Holidays

Is Purim an independent holiday?

Rabbi Sungolowsky

Many people think that the holiday of Purim is an independent chag unrelated to other Jewish holidays. They assume that the celebration of Purim relates only to the story of Mordechai, Esther, and Haman.

However in researching the essence of this chag, I discovered that in fact Purim has important connections to other jewish holidays, specifically Yom Kippur and Shavuot. I would like to present these connections and explore different lessons that we can learn from them.

There is a famous statement of the ARI'ZL (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, a sage who lived in the 1500's and studied the mystical aspects of the torah) which states that the hebrew words “Yom Kippurim  יום כיפורים   contain an allusion to Purim. If we break down the word Kippurim  כפורים  into a shorter word that is introduced by a prefix, i.e.-Ki-purim, we get a word that means Ki-purim  כ-פורים   “like Purim”. The ARI'ZL explains that this allusion teaches us that Yom Kippur is only like the holiday of Purim but not as great. This statement of the ARI'ZL requires clarification. How can it be that the holiday when Jews from all walks of life come to shul and pray a whole day to Hashem while fasting the entire time, is subordinate to the holiday of Purim? On Purim we spend most of our day eating , drinking , and making merry! There are several opinions regarding how to explain this. We shall see that by understanding the different opinions regarding what the ARI’ZL’s cryptic formula means, we will be able to appreciate the significance of the correlation between Purim and Yom Kippur.  

The Sefer Ha-Toda'ah (pg.294) explains the ARI'ZL as follows. He points out that Yom Kippur is a form of serving Hashem wherein we remove all physical distractions that might interfere with our ability to draw closer to Hashem. We abstain from eating and drinking and spend the entire day praying in the cloistered environment of the shul. The men are dressed in the white Kittel robe, and we basically feel like angels. It is not surprising therefore, that under these circumstances we can achieve a close connection with Hashem. On the other hand, Purim is a day full of physical and materialistic distractions. We drink wine a whole day and engage in merriness. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to achieve closeness with Hashem. Yet this is precisely what we are supposed to attempt to do. Since coming close to Hashem on Purim is a much more difficult job than feeling close to Hashem on Yom Kippur, the former is considered a greater achievement than the latter. Purim is the potential to reach closeness with Hashem despite all the obstacles. This is what the ARI'ZL meant that Yom Kippur is like, but less,than Purim.

A second approach to understanding the ARI'ZL's opinion is offered by Rabbi Dessler ( in Michtav Mi'Eliyahu volume 2,page 125). Rabbi Dessler points out that the avoda of Yom Kippur results from fear of Hashem. Specifically, the fear of the awesome judgment that Hashem renders on that holy day. On the other hand, says Rabbi Dessler, our avoda on Purim is to express gratitude for the hidden miracles that Hashem made to save us from the evil plot of Haman. Haman had planned to commit genocide on the whole Jewish nation. Rabbi Dessler explains that a by-product of these feelings of gratitude is-a surge of love within us towards Hashem. It comes out therefore that the relationship with Hashem that we can reach on Purim is more elevated than the relationship that we accomplish with our prayers on Yom Kippur. This is so because our relationship with Hashem on Yom Kippur is rooted in fear, whereas our closeness to Hashem on Purim results from love. It is axiomatic that loving Hashem is a greater level than fearing him. This is the meaning, says Rabbi Dessler, of the ARI'ZL's statement that Purim is on a higher level than Yom Kippur.

I find Rabbi Dessler's explanation hard to understand. According to Rabbi Dessler, the factor that makes Purim greater than Yom Kippur is the element of love, which results from our expressions of gratitude . But the expression of gratitude to Hashem for saving us from different tough spots is not something that is unique to Purim. Aren't the holidays of Passover, Sucoss, and Chanuka also about thanking Hashem for saving us miraculously? The answer to this is seemingly yes. It comes out then,that almost all holidays are greater than Yom Kippur because they are all holidays of thanks and as a result, holidays of “love”.

