The Origins of Purim and Its Assyrian Name
In the book of Esther, the name for the holiday Purim derives from Haman’s pūr (פּוּר, “lot”) to determine what day to attack the Jews. The name Purim predates the story of Haman’s lot, and may originate in a forgotten Assyrian calendrical celebration, when the new year was named with a pūru.
אסתר / Esther Scroll Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. heb. 4. By famous engraver Shalom Italia, Amsterdam, c 1641.
Why is the holiday called Purim? According to the Megillah, the holiday gets its name because the villain of the story, Haman, chose the date to attack the Jews based on a lot (3:7, 9:24), called a pur, which gives the holiday its name (9:26).
This explanation is strange, since the pur or lot seems to be a tangential element in the story. The main point is that Haman appointed a day during which the Jews should be killed; which day and how it was chosen would not seem to matter much. Why would the holiday be named based on this story element?
The War in Chapter 9
The book of Esther is set in the early Persian Period, and was likely written during the late Persian Period. Although its author seems to be quite familiar with the Achaemenid court and its customs, the book of Esther is almost certainly not a historical account of the early years of Xerxes’ rule. It includes many fantastic twists and turns, and other literary markers that typify historical fiction than historiography.
The ninth chapter of the Megillah is a little different. It is not a fast paced, character-driven narrative, but a lengthy and repetitive description of a war between Jews and their enemies. This might suggest that the chapter did not originate as an organic part of the Esther and Mordechai story but may be a hyperbolic telling of a historical pogrom against diaspora Jews in Achaemenid Persia, which the Jews won. If this is correct, this incident would be the only evidence for hostility directed against diaspora Jews in the pre-Hellenistic world, and thus, might explain why such an incident stood out and merited a holiday.
As the battle is said to have occurred on the 13th of Adar, which extended into the 14th in the city of Shushan (Susa), the 14th and 15th of Adar are to be celebrated as a festival called Purim. But this theory is problematic, or at least incomplete, as it leaves the name of the holiday unexplained.
Haman’s Lot as Supplemental
Haman’s lot is mentioned three times in the book of Esther, each time interrupting the flow of the story. The first mention is when Haman becomes angry with Mordechai and wishes to convince the king to kill all the Jews:
|אסתר ג:ו וַיִּבֶז בְּעֵינָיו לִשְׁלֹח יָד בְּמָרְדֳּכַי לְבַדּוֹ כִּי הִגִּידוּ לוֹ אֶת עַם מָרְדֳּכָי וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הָמָן לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בְּכָל מַלְכוּת אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ עַם מָרְדֳּכָי.||Esth 3:6 But he disdained to lay hands on Mordechai alone; having been told who Mordechai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews, Mordechai’s people, throughout the kingdom of Ahasuerus.|
|ג:ו בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן הוּא חֹדֶשׁ נִיסָן בִּשְׁנַת שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הִפִּיל פּוּר הוּא הַגּוֹרָל לִפְנֵי הָמָן מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם וּמֵחֹדֶשׁ לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר הוּא חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר.||3:7 In the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur – which means “the lot” – was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar.|
|ג:ח וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ…||3:8 Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm…”|
The text reads smoothly without v. 7: Haman plots to destroy all the Jews (v. 6) and goes to Ahasuerus to start the process rolling (v. 8). Moreover, the placement of v. 7 here is strange: Why would Haman cast the lot before he even spoke to the king? The verse was likely been added later by an editor looking to connect the name of the holiday to the story in an integral way.
Haman’s Lot and the Two Days of Purim
The other two references to the lot, which come at the end of the story, also show signs of being redactional. In this section, Mordechai writes a letter to all the Jews of Persia, telling them to keep the 14th and 15th of Adar as a holiday celebrating their victory over their enemies, and the Jews accept Mordechai’s request.
