The Strange Meaning Of The Word ‘Purim’
Purim: Why Name A Holiday After The Enemy?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
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Passover is named for an incredible miracle, when God passed over and saved us from Egyptian oppression. Sukkot is named for the miraculous huts that housed us in the wilderness. And Purim is named for... Haman’s ‘lots’?!
Isn’t that kind of bizarre? Those lots were the device that our enemy used to try and annihilate us. They were a weapon of destruction. Why would we name the holiday after that? Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to call it “Victory Day” or “Esther Day”? Why would we celebrate the holiday of Purim in honor of our enemy?
In this series, Rabbi Fohrman flips the idea of Purim’s name on its head. (It’s a real ‘ve’nahafoch hu’!) He makes a surprising claim: that Purim isn’t named after Haman’s lots; it actually means something else. In doing so, he shows how this bizarre name for the holiday is actually a key to unlocking one of the Megillah’s most intriguing hidden messages.
Hey everybody! Rabbi David Fohrman here! I want to talk to you about this holiday that we call Purim; why do we call it Purim?
Well we all know why we call it Purim – for the lots that Haman cast in Ancient Persia, seeking to destroy us all. He cast lots to find the day on which he would destroy the Jews. The Aramaic term for lots is purim, pur is singular, purim plural, and hence we call the day Purim after Haman's lots.
But I have a question for you – does that make any sense? Why would you name the day after the device that your enemy used to try to kill you?
What Does the Word 'Purim' Really Mean?It's roughly equivalent to imagining that in 1948 when the Jews miraculously beat back the Arab armies from multiple countries, that instead of calling the day Yom Ha'tazmaut – Independence Day – why don't we call it Tokarev Day? The Arabs used Russian-made Tokarev rifles – thank God they were beaten back, they didn't destroy us, but let's name it Tokarev day after the stuff they use to try to kill us. No one would think this is a very good idea.
So why do we name Purim Lots? The question is even larger than this, because Lots in a larger sense is symbolic isn't it? When Haman cast lots to destroy us, he left the decision of which day it would be that the Jews would be killed in this mass genocide, up to the winds of faith; up to chance. When the Megillah describes this, it says v'hipil pur hu hagoral – "he cast lots" – lehumam uleabdam. Leabdam means "to destroy them," but lehumam means more than to destroy them. It means "to terrify them."
The lots were instruments of psychological warfare. They were making a statement. You think there's a plan, you think there is a creator who runs things with a sense of order? I say it's all up to chance, I determine the fate of you all with a roll of the dice! It was terrifying! Why would we name the day after that terror? Why would we name the day after a theological vision that we reject? We don't think it's all up to chance.
It is true that God's name does not appear in the Megillah; that God works behind the scenes but we don't believe that God was absent. So why would we name the holiday after a vision of chance that we don't even believe in? Why call it Purim?
Questioning the Meaning of the Word 'Purim'Now the truth is, the Megillah itself, in chapter 9, towards the very end, actually tries to explains to us why the holiday is called Purim; why it's called Lots. If we really want to understand why it's called Purim, we should look at those verses yet those verses themselves are hard to understand. Let's take a look at them now for a minute.
They begin in chapter 9 vs 34: ki Haman ben-hamdata haagagi – "Haman the Agagite", tzorer kol-hayehudim, "enemy of all the Jews", chashav al-hayehudim leabdam, "plotted concerning the Jews to destroy them", v'hipil pur hu hagoral lehumam uleabdam, "and cast lots in order to terrify them and to destroy them." U'beboah lifnei hamelech ,"But when she [Esther] came before the King", amar im-hasefer, "she said by means of a written decree", yashuv machashavto haraah asher-chashav al-hayehudim al-rosho, "she manages through this written decree to overturn Haman's plan so that it came recoiling upon his own head", V'talu oto v'et-banav al-haetz, "and he himself was hanged upon the very tree that he had prepared for Mordecai". Al-ken karu layamim haeleh purim, "that's why the call these days Purim," al-shem hapur, "because of the pur". Al-ken, "this is why", al-kol-divrei hageret hazot, "because of everything that Esther wrote in that letter", umah rau ol-kachah, "and what came to the Jews because of that letter", umah higiya aleihem, "and what eventually befell them."
