Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Purim: The Jewish April Fools

It's been several years since I posted here, and I still don't plan to post regularly. But I had an idea about the possible origins of the holiday of Purim, which I wanted to share. As far as I know, this idea is not found anywhere else, and obviously because of that, it's not backed with fancy sources. It's my own idea, and should therefore be subject to an extra critical eye, as there very well may be obvious things I'm overlooking. Anyway those caveats aside, let's begin.

The Question - How did Purim start?

In my original post on Purim, I noted that the holiday is very strange, and that there does not appear to be any Persian, Babylonian, Canaanite, or other cultural holiday around this time period for the Jews to have based Purim off of. Since the story itself is definitely ahistorical, it is interesting to wonder how the whole thing got started in the first place. There are two key features that bring me to the hypothesis I'll lay out in this post.

1) The holiday, and the book of Esther, are both focused on humor and satire. 
2) The timing of the holiday is exactly one month before Pesach (Passover).

We'll see why these two facts lead me to the idea that Purim bears significant similarities to the modern day "holiday" of April Fools. But before we get there, we need to digress a bit and talk about the calendar.

How long is a year exactly?

The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, with months beginning with new moons. Lunar months are around 29.5 days long, which means that a lunar year of twelve months tends to be about eleven days shorter than a solar year. If you measure a year of twelve months then the two calendars will gradually desynchronize. This is exactly how the Islamic calendar is run, and the result is that major Islamic festivals can fall at pretty much anytime in the solar year. Ramadan can be in the summer or the winter. In Judaism such a solution would not work because of the specification that Pesach fall in the springtime. This requires the calendars to be synchronized in some manner.

The solution to synchronizing the two calendars was first practiced in Babylon and was called intercalation, or in common terms, making a leap year. The Babylonians would add an extra month at the end of their calendar year (like Jewish calendars, the Babylonian last month was Adar). Babylonian mathematicians figured out that you could synchronize the two calendars over a 19 year period by adding 11 extra months. This scheme would eventually be adopted in Judaism as well, but not until past the Talmudic period. What did they do before then?

The Talmud in Sanhedrin describes the laws of adding extra months. If you're interested it begins on 11a and continues for about four pages. It's far too long even to summarize.  Even though there is significant debate over how you decide when to intercalate, all sources agree that one of the key deciding factors in the decision is the tekufah, or the equinox. The gemara brings a source that the timing of the equinox suffices alone to decide to add an extra month, and that other signs such as crop or tree blooming are of lesser importance. The equinoxes and solstices were key calendar markings in ancient cultures. In Judaism, the equinoxes marked the beginning and end of the rainy season, and thus had agricultural importance. The holidays of Pesach and Sukkot are essentially described by the equinoxes.

Another important feature of the leap year decision is that it needed to be made from a central location (namely Israel) and it needed to be made by a Nasi. This makes sense because you don't want different cultures declaring leap years differently and observing holidays on different days. The latest day that they could declare a leap year was the 13th day of Adar. Supposedly this would give enough time for Passover preparations.

April Fools!

So what in the world does this have to do with April Fools? The origin of April Fools is a bit obscure. One common hypothesis, and the one that is important for this post, is that the holiday came about because people used to celebrate New Year's between March 25 and April 1. When most regions adopted Jan 1 as New Year's Day, they made fun of the people who celebrated it on April 1, by having a lighthearted April Fool's holiday. Whether this is the actual origin or not is not really important. What is important, is the idea of a holiday that begins because different groups are celebrating a joint holiday on different days.

So what does this have to do with Purim? Let's imagine a scenario. You're a Jew living in Persia, and it's the twelfth day of the thirteenth month since the beginning of last year. You're probably preparing for Pesach. The fourteenth day rolls around and you start your seder, when all the sudden a messenger from Israel comes and says to stop because a leap year has been declared and it's not actually Pesach for another month. What do you do now? You already had this feast prepared. You might as well finish it.

Let's go a bit further. The thirteenth month starts and you're not sure whether it's Adar II or Pesach because you haven't heard about the leap year declaration yet. So you decide, just to be safe, you'll prepare a festive meal for the 14th of this month too. Then if a leap year is declared, you'll just prepare another one for the next month.

These kinds of scenarios might play out fairly often in places far from Israel, where it took a long time to get the message about leap year declaration. Namely Persia, where many Jews lived, and where Purim appears to have originated. The idea is that just like April Fools is New Year's Day on the wrong day, Purim is Pesach on the wrong day. Just like everything else, as the holiday grew in popularity, it eventually became part of Jewish culture as a whole.

This also helps explain why Purim is always celebrated in the leap month if there is one. In the April Fool's theory of Purim, the holiday would have originally been celebrated only on these months. It also help explain why the holiday is light-hearted and satirical, just like April Fool's is.

So there you have it. Purim is the original April Fool's.


  1. Wow, great to see a new post here - it's been a while!

    Interesting idea - it seems you are correct that there would have had to be a 'just-in-case' Passover every year on the day that later became Purim, at least in far-flung locations.

