Ramadan And Purim – OpEd


In the middle of Ramadan (March 24, 2024) this year, Jews observed the Biblical holiday of Purim. Fasting and prayer is a way of preparing to meet a major challenge. People in the Bible who faced great trials and troubles often prepared themselves through prayer and fasting. Whenever special courage, wisdom, insight or strength was needed, people who trusted in God turned to prayer and fasting. 

For example, the Jewish community in Persia once was threatened by a government sanctioned pogrom that resulted from a plot by the Persian King’s evil adviser; Haman. The Torah focuses totally on the Egyptian Pharaoh who would not let the Hebrews leave Egypt and does not mention Pharaoh’s evil advisor Haman. But his name is well known to Muslims because it occurs six times in the Qur’an (28:6, 8, 38; 29:39; 40:24, 36) 

These ayahs portray the Egyptian Haman as an official close to Pharaoh, who was in charge of building projects that Banu Israel were forced to work on. The Persian Haman organized groups of his own supporters to attack and plunder Jews throughout the Persian kingdom on the appointed day. 

When the plot was leaked, the queen, who was Jewish, although nobody in the court knew it, was asked to intercede. Before Queen Esther approached the king to ask him to spare the Jews from destruction, she asked her people to join her for three days of prayer and fasting. 

She felt that this dangerous enterprise needed prayers fortified by fasting if her effort was to be successful. Esther said, “When this is done, I will go to the king without being invited, even though it is against the rules. And if I perish, I perish,” (Esther 4:16).

Then Queen Esther approached the Persian king with confidence and boldness, and succeeded in persuading the King to reverse an edict that called for the annihilation of the Jews. Thus, Purim is a Holiday of joyous celebration. But Purim is also a terrible example from Jewish history of the danger of violent Anti-Semitism. 

In Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther), the term יהודי (Yehudi) reflects a religious affiliation (Jew) and not a political one (Judean). Thus Mordecai, although from the tribe of Benjamin, is described as a Jew (2:5) and thinks of himself as a Jew (3:4). 

In fact, the term היהודי (“the Jew”) appears in the Bible only in Megillat Esther, and only in the phrase Mordecai the Jew, which is found six times (5:13, 6:10, 8:7, 9:29, 9:31, 10:3). Similarly, when it becomes clear that the king backs the Jews, many Persians convert to become Jews; the word used is “become or make yourself Jewish” (מתיהדים; 8:17) which means joining the religious (or ethnic) group.”

As a corollary to this, Haman’s plan is to destroy Jews, not the state or nation of Judea. This is clear from Haman’s description of Jews as being spread throughout the empire, even at a time when Judea exists in the province of Yehud. 

Moreover, those who join with Haman to kill Jews are described not merely as Haman’s followers or seekers of easy plunder, but as “enemies” (אויבים) or even “haters” (שונאים) of Jews (8:13, 9:1, 5, 16). Thus, it seems clear that the megillah is describing hate filled antisemitism.

It is also important to remember and honor people who helped the victims during times of oppression and hate. For example, on November 23, 1939, Hans Frank, head of the Nazi Government General that ruled central Poland, declared that all Jews above ten years of age were to wear a white badge with a Star of David on their right arm. 

By October of 1940, almost 400,000 Polish Jews had been confined in a 3.5 square mile ghetto in Warsaw, an area which normally housed about 160,000 people. The Warsaw ghetto was surrounded by a wall 10 feet high that was sealed off on November 15, 1940. Jews were forbidden to go outside the area on penalty of being shot on sight.

One day, a young Jewish woman who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto a few days before it was sealed shut, was riding on a streetcar when Gestapo men boarded and began checking identity papers. The woman had no papers and was not wearing the Jewish star. In a panic she turned to an older Polish gentleman sitting next to her, and in a whisper begged his help. He yelled, “Foolish woman, how can you be so stupid?”

A Gestapo officer quickly walks over asking, “What is going on?” The man looks at the Jewish woman and says, “I tell her every day to remember to carry her papers with her. Now this idiot tells me she left them in the hall closet.” The Gestapo officer smiles, shrugs his shoulders and passes by.

Months later the woman tells her story to some other Jews who are also in hiding. The story survived. I do not know if the woman did. There must have been thousands of incidents like this, where a Jew was rescued and then later murdered. Thus, they have never been reported to the Israeli organization Yad V’Shem, which already has honored 7,177 (as of 1 January 2021) Polish men and women (over a quarter of the 27,921 recognized by Yad Vashem in total) who rescued Jews.

After the end of the communist oppression in Poland, a small but increasing number of Poles found out from older family members that had Jewish roots from one or more of their ancestors. Some of these Poles have been drawn to Jewish music, culture or religion and some of them have even become Jewish.

Non Jews who are drawn to Jewish life, and especially those who become Jewish, already have a (gilgul) Jewish mind/soul/temperament that they inherited from one of their own Jewish ancestors. Not everyone has a gilgul mind/soul/temperament. Many people have new ‘first time here’ mind/soul/temperaments.

Those who are certain they have no Jewish ancestors for at least five to seven generations back, may be new mind/souls; or they may be a descendent of a non-Jew who once helped rescue a Jew who was in great danger from a denouncer or a German soldier.

An example of this rare pattern of a descendent of a helpful Non-Jew becoming Jewish 3-4 generations later, occurred more than a decade ago in New York, where the great-grandson of President Roosevelt (FDR) became Jewish.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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