Now, when you really start thinking about those verses, they are actually really quite confusing. In broad terms, they've set forth three ideas, but if you look closely, the three ideas seem to be out of order.
Idea #1 – Haman tried to kill us and to find the day in which he would kill us he cast lots.
Idea #2 – Esther, thank God, managed to save us.
Idea #3 – And that's why they call the holiday Lots.
But that's all very fine. But ideas 1, 2 & 3 seems to be all out of order. Shouldn't it have said "Haman tried to kill us and he cast lots in order to destroy us – parenthetically – and that's why the all the holiday Lots." And then finally "And thank God, Esther managed to save us!"
It doesn't seem to make sense. The way it's currently written – "Haman tried to kill us and he cast lots in order to do so. Thank God Esther saved us and that's why they called the holiday Lot". What do you mean "and that's why they call the holiday Lots?" That's not why they called the holiday Lots. They don't call the holiday Lot because "Thank God Esther tried to save us", they call the holiday Lots because "Haman cast lots". So it's strange, if you take ideas 2 and 3 and you switch them, if you make idea #3, idea #2 and idea #2, Idea #3, then it would make sense. But that's not how the verses are written.
What are these verses trying to tell us?
What Is the True Meaning of Purim?I think they are trying to tell us that the holiday is called Lots for a reason we don't even suspect. It was not called Lots because of Haman's lots. Haman's lots were destructive, Haman's lots were the enemy; we never would have named the holiday after the enemy.
We name it after something else instead. We don't name it after something he did; we name it after something she did – the holiday is named for something Esther did.
Haman tried to kill us with lots, Esther, thank God, tried to save us and succeeded and that's why they call the holiday Lots. There is something about what Esther did. What did she do that explains why we would call this day Purim? That's what we need to figure out.
Does Esther Matter?In order to get some understanding about Purim's strange name, let me turn to a want to a second question with you; this question has always troubled me. I want to look with you at the turning point probably, of the entire Megillah; it's the speech that Mordecai gives to Esther just before she first goes to the king.Mordecai has found out about Haman's genocidal decree. He sends word to Esther that it;s time for her to go to the king, she needs to reveal her true identity that she herself is a Jew and beg him to save her people. But to Mordecai chagrin, she sends back word to him that she can't do it; it' s too dangerous. She hasn't been called to the king for thirty days. Everyone knows that if you invades the king's chamber without being called, he can kill you instantly. And the king hasn't asked to see her for thirty days; she would be taking her life in her own hands to go into his private room. If you were Mordecai, what would you say to her? You know that the fate of the Jews rests in her hands and she says she can't do it because it's too dangerous? You would say "Esther look, what's the worst thing that could happen? Alright so they'll kill you, so they'll name high schools after you; but Esther we need you, your people need you, this is no time to think about your own life! Sacrifice yourself if needs be for the good of your people! Esther, we need you!"
If you look at what Mordecai actually says, he says the exact opposite. He says " Esther, you think we need you? We don't need you! Im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot - "if you keep silent at this time" revach v'hatzalah yaamod layehudim mimkom acher - "we'll be just fine! Salvation will come to the Jews from some other place! Don't you worry about us Esther; we'll be just fine without you. You know why you should act? Because if you keep silent now at ubeit-avich tovedu - it's going to be you who is going to go down in flame, you and your father's house will be destroyed." Umi yodea im-liet kazot higaat lamalchut - "Who knows if was for this moment that you were destined to become queen?" Mordecai's words to Esther here are full of puzzles.
