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Is Esther Easter ?

© 2007 Rabbi Irvin Brandwein  

Except for English and a few other Germanic languages, the word "Easter" is virtually unknown. Did you ever wonder why this Christian Holy Day is so often named after the Hebrew (Pesach) "Passover", in so many different languages?   In French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, Greek, Russian, Turkish, Aramaic, and other tongues it's not called Easter or anything like it. This Holy Day of resurrection and rebirth is called: Pax, Pascha, Paques, Pasqua, etc. all deriving from the Hebrew word for Passover (Pesach).As far as I could determine, the name "Easter" lingers on, only in some Germanic languages, perhaps because of deeply rooted, pre-Christian, pagan traditions. Most names for this Holy Day are loan words from the Hebrew for Passover, recalling the Last Supper and the springtime festival of unleavened bread celebrated by Jews since ancient times in Israel.  

The solution to this conundrum may be found in the Biblical Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim celebrated by Jewish people this year on Saturday night March 3rd. "Easter" is quite probably derived from Ishtar (or Astarte), the ancient Iranian goddess of fertility, symbolized by eggs and rabbits. Ishtar in turn, is remembered as Esther, the Jewish Queen of Persia. Since Queen Esther is actually named "Hadassah" (according to the Biblical text; Esther 2:7); a typical Hebrew name meaning "myrtle" or "myrrh", and the name of Mordecai (another non- Hebrew designation) her partner, is derived from Marduk (Persian), we must look elsewhere for the meanings of these strange appellations. Ancient Persians deified Marduk and Ishtar as consorts; the chief god and fertility goddess of the pagan, Persian, pantheon. 

Jews read this biblical book (Esther) as a comic, sarcastic and semi-serious account of Jewish adventures in Imperial Persia. In fact, Jewish Law indicates that the Book of Esther was not divinely inspired as were the other books of the Hebrew Bible. It is the only Biblical book which contains none of the sacred names of God! Uncharacteristically, when reading publicly at services, the worshipers are encouraged to make mockery and noise at the mention of the name of Purim's arch villain. Masquerades and noisemakers are part of the holiday. Jokes and pranks prevail. Purim is thus patently different from any other Jewish holiday.  

In the book of Esther we are confronted squarely with the issues of assimilation and persecution in the Jewish Diaspora. The chief protagonists are born of highly assimilated yet aristocratic, Hebrew families, who become immersed in palace plots, imperial power politics and harem intrigue. The Jewish Queen is renamed for the pagan goddess of fertility (Ishtar=Esther). Persia’s prime minister even vows explicitly to eliminate the Jewish people all throughout the Empire. Esther and Mordecai boldly outwit their persecutors and hence secure the future of Jews throughout the world.  

The book’s practical teachings are clothed in humor and mockery while the divine element remains conspicuously absent. In a sense, the Book of Esther resembles Charlie Chaplin’s film "the Great Dictator" in its relentless satire of heroic thought. It flatly rejects the concept that "might makes right" insisting instead that "right must make might" in any truly ethical society.

The Persian emperor’s (Artaxerxes II) absolute rule over the entire known world (127 countries stretching from Africa to India, Esther 1:1), his vast harem of women protected by the royal eunuchs (because others could not be trusted with this duty, Esther 2:3), his drinking problem (1:10) and other character flaws all underscore and mock the corruption engendered by his absolute power. 

Thousands of years later, the Persian Gulf region continues to produce leaders who espouse extreme hatred, virulent prejudice and even advocate genocide (while simultaneously denying a thoroughly documented, European holocaust). Current Iranian threats seem to parallel those of Purim’s villains. How ironic it is that (as was clearly demonstrated by Prof. Bernard Lewis, the eminent historian) so much vital information regarding the illustrious glory of ancient, pre-Islamic Iran, is known to history only because it was preserved in the Hebrew Bible! (see his magisterial work "History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented", Princeton University Press, 1975, pp.32-41).  

Indeed, the very name of the holiday "Purim", (lottery) suggests that life can be viewed as a risky gamble with unpredictable vicissitudes and extreme and sudden reversals. A prisoner in chains, who has been marked for death, can later attain high office and power as Mordecai ultimately does. 

In our own day, Americans of Jewish ancestry like Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, who were born in Nazi occupied Europe, eventually escaped and subsequently reached the pinnacle of prestige and influence here in the U.S. In the case of the latter, Secretary Albright's religious identity, like Queen Esther's, was kept secret. 

