The Book And The Festival (2)


As I mentioned last time, Purim is not among the holidays that God ordered Israel to keep – you won’t find it in Leviticus 23. Why do we even celebrate it then? What is the message of Purim, what is the message of this profound and prophetic book—Megillat Esther?

The answer to this question might surprise you at first: The book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that does not explicitly mention God! What?! So why is it in the Bible, anyway? Why was it included in the canon, in the first place? And here we come to a point of great importance. This book was included in the canon because, in fact, it is all about God.  The word “God” doesn’t appear openly in the book because oftentimes God remains hidden in our lives—until we recognize Him and His handwriting in the circumstances and events that unfold. Yes, it sometimes happens that God’s salvation comes as a miracle, defying natural laws (like in the book of Daniel, for instance). However more often than not, divine salvation is “disguised” in ordinary events – “hidden” in what can be perceived as a series of “coincidences” – as we have uncovered here in the book of Esther. Even the name of this book – Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) – is very profound and reflects this amazing dynamic between hidden and revealed: the name Esther (אסתר) is probably related to the word nistar: “hidden” “concealed”; while the word Megillah is probably related to the word megaleh: “reveal”. So, even the words Megillat Esther can literally be translated as “the Revelation of the Hidden” – and this is the amazing name of this amazing book!

Do you know who else in the Torah had a very similar name? In Gen. 41:45 we read: “Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah.” The meaning of this name is not clear, and to this day there has not been an interpretation accepted by all. The ancient Jewish interpretive tradition, however, derives the name Zapheath-Paneah from Hebrew (and not Egyptian) roots:פִּעְנֵחַ  צפן (paneah and tsaphan). So what are the meanings of these roots? Tzaphan means to hide, treasure or store up. We find a good example in the well-known words of Ps.119: Thy Word have I hid in mine heart… (In Hebrew, it is:בְּ֭לִבִּי צָפַ֣נְתִּי  Belibi tsaphanti…).  Paneach means to decipher; to figure out, solve, decode, interpret. Thus, Zaphenath-Pa’neach, the Egyptian name of Joseph, might be translated as: “He who explains hidden things”—and that really could be the name that Pharaoh would give to Joseph: after all, he did explain Pharaoh’s dreams. However, this interpretation also has an additional and deeper meaning. The name might be also translated as “The Revelation of the Hidden” – which would describe very well, not only Pharaoh’s understanding of Joseph, but the entirety of God’s plan with Joseph. This is what the story of Joseph is all about.

The Book of Esther is also about God’s plan and God’s mystery: the mystery of the God being hidden/revealed/recognized. The evil is reversed, and that’s how God reveals Himself in these stories—that is how He is recognized. But first, both Joseph and Esther needed to trust God completely; first they had to understand that their lives were in His hands – and only then, through their lives, in a seemingly “natural” way God intervened and changed history forever.

PURIM – 1953

Last year, we spoke about the incredible events of 1946 – “Purim Fest 1946”, as one of the Nazi criminals, Julius Streicher, a key Nazi propagandist and the publisher of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer, screamed before he was hanged (if you don’t know this story, here is the link to my Purim post from the last year: Today, I am going to share with you a no less amazing story of Purim- 1953.

It happened in communist Russia. In 1948, Joseph Stalin, rapidly changing his earlier policy of support for “proletarian Jewish culture,” launched a campaign to destroy whatever was left of this culture. Thousands of Jews were arrested and tortured. I would never forget the horrors described by my friend’s father who was among those thousands – he was only 18 at the time. Arrested Jews were charged with treason, Jewish bourgeois nationalism, espionage and working for America. Many of them were tortured into making confessions.  Those who were not executed were sent to the prisons and concentration camps in freezing regions of Russia.

1953 marked the beginning of Stalin’s infamous Doctor’s Plot: the Soviet newspapers were full of horrible articles “exposing” and “disclosing” Jewish doctors who were poisoning Russian children and killing the infants. Six Jewish doctors were arrested and tortured into making a confession. After that, Stalin’s plan to eliminate Russia’s Jews (around 3 million), by deporting them to the uninhabitable regions of Soviet Union, was presented as a merciful act of protecting them “from the righteous wrath and vengeance of Russian people”. The deportation of the Jews had to begin on the sixth of March, 1953.

In 1953, Purim fell on March 1. In his autobiography, To Remain a Jew, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilber recalls reading the Book of Esther to a group of Jewish prisoners in the camp. He writes about the reaction of one of these prisoners: “Who needs your tales about what happened 2,500 years ago? Tell me, where is your God today? It’s not enough that Hitler finished six million – here they are about to be done with another three. Do you not see the trains and the barracks that have already been built (for this purpose)?” Rabbi Zilber replied, “True, our situation is difficult, but don’t be so quick to eulogize us. Haman also sent orders to 127 provinces. God will yet help…. Stalin is a mere mortal… no one can know what will be with him in a half hour.” (pg. 236- 237)

That Purim night, just a few days before the scheduled trial of the Jewish doctors and literally half an hour after Rabbi Silver’s words, Stalin had a stroke. Thousands of Jewish prisoners were freed. Joseph Stalin died on March 5, just a few days later, to the great relief of Soviet Jews.

This is yet another example of the modern day Purim story. Oftentimes it is only in hindsight that we can clearly see God acting in the history of our world, or in our lives. The Book of Esther tells us that we don’t need to be discouraged if we don’t “feel” God’s hand in our lives right now. We don’t have to ask: “Where is your God today?”  One day we will look back and clearly see God’s hand in hindsight. The day will come when you will experience “the revelation of the hidden” God – just as Esther or Joseph experienced Him in their lives.


I wanted to let you know that my  book “Unlocking the Scriptures” is published already    and is available on Amazon:

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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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