First of all, it seems to be a very dangerous game of reversed psychology that he is playing with her -"'we don't need you Esther." Does he really means that? And if he really does mean that, if he truly believes one way or the other the Jews are going to be saved, that God is going to come to the rescue of the Jews, either through Esther or through someone else, then what does he mean to tell her when he says " and if you don't act" at ubeit-avich tovedu "you're going to be destroyed". Then why should she be destroyed if one way or the other the Jews are going to be saved? I mean, if I was Esther I would say " you've just given me the way out that I was looking for. You just told me this does not all ride on me -that one way or the other the Jews are going to be fine so you know what Mordecai, I'm a little scared. I am going to bow out of this one;you know what, have somebody else do it. I would love to help if it was absolutely necessary; it looks like you have other ways of making it work - make it work the other way." What's the rationale for saying that " yes, the Jews are going to be saved one way or the other - but if you don't choose to save them you are going to be destroyed." All of this is really part of a larger question maybe - the real paradox that seems to kind of come through in Mordecai's words is " Is Esther significant or is she not significant?" First he seems to tell her you are not really significant; one way or the other the Jews are going to be saved. But then at the very end he says "and who knows if it was for this moment that you became queen?" Well now Esther seems very significant, it seems to all ride on her. So which is it? Does she matter or does she not matters? What's going on with this speech?
If you really want to understand Mordecia's speech, you have to understand that you've heard it somewhere before. Everything that he's saying comes from something that was said centuries before Mordecai and Esther were even a gleam in the eye of history. All of the language of his speech is quoted from a section of the Torah itself - deep in the Book of Numbers . There was a deal with a young woman, a naarah. The word naarah is also used by the Megillah to describe Esther but when the Torah talks about this naarah, it's a naarah who is married - the Torah is talking about the naarah in relationship to the man in her life; Mordecai is talking to Esther about what she needs to do about the man in her life, the one who's made her a queen - King Achashverosh.
That section of the book of Numbers that talks about this married naarah gives a certain specialized kind of guidance about her relationship with her husband much as how Mordecai is now giving Esther a certain specialized kind of guidance about how she must deal with the king. That section in the book of Numbers speak of this naarahas being bebeit aviha - "in her father's house'. And look at Mordecai's words, at the very end he says " And esther if you don't act, at ubeit-avich tovedu - "you and your father's house will be destroyed."
That section of the Book of Numbers speaks about the possibility of silence'; Mordecai also tells Esther " if you keep silent right now, salvation will come to us from some other place." That section of the Book of Numbers that speaks about the married naarah in her father's house that talks about silence, also talks about there being a crucial short window of time in which a spouse must act. Mordecai also talks about a crucial short window of time, im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot - " if you keep silent right now, who knows if right now is the moment for which you become queen? You have to cease the moment, the moment will soon pass."
And one more thing, when Mordecai talks about silence, he says to Esther im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot - " if you keep silent at this time", but the particular word for silence that he uses lehacharish - he uses it in double form im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot- "if you keep silent, yes, silent at this time", it turns out that there is only one other time in the entire Tanach where that verb lehacharish, "to keep silent," appeared as a double verb other than Mordecai's words to Esther is in that other section of the Book of Numbers. Where is that other section? It is the Laws of the Annulment of Vows. An obscured set of laws, that we don't think about much these days, that everything Mordecai says is taken from there. What are these strange Laws of Annulment of Vows and what do they have to do with Mordecai and Esther? Why is Mordecai constantly referencing these ideas? We need to go back to the Book of Numbers and look at those laws and we may well find that they help us understand not just Mordecai's speech to Esther but the very name of the holiday Purim itself.
You Have the Choice To Remain SilentAccording to the Torah, people can choose to take vows; they can impose certain restrictions upon themselves that would not otherwise applied to them. For example, you can take a vow to the effect that 'Joe's possessions are now forbidden to me'. If you did that, you would be required by Torah law to abide by that vow and you would have to avoid benefiting from Joe's possessions. In describing these laws, the Torah declares that sometimes a husband has the ability to annul his wife's vows; in particular, if a young girl, a naarah who is married,takes a vow to would cause her to experience hardship, her husband can protest and if he does that, he can actually annul her vow. The Torah however, in the Book of Numbers restricts his ability to do this. It says that "he can annul her vows, only on the first day that he hears about it", if he waits for a time and protests afterwards, he loses the right to annul that vow; the vow will stand regardless of what he says afterwards.Now, here is the language of the passage in Numbers that talks about this. Numbers chapter 30 verse 14: Kol-neder uchol-shevuat isar leanot nafesh, "any vow or restrictive oath that would cause hardship", ishah yekimenu v'ishah yeferenu, " her husband can affirm the vow or her husband can annul it." V'im-hacharesh yacharish lah isha miyom el-yom,- "but if the husband is silent, yes silent from day to day, then he will have affirmed her vows." V'hekim et-kol-nidareiha, "the vow that she took and is silent about is affirmed." Ki-hecherish lah biyom shamo, "because he was silent on the day that he heard it." The Torah goes on to say that if the husband later tries to annul the vows after he first heard of it and was silent, then nasa et-onah, "then actually if she transgresses her vows, he is the one who bears her sins." The Torah concludes eleh hachukim asher tzavuh Hashem et-Moshe, "these are the laws that God commanded Moses," bein ish leishto bein av leveto bein naareha beit aviha, "these are the laws of a naarah and her father's house."
