The New International Encyclopædia/Purim

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PU'RIM. One of the later Jewish festivals, for which the Jewish Church accepts the Book of Esther as the historical basis. According to this book, the festival was instituted to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from a massacre with which they were threatened in the days of Xerxes (B.C. 485-465) at the instigation of Haman, the King's prime minister. It is celebrated on the 14th and 15th of the month Adar and is preceded by a day of fasting as preparation. (Cf. Esther iv. 15-17.) Scholars who hold that the Book of Esther (q.v.) is largely or purely fictitious, think that it may have been written to justify and account for a fast and festival, the origin of which was lost in obscurity. What the earlier significance of fast and festival was is conjectural in the absence of definite data. They are thought to be of Babylonian origin. The occurrence in the spring suggests a solar festival, the fast representing the death of winter, while the festival marks the joyous return of spring. Thus interpreted Haman and Vashti symbolize the disappearance of the old year; Mordecai and Esther, hailed as King and Queen, are the new favorites who bring in fertility and renewal of vegetation. The feast of Purim corresponds in time with a festival, mentioned in the Books of the Maccabees, in celebration of a victory gained by Judas Maccabæus, on the 13th of Adar, B.C. 161, over Nicanor (I. Mac. vii. 49; II. Mac. xv. 36). This seems to have been earlier a festival in honor of the dead. See Festivals.

The name Purim is explained in the Book of Esther as ‘lots,’ and the application of it to the festival as due to the fact that Haman cast lots to determine a day favorable for the extermination of the Jews (Esther iii. 7; ix. 26). This is probably merely a piece of folk-etymology and illustrates the obscurity as to the meaning of the name at the time of composition of the book. In Babylonian there is a word puru, one meaning of which seems to have been ‘a round stone,’ and then ‘lot,’ from the use of stones in divination. Possibly the Jewish author of the Book of Esther, living in Persia or Babylonia, had this word in mind, but it does not necessarily follow that purim* is identical with puru. The problem may be solved if a festival be discovered among Babylonians or Persians bearing the name purim*, or something sufficiently like it to account for the Jewish form.

As celebrated by Orthodox Jews, the Purim festival is a time of feasting and merry-making. It begins as soon as the stars appear on the evening of the 14th of Adar. Candles are lighted. Consult: Lagarde, Purim, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Religion (Göttingen, 1887); Erbt, Die Purimsage in der Bibel (Berlin, 1900); Frazer, The Golden Bough, vol. iii. (2d ed., London, 1900).