Jewish tradition prescribes a unique tone and tune for the public chanting of the Book of Esther (K'igerret), which means that the scroll is to be read as an epistle or as correspondence. This seems to indicate that the message of Esther is always timely, current and relevant.

Posted on January 24, 2007


©2007 Irvin Brandwein, Rabbi (Beth Sholom Congregation, Johnstown, PA)

Why do so many of us immediately recognize the names of Eichmann, Mengele and Goebbels and yet do not seem to be acquainted with Ho, Lutz, Sugihara and Zwartendijk? Why do we neglect the memories of the righteous rescuers and focus almost exclusively on the sadistic criminals? Has some pathology seized hold of our minds, riveting us before the phenomena of obscenity, ugliness and evil?

It is now already high time to re-balance our perspective and focus instead on stories of nobility, sacrifice and righteousness which survive from the ashes. This alone can serve as a balm for bruised souls and bring some measure of healing to those who have been battered by a sense of utter betrayal. Only this can empower survivors to transmit an ethical code to future generations. To date, the Visas for Life Foundation has identified more than 75 diplomats from 23 different countries who took great personal risks to rescue tens of thousands of innocent lives from certain death during the Holocaust.

Since the brutal elimination of nearly forty percent of the world’s Jewish gene pool makes it virtually impossible to assess the magnitude and immensity of our people’s loss, the story of these righteous diplomats must be told. Emanating from the most diverse backgrounds—China, Germany, Japan, Turkey, Poland, the Vatican, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, the United States, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Portugal, Bulgaria, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, El Salvador, etc.—these diplomats often suffered severe consequences for their acts of moral courage. 

It is time for us to acknowledge that these individuals are true moral and spiritual heroes of the twentieth century. Let us make them into the role models and paradigms of goodness and character for our youth rather than some of the debased performers and athletes who currently captivate the minds and hearts of our children. The monumental and emblematic celebration of the Passover Seder teaches us that unless one specifically mentions and analyzes the three symbols of: the sacrificial lamb, the unleavened bread and the bitter herb (maror), then one has failed to fulfill his/her religious obligation. By directing us to focus on the bitterness last, Judaism is prescribing a procedure for saving our system of ethics from corrosion and collapse; saving our very souls from cynicism, mistrust and even hatred. We must put the bitterness last!

The memory of these heroes is essential to restoring some semblance of balance and equanimity to Jewish emotional and spiritual life. While we are doubtless obligated to remember the inhumanity and the sadistic evil of so many individuals, it is imperative that we learn, celebrate, recite and transmit the goodness contained in these true stories! We desperately need to. Compared to the notoriously evil criminals we all seem like pure saints and righteous, unblemished angels.

The crucial question must be: How do we compare to those individuals who took great personal risks, jeopardizing their lives, families and careers, in order to rescue innocent lives?

THE PURPOSE OF THE SYNAGOGUE (In Pre-Modern, Sefardic Culture): If One Hurts, We All Must Hurt! 

©2007 Irvin Brandwein, Rabbi (Beth Sholom Congregation, Johnstown, PA)

A cursory reading of the Rabbinical, responsa literature emanating from the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through the 19th centuries, clearly suggests that the chief purpose of a synagogue is not to honor God! That goal is better achieved by the works of creation. As King David pointed out in the Book of Psalms: " The heavens declare the Honor of God". According to this mind set, the purpose of a synagogue is to honor every single Jew who enters regardless of who they may be. No matter what station one occupies outside of the temple, once one crosses the threshold of the sanctuary he/she will be recognized as a Jew in synagogue; that is a being of spiritual elegance who has persevered in the ancestral faith. Having resisted the temptations, blandishments and pressures to leave the fold he/she is therefore an individual of rank and excellence. Having withstood the penalties and persecutions aimed at forcing him to convert, he possesses status and dignity. 

As we all know, nine learned and observant rabbis cannot constitute a minyan (prayer quorum). However, when that tenth individual arrives, regardless of who or what he/she is, we may open the Holy Ark and conduct the statutory prayers of the Hebrew worship service. The status and dignity of the individual is what Judaism is all about. Perhaps the Biblical categories of Priest, Levite, etc. reinforce our awareness of our unique roles and differences. Some Jews are more charitable, some more honest and ethical, some are more scrupulous regarding the dietary laws, some more careful about the sabbath, some are more committed to Israel while others are more devoted to Jewish life in the Diaspora, some more vigilant in combating the enemy, others more devoted to maintaining interfaith relations and in building bridges to non-Jews. We urgently need every type of Jew and cannot afford to ignore even one single member of the House of Israel. The Passover Haggadah , that most emblematic of Rabbinic, religious texts, defines our "wicked son" as: "Kaffar ba’ikkar hotzee et atzmo...." the one who divorces himself entirely from any and all connection to the Jewish community.