So as we saw in the last video, Mordecai's speech is completely saturated with language borrowed from these verses, from these laws of vows. Mordecai also speaks of a married naarah and her father's house. Mordecai too speaks of silence that has to be broken quickly. He also uses that unique doubled form of the verb lehacharish - "to be silent'. Why does Mordecia's speech so closely follow these laws? So let's go back and talk about these laws a little bit.
The first thing that the verse said is that when a married woman takes a vow ishah yekimenu v'ishah yeferenu, "the husband can affirm the vow or he can annul it". So what's the verse saying here? " When a woman takes a vow that imposes some kind of personal hardship upon herself, the Torah seems to give her husband two options - he can declare that he affirms the vow, in which case it stands; or he can protest it in which case it's annulled. But look at the very next verse that introduces us to what seems like a third option. The text says v'im-hacharesh yacharish lah isha, "if her husband keeps silent, yes silent", why would he do that? What stance is the husband taking by a silence? So the language used for the husband's silence is, as I have mentioned before is the doubled form of the word lehacharish. Let's talk about exactly what that word means. It means silence. But it turns out that the Hebrew language contains more than one word for silence; there is another more common word for silence - lishtok. Why would the Torah have two different words for silence? Must be that there are two different ideas here. What's the distinction between lehacharish on the one hand and lishtok on the other hand? How these kinds of silences differs from each other? What are the nuances of each word?
Okay. So let's talk about lishtok first. If you look throughout Tanach, you'll find the word lishtok sometimes used with reference to not just to people but to inanimate objects, for example in the Book of Jonah; Jonah says that "if you throw me in the sea vayishtok hayam maalechem- the sea will be silent, it will be still, it won't continue to threaten you." So lishtok really means "to be still". Anyone, or anything for that matter of fact, can be still.
But there is another kind of silence that can be experienced by human beings and not lifeless objects such as the sea. It's the type of silence that the Torah talks about with the word lehacharish, that word only gets used in connection to existing beings like people. What exactly does lehacharish means? Look at it's root, the root is heresh - chet resh shin - if you look at that word chet-resh-shin as a noun, it means cheresh - deaf person. So what does the verb lehacharish mean then? It means to make yourself deaf, to be silent because you're not listening; to act as if you haven't heard.
An ocean is either still or it's not still. It doesn't put its finger in it's ears and make itself deaf; only people do that. The word lehacharish in the context of vows describes the husband's silence in the face of his wife's vow; a vow that imposes terrible hardship upon her. What the Torah is saying is that there is a third option - the man might do something else, besides either to say "yes" and affirm the vow or say "no" and annul it; he might choose to remain deaf to it. He might become silent; he might pretend as if he doesn't hear. He might say "look, I'm just staying out of this, I'm neutral. His wife made this impetuous vow to accept some sort of terrible pain and suffering, he might choose to remain oblivious; I didn't hear anything. How does the Torah look at that neutrality?
Look at the rest of the verse.V'im-hacharesh yacharish lah isha miyom el-yom - "if the husband is silent" V'hekim et-kol-nidareiha - "he is thereby affirmed the vows". This silence, the Torah tells us, is not really silence, it's tacit affirmation. The third option isn't really an option; it only looks like an option. You can't remain deaf, you did hear your wife's vow. You are aware or the pain and hardship that faces her. Your silence is a choice - keeping quiet; staying out of the situation -that's also a choice. It's a choice to accept her vow.