A third approach to explaining the ARI'ZL's formula is given by Rabbi Yoel Shwartz (in his book Yimai HaPurim page 43) based on the words of the Maharal (in his work Or Chadash on Purim). The Maharal says a terse statement. He says that on Yom Kippur we nullify (bittul) the body and on Purim we nullify the Seichel, the intellect. Rabbi Shwartz explains the intent of the Maharal as follows. It is clear how on Yom Kippur we are engaged in bittul of the body because we spend the whole day fasting, and praying barefoot. On Purim however the talmud instructs us to get so drunk that we don't know the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed Haman”. This is a very advanced state of drunkenness at which point our intellect is not functioning at all. However, when a person's intellect is no longer in control we can then perform an interesting test. We can observe his body and to see to what extent it keeps the mitzvot automatically. To the extent that a person's body keeps the Torah even though his mind is operating on a low level of functioning, proves that he has ingrained the mitzvot into the deepest parts of his subconscious. The subconscious continues to function even when he still drunk. This is considered a very high level of righteousness. Rabbi Shwartz goes on to illustrate this concept by referring to a Medrash about Dovid Ha'melech. The passuk in Tehillim 119:59 says as follows “I considered my ways and returned my feet to your testimonies”. The Medrash interprets this passuk as communicating the following idea. Dovid Ha'melech, in his capacity as king, had many affairs of state to attend to. There were many places he needed to go in order to conduct government business. However, every time Dovid Ha'melech attempted to go somewhere (“I considered my ways”), his feet automatically led him to the Beit Midrash (“returned my feet to your testimonies”). It is apparent from the Medrash that Dovid Ha'melech viewed this as a credit to himself. The fact that his body was prone to do mitzvot even though his mind (Seichel) was preoccupied with mundane matters was deemed to be a high level of righteousness. Rabbi Shwartz says that this is the level that we are striving to demonstrate when we get drunk on Purim. Mitzvot observance on Purim is litmus test. If we indeed succeed, then our Purim observance is on a higher plane than even our Yom Kippur avoda.

The previous three approaches view the ARI'ZL's adage from the perspective of the Jew. The. עובד  They focus on what the Jew can achieve on Purim, as contrasted with what his potential for acheivement on Yom Kippur is. However, my Jewish philosophy teacher, Rabbi Baruch Sungolowsky, proposes a fourth approach that understands the ARI'ZL's statement from the point of view of Hashem. The distinction between Purim and Yom Kippur can be understood as relating to Hashem's differing conduct on these two holidays.

Rabbi Sungolowsky says that in order to understand the ARI'ZL's statement, we need to first analyze the power of atonement of Yom Kippur. The Ran, in his commentary on Masechet Rosh Ha'shana (page 3a of Rif pages, dibur hamaschil כל באי עולם), asks why Hashem chose the tenth day of the month of Tishrei to be the day of atonement? The Ran answers that the tenth day of Tishrei was the day that Hashem forgave the Jews for the terrible sin of worshiping the golden calf. Since this sin was so severe (Hashem had wanted to wipe out the entire Jewish nation as a punishment for it), the fact that Hashem agreed to forgive the Jews was a tremendous manifestation of divine compassion. This caused, says the Ran, the tenth day of Tishrei to be imbued with the power of forgiveness. Therefore Hashem chose this day to be the day of forgiveness and atonement, Yom Kippur, for all generations. However it took 80 days of Moshe pleading and begging with Hashem until Hashem finally agreed on the tenth day of Tishrei to forgive the Jews.

On the other hand, the holiday of Purim commemorates an even greater level of compassion on the part of Hashem. The Peleh Yoetz (ערך פורים) points out a phenomenal thing about how the story of Purim unfolded. He cites the gemarah in Masechet Megillah (12a) which says that as a punishment for partaking in the unkosher feast of Achashverash the Jews were sentenced in heaven to extermination at the hands of Haman. Nevertheless, says the Peleh Yoetz, at the very same time that the Jews were publicly sinning and arousing G-d's anger, what was Hashem doing? Hashem was setting in motion the process that eventually led to the Jew's salvation. Hashem “arranged” for Achashverash to get drunk and make the ridiculous command that Queen Vashty his wife appear unclothed in front of his officers. This, in turn, led to Queen Vashty's execution and set the stage for Esther to fill her place. The incredible thing about this was that Hashem was showing compassion at the very moment that they were committing a sin of huge magnitude. This is a much greater display of mercy than what happened by the sin of the golden calf. The latter was mercy that came about after the sin was over, and after a long process of Moshe asking for forgiveness. In contrast, the mercy that Hashem showed on Purim was mercy during the time of the sin itself. This is a much higher level of divine mercy.

In light of this observation we can now suggest a novel explanation of the ARI'ZL's statement that Purim is greater than Yom Kippur. The ARI'ZL meant that the amount of divine mercy available on Purim is greater than the amount of divine mercy available on Yom Kippur.

Earlier I noted Rabbi Schwartz’s explanation of the ARI’ZL”S words, which was based on the Maharal in Ohr Chadash. In his sefer Tiferes Yisroel (chapter 53), the Maharal explicitly discusses the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur. The Maharal there quotes a Medrash that says that when Moshiach comes- observance of all holidays will cease, except for Purim and Yom Kippur. The Maharal explains what makes these two holidays special, such that their observance will continue even when Moshiach comes. On Purim, we celebrate our salvation from Haman’s decree to annihilate the entire Jewish people. This decree had been ratified by Heaven as punishment for the Jews’ participation in Achashverosh’s party. Therefore, when Hashem had mercy and saved the Jews, in effect He was resurrecting the dead. Similarly, on Yom Kippur, Hashem atones our sins and reverses decrees of death that He had written on Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment. Again this is a form of resurrecting the dead. Since both Purim and Yom Kippur involve-  תחייה  resurrecting the dead, they are the same מין  i.e. species of time, as the days of Moshiach when the  actual resurrection of the dead will occur. The Maharal explains that since both Purim and Yom Kippur have this attribute of “resurrection”, it is appropriate and understandable that they will remain in force during the period of the ultimate resurrection.

