Kosher Bookworm

On Shabbos Zachor: Remembering to remember


Rabbi Daniel Rose wrote the following that will serve as the keynote to this week’s essay:

“These days of Purim,” the Book of Esther says, “should be remembered and celebrated.” On the Shabbos before Purim, we read about the Torah’s instructions that we never forget the cowardly attacks of Amalek, the primordial nemesis of the Jewish people.

“Remember” — This Shabbat is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of remembering.

“Even wine, the beverage which seems to feature in every significant event in the Purim story, is associated by the Torah with memory. ‘Its memory was like wine’ [Hosea, 14:8]. Clearly, there is something special about Purim and memory.”

Distinguished historian Dr. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote a short yet profound book entitled, “Zakhor: Jewish History & Jewish Memory” (Schocken Books,1982). Yerushalmi details his views concerning the role that memory has within the relationship that the Jewish people with the history of their faith and theology.

There is a custom among our people for communities to celebrate the anniversary of their redemption from imminent destruction. These special commemoratives are cast for the most part in the mold of “Second Purims” with their tone and themes thus resembling the atmospherics of a Purim celebration.

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Yerushalmi makes much reference to these and I will cite below some of his, and other citations, to enrich your appreciation of both the theme of Purim and of its special influence on our people in years past, when tragedy “almost” struck. Consider this:

“Second Purims” were instituted in Jewish communities the world over to commemorate a deliverance from some danger or persecution. I will cite only a few random examples, merely to indicate their diffusion and variety of circumstances that could give birth to them.

Thus, in Muslim Spain in the year 1038 a battle was fought near the village of El Fuente by the armies of Granada and Almeria. The vizier of the Kingdom of Granada was a Jew, the great poet and, scholar, and statesman, Samuel Ibn Nagrela, the only instance in the Middle Ages where a Jew occupied such a position of power.

He had ample reason to fear that should Granada be defeated it would mean not only his personal downfall, but that of the entire Jewish community. Accordingly, when the Granadan forces were victorious he declared a Second Purim, and sent forth copies of a magnificent Hebrew poem he had composed for the occasion to Tunis, Palestine, and Babylonia, asking that the Purim be celebrated there as well.

Yerushalmi continues with citations of similar Second Purims in Narbonne, France, in 1236, Syracus, Sicily in either 1380 or 1420, and in Morocco in 1578.I leave it to the reader to check out the details to these events.

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Yerushalmi continues with the following relevant observations and one last citation that I am sure will peak your interest:

A great many other “Purims” are known, and almost all of them share certain common features. Unlike the original, biblical Purim, these never became national holidays. They were always local in character or, at most, they were observed over a certain geographic area. For all of them the original Purim served as a paradigm, and the new events were interpreted accordingly.

Apart from certain additional prayers the most distinctive aspect of these Purims was the composition of a megillah, narrating the events, consciously modeled in style, structure, and even language upon the Scroll of Esther.

With the Pesach holiday just one month away the following example of a Second Purim observance and its locale should prove to be of interest:

In 1524 the governor of Egypt Ahmed Shaitan revolted against the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, imprisoned twelve prominent Jews in an effort to extort money, and threatened to annihilate all the Jews of Cairo. His revolt, however, was crushed by the sultan’s forces and he was beheaded. These events gave rise to the “Egyptian Purim,” celebrated each year on the 28th of Adar with the public reading of the so-called Megillat Mizrayim.

If you think that an Egyptian Purim sounds rather strange, consider another Second Purim commemorative more contemporaneous to our times. The renowned Holocaust historian, Dr. Rafael Medoff, penned an excellent and most informative essay about a “Hitler Purim,” entitled, “Megillat Hitler, FDR, and the Jews.”

Medoff begins his narrative as follows:

Among the more remarkable documents of the Holocaust is a scroll, created in North Africa in 1942, called “Megillat Hitler.” Written in the style of Megillat Esther and the Purim story, it celebrates the Allies’ liberation of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, which saved the local Jewish communities from the Nazis. …

The Jewish community of Casablanca, for its part, declared the day of the 1942 Allied liberation “Hitler Purim” and a local scribe, P. Hassine, created the “Megillat Hitler.”

The seven chapters of the scroll poignantly blend the flavor of the tale of ancient Persia with the amazing stroke of fortune that the Jews of Casablanca had themselves just experienced. It uses phrases straight from the Megillat Esther, such as ‘the month which was turned from sorrow to rejoicing’ and ‘the Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor’, side by side with modern references such as “Cursed be Hitler” and “Cursed be Mussolini.”

It should be noted that this “megillah” has been on public display to this day at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.

Bar Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center published an essay entitled “Measure for Measure in Biblical and Modern Times” by Dr. Dov Levitan wherein he cites the haftarah for Shabbat Zachor from the Book of Samuel a contemporary reference of a modern application of ‘measure for measure’.

Citing the great scholar Prof. David Flusser’s quote comparing the shared hate filled legacies of Haman and Hitler (Haggim u-Mo’adim, 1980) Levitan shares with us, in detail, the justice meted out to the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Hoess. Even unto the very last days of the war Hoess saw to it, personally, to the extermination of 430,000 Hungarian Jews.

After war’s end he hid out for ten months until he was finally captured by British troops on the 8th of Adar, right before Purim, 1946. He was tried and executed a year later. Levitan notes in his sad conclusion, “To our great misfortune, the Nazis succeeded in their wicked plot and no miracle of Purim took place during the Holocaust.” This full essay merits your attention.

May I take this opportunity to extend to you my dear readers my best wishes for a meaningful, joyous and safe Purim.

A version of this column was originally published in 2013.