You know, it's all too easy to believe that for every question there is always three possible answer, yes, no and maybe. Sometimes that's true, it's not always true; it depends upon the question. So, if someone ask you, will it rain tomorrow? Then yes, there is three options - you might say yes, you might say no or you might say maybe.; I don't know. That last option - "maybe, I don't know", is actually a pretty appealing option. You're not a weatherman, you really don't know whether it's going to rain tomorrow so you just say 'maybe'. Sometimes though, maybe is not really an option.
The guy shows up at the doctor's office, the doctor diagnose stage 3 Pancreatic Cancer,it looks like it's fatal. But you know what, there is a little bit of a hope, there is a very rare experimental kind of chemotherapy, if you take that, it will actually save your life; if you don't , you're going to die. The fellow's sacred, he looks for a second opinion, he goes to the other expert in Pancreatic Cancer, he says " I don't see anything wrong with your x-ray. But I'll tell you one thing; if you take that chemotherapy, it will kill you." What do you do now? They've arrived at two completely opposite diagnosis. "I have no idea! I don't want to commit!" But there is no way to sit this one out; you only have two options - you either take the chemotherapy or you don't.
More than a hundred years ago, a fellow by the name William James made the argument about belief in God - believers say there is a God; atheist say there is no God and agnostic, they say they aren't sure. That option seems kind of sensible -how could you be sure? You can't see God, you can't touch God, you can't feel God, how can you know for sure? Seems logical to just remain neutral. James argued though that agnosticism is actually the only thing that doesn't make sense because in real life,you actually have to choose, you have to live your life, you have to live it one way or another. You either live your life extending yourself towards God, towards a higher being , or you don't! Those are really the only two options; there is no way to abstain. That's the way it is with cancer and according to the Torah, that's the way it is with vows.
When a man hears his wife has taken an impetuous vow that puts her is a place of hardship,he really only has two options before him. He can affirm her words or he can protest them. He can't can't pretend not to her. If he tries to stay silent, he's taken a side; his silence is tantamount to saying yes - he heard her vow and by her silence he affirmed it. What happens if you do this? What's the Torah's attitude towards that? Look at the end of the passage.
The Torah tells us that if the husband, after remaining silent, and thereby affirming the vow, later on tries to change it - sees the terrible consequences, tries to undo it; he can't. And the Torah says " And if she transgresses the vow, he is the one who bears her sin." Rashi commenting on that says "if you see or hear or someone who causes his friend to stumble morally or spiritually, takes their place,as far as responsibility for any misdeed is concerned. There is no neutrality. Silence is a choice and you're responsible for that choice. Centuries after the Torah was written, Mordecai remembers all of this, Mordecai quotes all of this right back to Esther as his response to her recalcitrance from going to the king. What was he saying?
The Word Pur Vs. PurI would like to argue today that there are two ways to read that passage that we just talked about at the end of the Book of Numbers; one way is the way we just read it but there is another way to read it. You need to just make one little tiny change and the whole passage have another meaning. It's as if there is this elaborate double entendre running through the whole passage, the double entendre that Mordecai fixes upon because he made that one little change - a change in vowelization. What's the word for husband in those passages? The word is ishah. Now you may think that the word ishah means "woman"; it usually does mean woman. But with the dot in the hey takes on a different meaning and instead means 'her - possessive - 'her each her husband'. So the word ishah can really mean two things - with a dot it means "her husband", without the dot it means "woman".
As the verse is written in the Book of Numbers, it 's written with the dot . Ishah yekimenu v'ishah yeferenu - "her husband confirms the vow; her husband can annul it." Mordecai says " Esther, what if we read those words without the dot, guess what, then they are talking about you. Ishah yekimenu v'ishah yeferenu - " a woman - a woman can affirm, a woman can annul".
Hundreds of years after these words were written , Mordecai is telling Esther that in effect, those words are speaking to you. It's as if there is a secondary, almost prophetic meaning of the text, as if the Torah is looking in advance and seeing your situation. There will come a time when come a time when a woman will be in a position to annul her spouses impetuous words; a king's impetuous words, a declaration that would cause extreme hardship to an entire nation "and that moment", Mordecai tells Esther " is right now." By removing that one dot, here is how Mordecai would read the words. Kol-neder uchol-shevuat isar leanot nafesh -"any vow, any restricting oath that would cause excruciating hardship," Ishah yekimenu v'ishah yeferenu - "the woman can affirm or the woman can annul." The King, he's made the declaration; it' going to cause terrible pain, but the ink is not yet dry on that decree Esther, you can protest it. And in protesting it Esther, you can annul it.