Like the previous pshat of Rabbi Sungolowsky, the abovementioned pshat of the Maharal demonstrates a correlation between Purim and Yom Kippur that is from the point of view of Hashem. However, this “vort” from the Maharal cannot be used to explain the ARI’ZL’s formula of Yom Kippurim=כ-פורים    “like Purim”. The ARI’ZL implies that Purim is in some sense greater than Yom Kippur. The Maharal’s vort is merely explaining how the two holidays are equal, i.e. posses a common facet     תחייה -.

A final connection between Yom Kippur and Purim is made by the Vilna Gaon (the G’ra). The G’ra cites the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua in Pesachim (68b). Rabbi Yehoshua says that the proper way for one to spend his time on the Yom Tovs is  לה',חצי לכם  חצי. This means that the day should be divided. The first half should be spent engrossed in Torah study.  This is the חצי לה' . The afternoon is when a person should rejoice in physical pleasures and have a large festive meal. This is the חצי לכם. The G’ra observes that on Yom Kippur we are not able to fulfill the imperative of     לה',חצי לכם  חצי because we fast the entire day and avoid physical pleasures completely. The G’ra explained that the counterbalance to this is Purim.  On Purim we do just the opposite. We get totally drunk and make merry the whole day. Thus, concludes the G’ra, Purim is the חצי לכם of Yom Kippur, and vice versa.

Until now I have discussed several correlations between Purim and Yom Kippur. However, Yom Kippur isn't the only holiday to which Purim is closely related. I would like to now prove that Purim also has an important connection to Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The torah says in parshas Yisro (19:17) “And they(the Jews) stood under the mountain”. The gemarah in Maseches Shabbos (88a) explains what the passuk means when it says that the Jews were under the mountain. The gemarah says that Hashem miraculously uprooted Mount Sinai from the ground and suspended it over the Jewish people. The gemarah says that Hashem exclaimed to the Jews “If you accept the Torah fine, but if not, here will be your grave”. The gemarah says that Hashem in effect coerced the Jews into accepting the Torah. The gemara even says that as a result of this coercion, the Jews had an excuse, a  מודעא רבה, for failure to observe the Torah properly. However, the gemarah tells us that later in history the Jews re-accepted the Torah of their own free will. This second acceptance occurred after the salvation from Haman's decree in the times of Purim. In Megillas Esther (9:27) it says “The Jews observed and accepted on themselves...to celebrate the holiday of Purim”. The gemarah is bothered by the order of the words in this passuk. Seemingly the correct order would be to say that the Jews accepted to keep Purim and then they observed it. The fact that the passuk switches the order is teaching us something. The gemarah says that the passuk here is teaching us that the Jews now reaffirmed what they have previously accepted back at Mount Sinai    “   קיימו וקבלו  “                           כבר"   שקבלו  מה  קיימו” . Something about the story of Purim prompted them to want to re-accept the Torah without any element of coercion. The question is, what was it  about what transpired that served as an inspiration to the Jews to accept the Torah of their own free will?

I heard the following explanation from Rabbi Sungolowsky. In megillas Esther (8:16) the passuk tells us that after Haman's plot was foiled “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” The gemarah in Maseches Megilla (16b) tells us that “light” refers to Torah. Rashi explains that Haman had made a decree that the Jews were forbidden to study Torah. When Haman's plot was foiled, and Achashverosh ordered Haman to be executed, this decree was nullified. The Jews once again were able to study the Torah. It would seem that this was the first time in Jewish history that there a prohibition against studying the Torah. Although the gemarah tells us that Mordechai and his students disregarded the decree and continued learning Torah, it seems from the passuk mentioned above that many, if not most Jews stopped learning out of fear for their lives. When the decree was nullified and the Jews started learning again they were shocked by the difference between life without the Torah and life with the Torah. The Jews realized, through their experience under Haman's decree that life without Torah is basically not a life. This filled them with a tremendous love for the Torah and inspired them to willingly commit themselves to keep the Torah.