The basic structure of the passage is built around the claim “the Jews accepted” which appears in v. 23 and is repeated in v. 27 in a resumptive repetition (Wiederaufnahme). See especially the bolded words in both verses:
|אסתר ט:כג וְקִבֵּל הַיְּהוּדִים אֵת אֲשֶׁר הֵחֵלּוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר כָּתַב מָרְדֳּכַי אֲלֵיהֶם…||Esth 9:23 Accordingly, the Jews assumed as an obligation that which they had begun to practice and which Mordechai prescribed for them…|
|ט:כז קִיְּמוּ (וקבל) [וְקִבְּלוּ] הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל זַרְעָם וְעַל כָּל הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה.||9:27 the Jews undertook and obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, irrevocably, to observe these two days in the manner prescribed and at the proper time each year.|
The intervening verses (vv. 24-26) briefly describe the story of the holiday, with the explanations for the name (indented) seemingly grafted on:
|ט:כד כִּי הָמָן בֶּן הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי צֹרֵר כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים חָשַׁב עַל הַיְּהוּדִים לְאַבְּדָם||9:24 For Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the foe of all the Jews, had plotted about the Jews, to exterminate them,|
|וְהִפִּיל פּוּר הוּא הַגּוֹרָל לְהֻמָּם וּלְאַבְּדָם.||and had cast pur — that is, the lot —with intent to crush and to exterminate them.|
|ט:כה וּבְבֹאָהּ לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אָמַר עִם הַסֵּפֶר יָשׁוּב מַחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר חָשַׁב עַל הַיְּהוּדִים עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וְתָלוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת בָּנָיו עַל הָעֵץ.||9:25 But when [Esther] came before the king, he commanded: “With the promulgation of this decree, let the evil plot, which he devised against the Jews, recoil on his own head!” So they impaled him and his sons on the stake.|
|ט:כו עַל כֵּן קָרְאוּ לַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה פוּרִים עַל שֵׁם הַפּוּר||9:26 Therefore, these days were named Purim, after pur.|
|עַל כֵּן עַל כָּל דִּבְרֵי הָאִגֶּרֶת הַזֹּאת וּמָה רָאוּ עַל כָּכָה וּמָה הִגִּיעַ אֲלֵיהֶם. ט:כז קִיְּמוּ (וקבל) [וְקִבְּלוּ] הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם…||Therefore, in view of all the instructions in the said letter and of what they had experienced in that matter and what had befallen them, 9:27 the Jews undertook and obligated themselves…|
Both references to the pur seem to have been added artificially to tie the name Purim into the story. The underlined words repeat phrases from the text they are supplementing, and thus help camouflage the additions and make them feel seamless.
I am suggesting that the name Purim for this holiday predates the explanation that Haman picked the day for the attack by lot, a secondary explanation that developed once the Jews no longer knew why the day was called Purim. Such post-facto, folk explanations for names are common in the Bible. But if Purim is not really named after Haman’s lots, what does the name reflect?
An Akkadian (not Persian!) Term
The Megillah recognizes that the word pūr (פור) is foreign, and translates it into Hebrew, as “lot” (גורל, Esth 3:7, 9:24). Traditional commentators have assumed that pūr was the Persian word for lot. We now know that this is incorrect, and derive the word from the Akkadian pūru, itself borrowed from the Sumerian BUR, meaning “plate” or “bowl.” In the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian it means also “lot, portion,” probably reflecting the use of such a utensil in lot making.
But why would a Persian Jewish holiday have an Assyrian name?
The calendar, including the reckoning of years, is a pivotal concern for any civilization. In our modern calendars, we are used to giving years consecutive numbers starting from some fixed point, whether it be the “creation of the world” (Jewish), “the birth of Christ” (Gregorian), or “Mohamed’s hijra to Mecca” (Islamic).
Ancient Near Eastern societies kept track of years in a number of ways. Most familiar to us, since it was the system used by Israel and Judah and recorded in the Bible, is what is called regnal years, namely, counting consecutive years of a given king’s reign. This straightforward system was also used in ancient Egypt as well as in Babylonia, starting from mid-second millennium B.C.E.
Old Babylonian System – Naming Years for Important Events
Before Babylonia started counting regnal years, they used a dating system in which each year was named. This required having a list to recreate the chronology, and such lists are found from ancient Mesopotamia, whose scribes were fans of list-making.
The Babylonians named their years after an important event, such as a royal contribution to the religious life, or some other royal achievement that occurred during the relevant year. For example:
- “The year (in which Ḫammurabi) seized (the city-states) Uruk and Isin,”
- “The year (in which Ḫammurabi) made a throne for (the goddess) Zarpanitum.”
These specific names were given to Ḫammurabi’s 7th and 12th regnal years, ca. 1785 and 1780 B.C.E. in an accepted absolute chronology.
The propagandistic advantage of this method is apparent, but so is its fault; a name may be given to a certain calendric year only after a sufficiently important event occurred, and during the early parts of the year it would need to be described as “the year after….”
Assyrian Systems – Eponyms from Senior Officials
The Assyrians used to name the years after senior officials of the kingdom, in what is known as an eponym system; “eponym” is Greek for the “one who gives one’s name to something.” The Assyrian monarch and other high officials each gave their personal names to a certain year. Later, in the imperial period, when the Assyrians ruled over vast swaths of territory beyond their homeland, the governors of great cities and provinces did so as well.
