of the Jewish people. The plot glories in revelry, and bawdiness (and this may be the primary reason for the absence of God's name). The frivolity of the book's style--with its hyperbole, mockery, and comic misunderstandings and reversals--undercuts the gravity of its theme.

Yet, for the Purim festival this setting, plot, and style are natural and fitting, part and parcel of the celebration of Purim. The tone of the book fits its purpose: a comic story for a carnivalesque holiday. I find in this comic style additional evidence that the purpose of the Megillah was to model and to authenticate the celebration of Purim. In the Greek versions of Esther, which deemphasize Purim, the comic elements are diminished. The Hebrew Esther and the festival of Purim bring us a uniquely irreverent and joyously optimistic celebration of Jewish identity and Jewish continuity.

The Ancient Link Between Comedy and Carnival

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Adele Berlin

Adele Berlin is Professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Maryland.