By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve always wondered why the holiday of Purim was given the name that it has. The “pur” in the Book of Esther was simply the name of the lottery used to decide which date Haman would carry out his decree. Why would the entire holiday be named after this secondary thought?
— Noa W.
The “pur,” or lottery, mentioned in the Book of Esther is the lot the wicked Haman cast to establish which date to initiate the first “final solution” to annihilate the entire Jewish people. This seems to convey a sense of happenstance to all that transpired throughout the Purim story. Is this indeed the case?
I will answer the questions in the classical Jewish way: with a question.
When studying the Book of Esther, one is faced by a question: All but one book of the Tanach regularly mentions God’s name. The only book that doesn’t is the Book of Esther. How is it that the very book that relates the great miracle of the Jews’ redemption from the Persian-Median exile doesn’t mention the name of God even once?
One classical commentary, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (known as the Vilna Gaon), answers this question with the following parable:
“There once was a king who had only one son whom he loved greatly and showered with many gifts. As he grew, so grew his haughtiness, and so grew many of the king’s court to hate him, just awaiting the day they could “take care” of the haughty prince once and for all.
“One day the prince’s haughtiness got the better of him and out of anger actually slapped his father the king in the face. At that point the king realized that he must do something very drastic to teach his beloved son a lesson. He will banish him to the dangerous forest for a while and there he will hopefully repent for his folly. Realizing the danger, the king called his closest aids and commanded them to protect his son from all his enemies. They must not, however, reveal themselves to him.
“The day the son was sent, the prince’s enemies went after him. He saw someone about to strike him when suddenly the attacker dropped with an arrow in his back. Breathing a sigh of relief, he wondered who had saved him. After two more attempts at his life, he was again and again mysteriously rescued. At that point, he sat down and began to think, realizing this could not possibly be merely a coincidence. Who possibly could be protecting him? Only his father has that ability, but his father surely hates him now. Who else could it be? Suddenly it dawned upon him; of course, it was his father.”
His father’s love for him was so great that he’s keeping him alive despite his rebellious act. His banishment to the forest was only to teach him a lesson. The son’s love and admiration for his father grew much greater than all the time he was in the palace, for he finally appreciated the depth of the king’s love for him. With that realization the prince fully repented, asked forgiveness and returned home.
The Jews were exiled into the dangerous forest of the Persian-Median, where our enemies surrounded us because we “slapped” our father, the King, in the face by serving idols and committing other serious transgression. Haman issued a decree to destroy us. God remained in hiding. He wanted to give us a chance to repent and see His love and protection, showing His love for us even at our time of rebellion.
That is why the name of God does not appear in the Book of Esther; the story transpired in a manner that saw no open miracles. There was a revelation every time God’s name is mentioned in the Tanach at that point. This was absent in the story of Purim.
The Jews in the Purim story began to notice many coincidences that led to their redemption. When they realized that these coincidences could not happen by chance, they deeply sensed and realized God’s love for them even in their degradation and repented with a full heart out of love. They then were returned to the palace, to Israel, to rebuild the Temple.
This is the meaning of the Talmudic statement when the sages searched for a hint for the Purim story and Esther in the Torah, and cited the verse “behold I will surely hide My Face on that day,” (Deut. 31:18). The words “surely hide” in Hebrew are “haster astir,” the second word having the exact spelling as the name Esther. Says the Vilna Gaon, the meaning of the Talmud’s question and answer are: how do we know that even at the time of “hester” (God’s being hidden) there still can be an “Esther,” a redemption!
The holiday is called “Purim” by name of the “pur,” the lottery. A lottery looks like it is being drawn by chance. The redemption came through the “pur” lottery to punctuate our realization that there is no “chance” in this world; the almighty is always present and in control of our matters behind the scenes.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.