Another theory offered by Rabbi Sungolowsky is based on fusing two pshatim, one of the Meshech Chochmah, and another of the Beis Haleivi. The Meshech Chochmah discusses what the nature of Hashem’s “coercing the Jews” to accept the Torah- actually was. He explains that the statement כפה עליהם הר כגיגת" "does not mean that Hashem literally forced the Jews into receiving the Torah by threatening them with death. Instead, what the gemara in Shabbos (88a) means is that at the time of Matan Torah, Hashem revealed Himself to the Jews with unprecedented clarity. The truth of the Torah, and its integrality to living life, was presented to the Jews in a fashion such that it was undeniable. The Jews were allowed to understand the Torah’s values to such a degree, that their bechirah to want to live a life without Torah was, as a practical matter, nullified. Thus when the gemara speaks of Hashem “coercing” the Jews, the intent is not physical, but rather intellectual.   

The spectacular clarity afforded to the Jews at Matan Torah was transient. After Matan Torah concluded, this clarity about what has real value was taken away. The Jews now had to contend with the haziness and confusion that are engendered by the gashmiyus and ta’avos of the physical world. The Jews argued that they had never agreed to observe the Torah with the handicaps of נגיעות, i.e. ulterior motives pulling them away from meticulous observance of the mitzvos, compounded by a clouded perception of what is truly important in life versus what is שקר. This is what the gemara in Shaboss (88a) is referring to, says the Meshech Chochma, when it says that the Jews had a מודעא רבה לאורייתא i.e. a valid excuse for not keeping the mitzvos of the Torah.  

In the aftermath of the salvation of Purim, everything changed. But in order to understand why, we must first examine a pshat of the   בית הלוי על התורה(Shemos pg. 62). The passuk in Megillas Esther (8:6) states that Esther pleaded to Achashveroshכי איככה אוכל וראיתי ברעה אשר ימצא את עמי, ואיככה אוכל וראיתי באבדן מולדתי. “For how can I bear to watch the evil that will befall my people? And how can I watch the destruction of my ancestral kindred?” Seemingly there is a redundancy in the language of this passuk. Why does Esther first refer to “her people” and then to her “ancestral kindred”? Aren’t these two groups one and the same?

To resolve this tautology, the Beis Haleivi posits that there were two potential catastrophes looming over the Jews as a result of Haman’s decree. The first was genocide of the Jewish people. However, says the Beis Haleivi, there was a way for a Jew to escape extermination. Any Jew who renounced his association with the Jewish people and converted to Achashverosh’s religion would not be killed. Such a person was no longer considered Jewish, and Achashverosh insisted that Haman’s decree only apply to “Jews”. Esther was deeply concerned that there would be some Jews whom, in order to save their lives, would renounce their Judaism. When Esther referred to “the evil that will befall my people” she meant the genocide of the Jews who would remain steadfast and allow themselves to be murdered על קידוש ה' . When she spoke of “the destruction of my ancestral kindred” she was talking about the Jews who would convert. This group in a sense were no longer “her people” and hence she described them with the more distant appellation of  מולדתי .

 In the end the vast majority of Jews opted not to give up their religion to save themselves. We can infer this from the words of the Talmud in -מגילה י"ד  

גדולה הסרת הטבעת יותר ממ"ח נביאים וז' נביאות...שכולן לא החזירום למוטב, ואילו הסרת הטבעת החזירתן למוטב.  . “[Achashverosh’s] removal of his signet ring [to ratify Haman’s decree of genocide of the Jews] was more effective than the rebuke of the prophets. For the latter did not succeed in getting the Jews to repent. By contrast, [the] removal of the signet ring succeeded in getting the Jews to repent”.  If only a small amount of people repented instead of converting, seemingly the Talmud wouldn’t extol the power of הסרת הטבעת! This being the case, it turns out that Purim was the first time since מתן תורה  that the Jews en mass were willing to sacrifice their lives       על קידוש ד' . And this was despite the fact that they did not have the spectacular clarity of מתן תורה  to guide them as to what was right. Through this monumental event, the Jews showed themselves that they could keep even the most difficult mitzvah of the מסירות נפש, תורה- even without the miraculous clarity of מתן תורה. This was what emboldened them to re-accept the  תורה of their own accord, קימו וקבלו .

        It comes out that although we celebrate Shavuot as the occasion when the Torah was given, Purim was also an essential part of the process of Hashem giving the Torah to the Jews. With this in mind we can now understand an instruction of the Rama in hilchos Purim. The Rama (siman 695) tells us that before beginning the Purim seudah we should study some Torah. Perhaps the reason for this is to remind ourselves of the fact that Purim is also a day of Kabbolas HaTorah. On Purim we voluntarily accepted the Torah and thereby the giving of the Torah was “completed”. In this respect Purim and Shavuot are related.

SYNOPSIS

I have shown in this paper that there is an important connection between the holidays of Purim and Yom Kippur. In order to understand this connection properly one must study the different interpretations of the ARI'ZL's teaching that states that Purim is on a higher level than Yom Kippur. I have also showed a connection between Purim and the holiday of Shavuot. Both of these chagim are days of Kabbalas Ha'torah.

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