Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Purim Mythconceptions

There is a general sense in the frum world that the way things are done now is the way they've always been. Some take this to ridiculous extremes, claiming that they share even their social norms and communal idiosyncrasies with religious Jews down through the ages, but even those with a more realistic view of how practices develop tend to assume that certain things, like holiday customs, are more or less kept now as they have always been. The truth is that customs evolve over time. New customs are invented and replace old customs, customs are carried on with their original intent lost, and things that started as something cute come to be taken seriously.

The purpose of this post is not  to try to ruin Purim. Whatever the holiday's origins or the origin of particular customs may be, the day itself is a lot of fun. Debunking misconceptions doesn't take away from that. Things can be enjoyable and meaningful even if they don't go back quite as far as we thought they did or commemorate what we thought they commemorated. But I think it's important to live in the real world, and part of that is understanding how these things really got started.

The following is a list of the origins of some of Purim's practices.


The popular myth
The triangular cookies are eaten on Purim in remembrance of what Haman tried to do to us because Haman wore a triangular hat (or had triangular pockets).

The probable true origin
There has been a tradition to eat sweets made with poppy seeds and honey on Purim at least as far back as Ibn Ezra (1089–1164), who writes about it. In Yiddish poppy seeds are "man" and "tasch" means "pocket." In Central Europe mantaschen - poppy pockets - were a popular Purim treat, in keeping with the long tradition of sweet poppy treats on Purim. At some point, either as a pun or mistakenly, people  started calling the cookies "hamantaschen." The true etymology of the name was forgotten by most people, and the myth developed that the cookies symbolized Haman's triangular hat. Today, most depictions of Haman show him in a triangular hat, based on nothing more than the similarity between his name and that of a popular Purim treat.

Taanis Esther

The popular myth
We fast on the day before Purim in remembrance of the fast that Esther asked the Jews in Shsushan to hold for three days before she went to speak to Achashverosh on their behalf. Taanis Esther is part of the Purim holiday, a day of introspection before the day of celebration.

The probable true origin
The day before Purim used to be a different holiday, Yom Nicanor. As detailed in Megillas Taanis (which discusses many no-longer extant Jewish holidays), this holiday commemorated the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Seleucid general Nicanor. Nicanor had been sent to Judea as governor by the Seleucid king Demetrius only a generation after the events of Chanukah. He was told by the king to reinstate the ousted kohen gadol Alcimus. When the Jews refused, Nicanor declared war. He was eventually defeated on the thirteenth of Adar. The Chashmonaim, who had removed Alcimus for being too Hellinized, then did a very Hellinistic thing and declared the day a holiday for all time in commemoration of their victory. As time went on the Chashmonaim became more and more Hellenized. After they lost power the Rabbonim went out their way to erase the effects the (in their view) tainted dynasty had on Judaism. As part of that effort, they replaced Yom Nicanor with Taanis Esther. For generations, Jews had two back-to-back holidays in Adar, Yom Nicanor and Purim. Taanis Esther is not so much part of the Purim package as it is a political move meant to erase the Hellenized influence of the Chashmonaim from Judaism.

Noise During "Haman"

The popular myth
We make noise when Haman's name is read to drown it out, to show our disapproval and to erase his name. This is despite the obligation to hear every word of the megillah, which obligates the baal koreh to repeat the word after everyone has calmed down, defeating the purpose of drowning out Haman's name. It is also despite the fact that this custom, far from obliterating Haman's name, causes people (especially kids) to pay special attention to his name in order to make noise at the right moment, and that the effect is that it seems we're cheering for the story's villain.

The probable true origin
The custom of erasing Haman's name used to be taken more literally. People would write Haman's name on the bottom of their shoes (which some still do) or on rocks. When Haman's name was read, they would stomp their feet or bang the rocks together, literally erasing his name. In time, the practice of writing out his name in order to erase it faded away, but the noise from foot-stomping and rock-banging remained. The current custom, then, is essentially a mistake,  continuing to reproduce a side-effect of the original custom without any of its substance.

The popular myth
We wear costumes on Purim because Hashem's actions in the Purim story were hidden. Just as He disguised  Himself, so too we disguise ourselves. The usual way things would be expected to work out, that the citizens of the powerful Persian Empire would destroy the weak Jews when ordered to do so, was turned on its head, and instead the Jews destroyed their enemies. So we turn things upside down on Purim and be silly to commemorate the unexpected turn of events. We drink on Purim in celebration of our survival, and have a mitzvah to get so drunk that we don't know the difference between Mordechai hatzadik and Haman harasha.

The probable true origin
Purim falls out roughly the same time of year as Carnival, the Feast of Fools, and other similar holidays. All of these holidays have as part of their celebration masquerading, drinking, and a reversal of the usual order of things. In ancient Rome and medieval Europe, it was common for the social order in particular to be upended during the holiday, with a commoner being appointed "lord" for the duration of the holiday and the aristocracy serving him. These holiday customs can be traced back to older winter holidays such as Saturnalia. It is likely that Purim either borrowed traditions from these holidays or that both Purim and these holidays share traditions from an older source.