The Sages permitted us to pray outdoors because the works of creation are the supreme singers of God’s glory and they can best teach us how to praise His ineffable Name. By choosing to pray indoors and to establish a synagogue, the Jewish people have founded an institution whose explicit goal is the granting of honor to every single Jew. The Hebrew concept of " Kevod Hatzibbur" (the dignity of the congregation) is designed to transform each one of us into spiritual aristocrats. Rather than to dwarf modern Jews in the shadow of a glorious, irretrievable and perhaps somewhat fictitious past, the goal of the synagogue is to convert him into a nobleman (i.e. an "Hidalgo").

A kind of metamorphosis bordering on science fiction comes about upon entering the synagogue. No sooner has one crossed the threshold than one is transformed into an individual of excellence, recognized by all Jews for his worth and position. Outside the synagogue, one could be a porter or stevedore, doing work normally assigned to a beast of burden, but upon entering the synagogue he will be cherished and respectfully greeted by all the members of the congregation. In deference to him, all younger worshipers will rise as a token of respect. When he is called to the Torah, his entire family remains standing in the pew until he descends the bimah and returns to his regular place.

Such customs and practices reinforce and enhance the human and spiritual self esteem of every Jew. This concept of synagogue/community is an organic one. As in the human body, if one vital organ does not function properly then the entire system is compromised and threatened. So it was in the synagogue. When inequity has been perpetrated, the community of the synagogue becomes immediately occupied with resolving the injustice. The classical example given is that of the recalcitrant husband who refuses to grant the Jewish writ of divorce to his wife. The entire Jewish community would respond. All scribes would refuse to prepare, repair or sell him mezuzot or tefillin (phylacteries). The butcher would sell him no meat. The rabbinic court would refuse to hear any of his claims in the business or commercial realm. In synagogue he could receive no honors. 

The solidarity of such a community clearly demonstrates that if one member is hurt, we all must hurt. Conversely, if one enjoys the blessings of good fortune, the entire synagogue community must share in his/her celebration. Based upon rabbinic sources from Ottoman Greece and Turkey, this seems to be the chief purpose of the synagogue.

October 2004
by Irvin Brandwein, Rabbi (Beth Sholom Congregation, Johnstown, PA) 

Jewish Mysticism (Kaballah) interprets the physical dimension of human life through  analogy with the Sukkah ( our autumnal harvest booth). Like our bodies, the sukkah must be a temporary home providing us with shelter/residence for seven days (i.e. 70 years). According to law the sukkah must be weak, frail and temporary; subject to wind and weather as is the human body. The law specifies that the sukkah must be made of material which grew from the earth but is no longer attached to the soil. However, we are commanded to beautify, decorate, adorn and enjoy the sukkah just as we are to derive  pleasure  from the physical aspects of life. In fact, the law stipulates :“MITZTA-ER; PATTUR MIN HA-SUKKA”; meaning that if inhabiting the Sukka becomes painful or uncomfortable (e.g. insects, bees, storms, rainfall, etc.) then we are exempt from the law to dwell in it.

At the end of the final harvest, the Israelite farmer gathered all of his crops, gave thanks to God, assisted the poor, rejoiced, brought offerings and celebrated this festival. As he stored up his produce for the approaching winter, he read the book of “Ecclesiastes” to be reminded of the flight of time and the tenuousness of life. Inevitably, the day arrives when each of us MUST LEAVE OUR SUKKAH and thus abandon our temporary physical home.

On the Hebrew Calendar, the day of leaving the Sukkah is named SIMCHAT TORAH; celebrating the completion of the Torah scroll. Although we acknowledge that one can NEVER complete the Torah because it is infinite and inexhaustible; finishing reading the Torah can have another meaning.  It may mean attaining complete knowledge. Leaving the Sukka; our physical death; coincides with concluding our own “book of life”. Kaballah describes this realization of total knowledge as “bathing in the divine light effulgent, beyond the realm of contradictions”.  It is described as “ a light by which one can glimpse the entire cosmos” (Midrash; Genesis Rabbah).