    I am curious as to how it is clear that the Purim story itself never happened - or at least that it may be based on a true story. The Ishtar/Marduk connection is interesting, but in and of itself does not account for the appearance of the whole story. Achashverosh himself was definitely a real king. The Jews did live in Persia at the time (right?). Maybe he did marry a Jewish girl, and maybe she did stop a minister's plan to kill Jews - certainly some aspects could be exaggerated, but the base of the story does not sound unrealistic to me.

    1. So how do we conclude that the Purim story is fake? The real reason is none of the features of the story add up. The character of Ahasverosh is probably Xerxes I, at least the names match, and Xerxes II is to inconsequential. We know the wife of Xerxes I, it was Amestris. There were no other wives, although there were unnamed concubines. The characters of Vashti and Esther are fictional.

      The entire marriage ceremony is completely implausible. There is no way that a king could marry outside of a select few families. There is certainly never any description of a year long "sleep with all the young women in the country" trial period for queens. These are inventive and humorous details that are designed to paint the king in a particularly hedonistic style.

      I can't go any further into inaccuracies. These are usually enough for me to conclude that the story is not a real account. I haven't read any scholar who thinks the story is historical, but maybe there are some.

      So the only thing we have that matches is they picked a king.

    2. Right, granted that the story in all its details is not realistic. But asserting that it is a completely made up fictional tale, and getting into conjectures about political propaganda by Babylonia against Persia that somehow got co-opted by the Jews - isn't it at least equally plausible that the Xerxes had a minor wife/concubine/mistress who was Jewish, and she used her influence to save maybe some local Jews from danger, and the story was embellished into the Megillah?

      As for Ishtar/Marduk - if those were Persian gods, maybe they were common names of Persian citizens as well. There are plenty of Latino people named Jesus, after all.

    3. I would say that the story of how Esther became queen is more than just "details" it's about 1/5 of the story. But to answer the more general question of whether a simplified truthful story was embellished rather than a corruption of a Babylonian story, I can't really answer in more detail than to point to scholars who looked into it more. I'll quote the conclusion from Adele Berlin in Journal of Biblical Literature (JBL 120/1 (2001) The Book of Esther and Ancient Storytelling.

      "Esther typifies storytelling about Persia from the Persian period. It takes some of its motifs from biblical literature, and it partakes of many others from the broader literary world of its time, preserved for us most abundantly in Greek writings. We should, therefore, use these Greek writings in connection with Esther for literary purposes, not for historical purposes. In a way, the story of Esther is nothing more than a conglomeration of common motifs associated with the Persian court, woven throughout the equally conventional story lines such as the wise courtier in a foreign court, the contest between courtiers, and the woman who saves her people."

      Perhaps her answer isn't good enough for you, in which case you may wish to check out the people she references: Paton, A critical and exegetical commentary on the book of Esther (1908). Carey Moore, Esther, 1971. Michael Fox, Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther (1991) and Jon Levenson, Esther a Commentary (1997). I haven't had the opportunity of reading through them all, but if you try to, be sure to let me know what you found!

      As for Ishtar/Marduk. I believe it is certainly true that Mordecai was a reasonably common name in Babylon. I believe it means something like servant of Marduk. (I guess similar to Ovadyah). The point is, Marduk was never really highly thought of in the Torah, so why would a prominent Jewish leader be named after him?

  2. Good to see your post; a creative idea!

  3. "...you could synchronize the two calendars over a 19 year period by adding 11 extra months."

    You mean 7 months.

  4. Cool theory!
    If you read the megilla closely, it is also clear that the origianl festival was kept on both the 14th and the 15th (I believe this also the Karaite interpretation of the text). Notwithstanding the reason for the double holiday given in the story, this would fit well with your idea as there would be a yearly doubt regarding the fixing of the new moon.
    As Purim is of some antiquity - it is mentioned as well established in Paelstine in the Book of MAcabees 2nd century bc - this would indicate that Jews in exile were already following the PAlestinian calendar and that later halachic concepts of sfeika deyoma were already de facto practiced.
    Also possible that the megilla story is composite - the original story is basically just a court intrigue where one faction (Mordechai and Esther) win out over another ( Haman and Vashti) for the king's favour.
    The story is then used as a basis for celebrating the festival and the story is given a nationalistic flavour. Hence many of the bizarre elemnts, like Haman deciding to murder all the Jews just because his personal enemy refuses to give him respect.
    THe original story (probably Persian in origin - hence the total lack of religious content and the Babylonina names) just has Haman wanting to hang Mordechai, and his plot is foiled by Mordechai havingt savbed the king from an assassination attempt and the queens intercession. THis is then developed into a national stopry of genocide and redemption.

  5. http://thetorah.com/on-the-origins-of-purim-and-its-assyrian-name/

  6. If you are correct that the deadline for declaring a leap year is the thirteenth day of Afar, this refers to Adar Rishon, or the twelfth month, NOT the thirteenth. They couldn't wait until the thirteenth month to declare a leap year. How do I know this? King Chizkiya tried to declare a leap year in the thirteenth month and the Chachamim were not happy with him. Source: Mishnayos Megila. I believe last Mishna of the second Perek. Cute shtick, but it doesn't work.