For those whose annual experience of Yom-Tov is limited to the rarefied solemnity of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Purim quite definitely does not figure. Even for those who know Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot, Purim is, to say the least, different.
It is a predominantly secular occasion. It has a light carnival spirit. It has its serious side, but it is primarily a day for popular jollification. Not only this, but it is the custom on Purim actually to make fun of serious things and to satirise sacred books, holy men and religious observances.
The Talmud itself authorises this frivolity, when it says, “A person is duty-bound to make merry on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordecai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman'” (Meg.7b). And Rashi comments that “make merry” means “become intoxicated with wine”.
It is a surprising statement, especially when we know that drunkenness is frowned upon by Judaism and is rarely found among Jews. But in this light-hearted spirit all kinds of Purimspiels, playful jollifications, were known in old-time communities, have been revived in modern Israel, and are enjoyed by many sections of Jewry even in the Diaspora.
One of the most noteworthy kinds of Purim entertainment is the Purim parody, which is absurd, yet clever and often riotously funny. There is, for instance, a parody of the Pesach Haggadah, dating from the Middle Ages:
• “Everyone who is thirsty, let them come in and drink.”
• “How is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights you may drink, but on this night you must.”
• “It happened once with Rabbi Old Wine and his friends that they ate and drank at the Purim feast all day and night, until they all fell under the table with their cups in their hands. On the morrow, their disciples found them in this condition and said, ‘Our masters, the time has arrived for the morning meal’.”
• “Rabbi Cask said, For 70 years I have rejoiced on Purim, but I was never able to prove that the feasting should last for three days and three nights until Rabbi Old Wine taught: It is written, From grief to joy, and from mourning to rejoicing (Esther 9:22) – just as the grief and fasting lasted three days, so the joy and merry-making must last three days. Rabbi Pitcher said: Seven days, for the days of mourning for the dead continue for seven days. The other scholars said nothing, but they eat and drink until the Messiah comes.”
• “Whoever has not done these three things on Purim has not fulfilled his obligation, and these are they: Eating, Drinking, and Dancing.”
And so on. The parody follows the familiar original, line by line, with countless variations on the same theme.
You might of course get the wrong idea and think the medieval rabbis were drunken buffoons with no sense of propriety, dignity or sanctity. But if you held that view you would be quite wrong. What makes Purim special is precisely the fact that this is the one occasion in the year, with the possible exception of Simchat Torah, when entertainment and amusement are an essential part of Jewish living, just as study, piety and prayer are expected on other occasions.
It is good for a serious-minded people, whose history has been so full of tragedy and pathos, to be able once in a while to let its hair down, to relax, to laugh at itself, to enjoy light relief, and not to take itself too seriously.
Nathan Ausubel, editor of the Treasury of Jewish Folklore, has said (page 264): “Jews are skillful at joke-making because they are also virtuosi in the art of pathos. They have been tempered by necessity to take life passionately – with gaiety as well as with sober earnestness. This dual capacity for weeping and laughing at the same time has had its origin in the chaos of life. The harmony of light and shadow is always at work; the same experiences which have made the Jew realistic and thoughtful have also exposed to his ironic eye the foolishness and incongruities of the Human Comedy. It is one of the wholesome defence mechanisms by which he is enabled to keep a balanced outlook.”
Jewish history has, in this generation, taken a turn for the better. But we still have enough anxious pre-occupations to appreciate the opportunity of relaxing momentarily and turning to laugh at ourselves.