What Is the Meaning of Purim in Hebrew?
Why is It Called Purim?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What Does The Word Purim Mean?
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.
Click here to buy Rabbi Fohrman's book about Purim!
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?
What Is the Meaning of Purim in Hebrew?
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'atzmaut – 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?
What Would Purim Be Named After Haman's Lots?
Now the truth is, the Megillah itself, in chapter 9, towards the very end, actually tries to explain 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. verse 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 and 3 seem 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 they call 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 Lots." 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.