The Purim Story
The popular myth
The megillah recounts a historical event in which the righteous Mordechai and Esther thwarted the plot of the evil Haman and saved the Jews of the Persian Empire from annihilation.

The probable true origin
Although extensive records have survived from the Persian Empire, there is no mention of anything resembling the Pruim story. "Mordechai" is a Babylonian name which means, "servant of Marduk," (the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon) and "Esther" is a variant spelling of "Ishtar," a popular goddess in the Ancient Near East, also known as Isis in Egypt, Asarte in Greek, and Asherah in Canaan. At best, these Jewish heroes who, according to the commentaries, protested other Jews assimilating into Persian society and attending the king's feast, were named the ancient Persian equivalent of John and Christina. At worst, the Purim story is a Judaicized version of a Babylonian folk tale about the gods.

Also of interest is that Marduk was a warrior god and the patron god of soldiers. Soldiers were often referred to as the servants of Marduk, which may be the ultimate source of the medrash that Mordechai had been a soldier in the Persian army.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Niddah and other Menstruation Taboos

I'm currently reading  The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. It's about traditional hunter-gatherer societies, the way in which humanity lived for most of its history. The book discusses the handful of still-extant hunter-gatherer peoples as a way of looking back in time to the way our ancestors would have lived. In a section discussing childbirth, Diamond mentions that among the Kaulong people of New Britain (an island off of New Guinea) the men are afraid of contamination from a woman during menstruation and childbirth.  That's awfully familiar sounding. Intrigued, I did a little poking around online.
The idea that menstruating women are impure and contact with them is harmful is widespread, both in the ancient world and in modern-day primitive cultures.  Pliny the Elder wrote in 77 AD, “Contact with menstrual blood turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die…" Traditional societies have various taboos surround menstruation. "Among the Beng of Ivory Coast, a menstruating woman may not touch a corpse, cook for old men or set foot in the forest. She may not touch the logs or coals on the fire of a non-menstruating woman." " According to the Eskimo, if a man comes into physical contact with a menstruating woman, an invisible vapor will attach itself to the man and make him less successful at hunting." " In Malekula, an island of the New Hebrides, a menstruating woman may not enter a garden in which young plants are growing."

Menstruation taboos have also held on in some of the world's major religions. A Muslim woman who is menstruating is forbidden from performing certain religious activities or having sex, and Hindu women are similarly prohibited from certain activities and must be purified (just as Judaism requires women to tovel in a mikvah) before resuming those activities. Judaism, of course, has niddah.

One of the most common features of the menstruation taboos is a requirement for the woman to remove herself from society for the duration of her period. In many of these societies, there are special communal huts for women who are menstruating. Ancient Judaism, too , required a niddah to go chutz lamachaneh.

One theory as to why menstruation has been seen as dangerous and polluting is that it is something outside of the way things normally are. Things that are unusual - not rare, necessarily, but not the usual way things are - are often seen as dangerous and polluting. Dead bodies, for instance, are not rare, but are different from the usual live people we interact with, and so have been seen as dangerous and polluting (e.g, tammei). Blood usually comes from a cut. Blood without an obvious source is therefore unusual, and is dangerous and polluting. In a patriarchal society, as traditional societies usually are, the holy man who declares which things are impure is, well, a man, for whom bleeding without an obvious source is doubly unusual. Add to that the fact that, unlike now, in the ancient world women rarely got their periods (because of inadequate nutrition, frequent pregnancies, and the suppression of menstruation by frequent nursing) and that no one understood why women bled. Even for women, the bleeding was an unusual, suspect event.

Niddah, despite modern whitewashing, is  NOT about improving marriages or making sex more special. It's about fear of contamination from the miasma of impurity around a menstruating woman, a fear that is not particular to Judaism, ordained from on high by an all-knowing God, but that is common to primitive cultures around the world. It is a relic of the primitive period of the culture that would go on to evolve into the magnificent culture of the Jewish people, preserved as a religious dictate that could not be abandoned.

While in the distant past niddah and the accompanying separation between husband and wife would have been a rare occurrence, something that happened once every few years, today it has become an onerous burden, imposing itself on couples for half of every month. Frum couples today have to endure niddah as many times in a year as couples in the past would experience in their lifetime.

The one thing I wonder is if the particular practices associated with the menstruation taboo was originated by men or women. Was it men who, fearful of their wives' impurity and the general ickiness of a week of constant bleeding decided to banish women to menstruation huts and forbid sex with them, or was it women who, feeling lousy during their periods, invented menstruation huts as a way to get away from domestic chores and banned sex so that their husbands wouldn't bother them while they weren't feeling well?