For example, Sennacherib ascended the Assyrian throne in the twelfth day of the month Abu of the year “Nasḫur-Bēl, the governor of (the city) Amedi,” that is 705 BCE. Years later, Sennacherib gave his own name to the calendric year, that began at Nisanu (April-May) 687 and ended at Addaru (March-April) 686 BCE.
The Akkadian word for the office of the official who gave his name to the year is līmu, a word probably derived from the root lwy,lawûm, “to surround, encircle,” stressing the cyclical nature of the līmu’s role as eponym. The līmu system is documented on economic, juridical, and other documents throughout Assyrian history, from the twentieth to the seventh centuries B.C.E., and it was later somehow adopted by Greek cities.
When Was the Līmu Announced?
How early can one know the eponymic name of a year? Theoretically, the year names could have been fixed many years in advance, but the Assyrians probably did not want to risk naming a year after someone who would by then have died; this would have been perceived as ominous.
On the other hand, in imperial times, they would not have waited for the year to have begun before declaring the eponym. But sometimes this early naming before Nisanu did not reach the governed provinces before the new year began. For example, an administrative document from Tel Gezer contains the following date formula:
17th of Simānu, the year after the year Aššur-dūr-uṣur, governor of Barḫalzi.
These were the days at the height of the great revolt led by Šamaš-šum-ukīn, king of Babylon, against his brother, Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria and the empire (652-648 B.C.E). This explains the delay of the two-and-a-half months in the distribution of the new-year’s name. But such a situation was not the norm and was to be avoided as much as possible.
Shortly Before the New Year
Thus, the eponym was likely announced as close as possible to the spring month of Nisanu, the beginning of the new year, but early enough to send the announcement out to all the provinces in the empire. Though we do not know on exactly what date the announcement of the eponym was made, the middle of Addaru, the twelfth and last calendric month, seems like an ideal time for this. State administration would then have had two weeks to inform the entire empire of the name chosen, and the new eponym would have had to maintain good health only two weeks.
Choosing a Līmu by a Pūru (Ritual Lot)
|The clay cube (YBC 7058) that served as Yaḫalu’s pūru (“lot”). – Photo credit of Yale Babylonian Collection.|
Despite Yaḫalu’s “prayer” that his lot be the one to come up that year, epochs from which we possess full list of year eponymic names suggest that a relatively fixed order developed: the king, the turtānu (תרתן; commander-in-chief), the rab šāqê (רב שקה; chief cupbearer), and similar high officials, and then governors of major cities and provinces.
This suggests that the lot-casting became ritualized; the order of the eponyms was made in advance based on accepted protocol, but it had to be made official by a lot casting that was symbolic and ceremonial in nature, rather than a real means for decision-making under divine patronage.
Purim – A Remnant of the Pūru Celebration?
It is likely that an event as important as marking the name of the coming year’s eponym through a divine lot would have been somehow marked, although in the case of the Assyrian pūru, we have no direct documentation for this. Our knowledge of the Assyrian cultic calendar is fragmentary, scattered, and by no means complete.
However, the coincidence in the Jewish calendar of both the name Purim and its schedule in the middle of Addar, suggests that it may be a remnant from the lost ancient Assyrian pre-new year festival of drawing lots for the coming eponym.
If so, then the celebration must have survived for centuries in former provinces of the Assyrian empire like Babylonia, even though lots for choosing the year’s līmu would no longer have been cast. In light of other Assyrian features having been adopted in Babylonian milieu, such survival is only a minor surprise.
An Assyrian Festival Becomes Jewish: נהפוך הוא
The Assyrian holiday of Purim (Pūru) was eventually adopted by Jews in the former Assyrian provinces and interpreted as being in commemoration of an anti-Jewish incident that the Jews survived, or perhaps it merged with a preexisting celebration in commemoration of such an incident. The festival was then given a literary backstory in the form of the court intrigue of Mordechai and Esther against Haman, set in Elamite-Persian Susa.
This backstory in turn inspired a new explanation for the holiday’s inexplicable Assyrian name, Purim, the original meaning of which had long been lost. The lots were no longer celebrating the choice of eponym but in commemoration of the lots cast by Haman to determine the date of the Jews’ destruction. With that, the forgotten Assyrian festival became an entirely Jewish one. Nevertheless, its name and date preserve aspects of this forgotten Assyrian calendrical festival.
If so, we are left with a strange irony. Despite the thousands of Akkadian tablets we have from the vast empire of Assyria, including references to a pūru that was used to determine the eponym, the only text that preserves the date of this ritual and connects it with some sort of celebration is Esther, written by the tiny minority of Jews living in a province of the former empire. That would certainly be a strange twist of fate, but as we love to say about this holiday: “va-nahafokh hu” (וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא; Esth 9:1); Purim is a time of reversed expectations.