The knowledge which must elude us in the Sukkah (during our lives) can be attained only when we have completed the Torah and left the Sukkah (our physical bodies). Indeed, a discussion in the Talmud refers to categories of knowledge/study  which may not be pursued while inhabiting the Sukkah (“Bar Mimm’tellata”). For the father of  Kabballah, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Hilloulah (wedding, Chuppah or Sukkah) implies mortality. Our relationship with God cannot become intimate until we leave the Sukkah (our bodies) and enter the Chuppah with God  ! Our tradition also locates the ritual of USHPIZZIN (from the Latin “hospice”) in the Sukkah. A multitude of religious traditions and after-death experiences all refer to light and Scriptures say: “The lamp of God is the human soul.”

Our Torah scroll is the focus of ritual adoration. It is: decorated, adorned, dressed, undressed, carried, embraced, bejewelled, paraded, saluted, bowed down to, kissed, hugged, danced with and ultimately married (on Simchat Torah) . The Torah is even mourned as a person. Upon witnessing the burning of a Torah one may rend one’s garments and the scroll is even accorded rites of burial!!

“Ein Mukdam  U’me’uchar Batorah” taught the sages; meaning that the Torah does not take into account any chronological considerations. Its synchronicity is without limits unlike the diachronic books of the West. This teaching is illustrated annually on Simchat Torah when a symbolic wedding is staged in the synagogue with bridegrooms binding the conclusion of Deuteronomy to the beginning of Genesis (sections which have no logical or apparent connection) .FONTP

We can now unravel a famous Hebrew riddle pertaining to the primeval light of creation established by God on the first day of cosmic history: “Let there be light and there was light”. WHAT SORT OF LIGHT COULD PRE-EXIST ANY SUN, MOON OR STAR which were not yet to come into being for three more days? Scriptures specify that the original light required “Havdallah” i.e. separation. It did not contradict the darkness. It was a light in which there are no contradictions. A light which we, who must live with contradictions, cannot see. It is the whole or total knowledge attained only upon completing the Torah, leaving the Sukkah and entering the Chuppah with God. Kabbalah teaches : “Or ganuz le’atid Lavo…” God hid this emanation of primeval light for the future when there will be none of the contradictions which plague and torment humankind. We, who can possess only fragmentary knowledge, hope for a future reward of wholeness or completion (ALLAV HA-Shalom). Happy Sukkot!


The famous Viennese composer, Arnold Schoenberg (died 1951) was invited to join the faculty of the prestigious Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany in 1923 by the artist Vassily Kandinsky. When Schoenberg hesitated to accept the “honor” because Jews were not wanted at the school, Kandinsky assured him that an exception would be made in his case. What follows is Schoenberg’s reply:  

………when I walk along the street and each person looks at me to see whether I’m a Jew or a Christian, I can’t very well tell each of them that I’m the one that Kandinsky and some others make an exception of, although of course, that man Hitler is not of their opinion. And then, even then this benevolent view of me wouldn’t be of much use to me even if I were, like blind beggars, to write it on a piece of cardboard and hang it around my neck for everyone to read……I ask: why do people say that the Jews are like what their black-marketeers are like ? Do people also say that the Aryans are like their worst elements? Why is an Aryan judged by Goethe, Schopenhauer and so forth? Why don’t people say that the Jews are like Mahler, Altenberg, Schoenberg and many others? And yet, you join in that sort of thing and reject me as a Jew. Did I ever offer myself to you? Do you think that someone like myself lets himself be rejected! Do you think that a man who knows his own value grants anyone the right to criticize even his most trivial qualities? Who might it be anyway, who could have such a right? How can a Kandinsky approve of my being insulted? How can he associate himself with politics that aim at bringing about the possibility of excluding me from my natural sphere of action? How can he refrain from combating a view of the world whose aim is St. Bartholomew’s nights in the darkness of which no one will be able to read the little placard saying that I’m exempt ! But what is anti-Semitism to lead to if not acts of violence ? Is it so difficult to imagine that? You are perhaps satisfied with depriving Jews of their civil rights. Then certainly, Einstein, Mahler, I and many others will have been gotten rid of. But one thing is certain: they will not be able to exterminate those much tougher elements thanks to whose endurance Jewry has maintained itself unaided against the whole of mankind for twenty centuries……….(1923)    