But the Torah continues " remember, if she is silent, yes silent, from day to day,then she would have affirmed those vows or restrictions." Mordecai is telling Esther " you know, you have to act! You know why? Not for our sake Esther, we're going to be okay one way or another, but for your sake . You can't remain deaf to what's going on. You have only two choices in front of you; not a third one. If you try by your silence to sit this crisis out, to make yourself deaf to what the King has said, to put your finger in your ears and say you really didn't hear anything, you know what you're doing? Affirming his vows! You're tacitly going along with it. And if you do that, you will share responsibility for that evil. You will become an unwitting partner with Haman himself. As Rashi says " the person who stands silently by is responsible for the tragedy." Yes, we Jews will be fine one way or the other. God will see to us that salvation will come from some other place. But that's not important important for you. The choice that's confronts Esther is not what God's going to do about Jewish history, it's about her own destiny is going to be. Will she speak up? Will she go down in history as the one who tried to annul that decree? Or will she through her silence become a partner in upholding that decree? If she does that, well we all know Haman is going down, but when he goes down, you'll go down too; you and your father's house will be destroyed" How did this holiday get it's name? Why is it called Purim? We are now in a position to understand.
We looked earlier at those verses at the end of chapter 9, the verses that seems to say the reason why the holiday was called Purim was not necessarily for the lots that Haman cast, but for something that Esther did. What did she do might explain why the holiday was called Purim. What does her action has to do with this name Purim? Seemingly nothing, but that's only if we translate Purim as lots. But there is another possible translation for Purim and that translation comes straight from the Book of Numbers, straight from the Laws of the Annulment of Vows. Remember those words about annulling vows? Ishah yekimenu v'ishah yeferenu - "the ishah can affirm it, the ishah can annul it." The word for annul, yeferenu, just happens to have a root of pe, vav, resh. it turns out that pur, the word that in ancient Persian or Aramaic means lot in Hebrew has a different meaning; it means annulment.
So in the context of the Megillah, the term pur doesn't only refers to Haman's lots; it also refers to what Esther did about those lots, to what she did to his whole plan. She found a way to destroy it by not remaining silent, by not being deaf, by standing up to that decree and going to the King. In the end, the passage is telling us about the greatest irony of all - Haman thought that the day would be known as Purim forever - the great Holocaust, brought about by fate, brought about by lots, his great instrument of chance. "But", the Megillah says " that' not the whole story.That' not how in the end the holiday came to bear this name."
In the end, Esther made a heroic choice and by speaking up, she managed to annul Haman's plots and so, the Megillah concludes, "that's why they call these days Purim because of the pur, because of the annulment". It's all deliciously ironic! Haman thought it would become Purim because of his lots. It would be called Purim! But not because of his lots! Because of Esther's actions; not his. The fate of the Jews was not determined by lot,it was determined by a brave woman standing up and refusing to remain silent. It's called Purim because of her pur, not his.
When we think of Esther, we often think of a princess that's two dimensional, that's we can play dress up and pretend to be like; but what does it really mean to be like Esther? It means not to accept fate. It means understanding that even though God runs the world, we make choices too. There may be a great plan in disguise, but we can choose what role we play in his play, and when we are called upon to choose, we must choose. We cannot pretend that the choice is not in front of us. We cannot stay deaf when there is pain and suffering all around . Im hacharesh tacharishi baet hazot -"if you keep silent, you become a partner in crime" and it may well be that v'hatzalah yaamod layehudim mimkom acher, " that salvation will come to the Jews from some other place".
We can always say God has his plans but the fact that God has it plans, does not release us from responsibility to take a heroic role in effectuating them. Umi yodea im-liet kazot higaat lamalchut, " Who knows if it was for this moment that you've arrived here?" When we seize the moment to choose what role we will play in God's cosmic drama. When we turn our back to false neutrality, when we understand that silence and complicity that comes with it is not the path that we will take; it is then that we've made a choice to become a hero and that is what Esther teaches us for all time.