A law of  thermodynamics called “entropy” is concerned with the tendency of systems towards disorder, chaos and breakdown. The genius of Torah is its anticipation of such ruptures and its provision for repairing and healing them; most notably KIPPUR-Atonement. Jewish legend reports that Moses ascended the mountain on the first of Elul remaining there for forty days. This brings him back to the people precisely on Yom Kippur. In the camp he finds that a violent mob has taken over the nation, made a golden idol and worshiped it with orgiastic rituals. Moses then shatters the tablets and begins a tense and urgent dialogue with God; a conversation which will ultimately yield some of the most precious, sublime and enduring elements of any religious tradition: repentance, atonement, forgiveness. In the midst of this terrible crisis Moses speculates (U-LAI  AKHAPP’RA ?) and then discovers that the rupture can be healed. There is a mechanism for repair.It is called Kippur; atonement/Teshuva/Repentance. When God declares: “Leave Me be and I will destroy them”, Moses infers that if he wont leave God alone, then he might be able to avert the harsh decree. Indeed, it is the supreme Judge who invites us to intercede on behalf of sinners. Moses then begs to see God’s face (PANIM) and the Hebrew methodology for atonement is established through the revelation of 13 Divine attributes: Forgiveness, Mercy, Tolerance, Lovingkindness, Compassion, Truth etc. These constitute the essence of God’s character which Moses, alone among all prophets, beheld as if in a brilliant looking-glass (B’Espaklariah May-eera). These are attributes which we are obligated to imitate and put into practice in our own lives. (God only allows His back (AHOR)to be seen;  not His face. “Face” always indicates the exterior-- except in Hebrew; where it means the opposite i.e. P’NIM. Students of Hebrew will also recognize these words as time-space containers i.e. LIFNAY & AHA-RAY).

During this season we wish one another “inscription in the Book”. Conversely, “erasure from the book” (Yimach Sh’mo)is the most obscene curse known to Jews. For us, the Book is the universe and the universe is the book. Life, the world and the book must signify, contain truth, be decoded, interpreted and subject to rigorous hermeneutics. The Talmud refers to the alphabet with which God created the universe (Berakhot 55a). As the ”writing of God”, life and the world must be accessible and meaningful via reading and interpretation. The pagan gods were gods of action. They denigrated writing and despised the scribes. The Hebrew God writes. That most problematic of Jewish writers, Theodore Lessing (born 1872 and murdered by the Gestapo) once remarked that if God were to declare that in His right hand He held the truth and in His left hand, the investigation of the truth; Lessing would ask for the investigation of the truth. A truth that can be “dis-covered” or “un-veiled” excludes human participation. It is “aletheia” or Greek truth. For Jews, truth or meaning is not part of the text. It must be generated by the reader sincerely confronting the book. Perhaps herein lies our most profound difference with Christianity. By teaching that God’s word (logos) had become flesh, John was exchanging the writable logos of the Hebrews for the revealing logos of the Greeks. Flesh is unwritable. Philosophers call it apophansis. Flesh can be contemplated but unlike the Torah, it cannot be read or interpreted.  As people of the book we have a duty to acquire the Hebrew language and thereby confront God directly and without intermediary, in every single word of scriptures. There we find our ancestors and everything which surrounded them. Moses and the prophets offer themselves as food for the living. ”Thou shalt have no other God(s) before Me” means that Judaism tolerates no intermediary between the individual and the Creator. Yom Kippur is the day to stand naked, stripped of all pretense, before the supreme Judge.

The Hebrew word for Book, SEFER; (scroll, count, number, write) indicates the circularity of the scroll which can have neither beginning nor end. This word SEFER enters Arabic as SIFR (i.e. ZERO); the great mathematical innovation of the middle ages, creating the decimal system and eventually liberating the West from the burdensome system of Roman numerals.  

Ultimately, SEFER enters English as “cipher” meaning to calculate. In Sanhedrin, the Talmud defines the Scribes, (SOFERIM) as those who counted every single letter in the Torah. Every letter has a numerical value and hence Torah also speaks mathematically. This forms the basis of Hebrew Kaballah (SEFIROT), inaugurated with the widely misunderstood enigma: “With 3 SEFER(S) was the universe created”. The Book/Universe must be interpreted and surrendered again to each new generation along with the keys necessary to decode and process its meaning. Tradition-Messora-literally means; to register, surrender, hand down or deliver a scroll(sefer), with the vowels or keys necessary for its understanding.

Everything in the cosmic book must have meaning and like any truly great author creating his own world, God must be everywhere present and also simultaneously, totally hidden! In the jargon of post-structuralist, literary theory, this is called “omnipresence and dissimulation”. The unknowability of God is that precise distance which must separate every literary figure from his/her author. Hamlet can never see Shakespeare. God’s warning to Moses: “You cannot see my face and live”, expresses this absolute, mysterious distance. For the new year let us join in the prayer of the Psalmist: “ In Thy book, Oh Lord, may all my members be written.” (Ps. 139:16) 

Changing the Halakha
Judaism,  Fall, 2001  by Irvin Brandwein

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            Last revised on 03/16/2007