The Source and the Meaning of the Term

The origin of the word `Pur' would seem to be Persian. As written in the Book of Esther, it means a "lot". Purim is the plural form of the word `Pur', and thus means "lots". The festival is called Purim because of the lots cast by Haman.

The word Pur is also related to the Hebrew word `porer' which means to dismantle, break, destroy, break into crumbs. The word `hefir', derived from the verb `pur', has the sense of cancellation, cessation , breaking of something permanent, such as violating an alliance, breaking a marriage, breaking a strike.

The earliest meaning of the word "pur" is small fragments of stones or pottery. This very ancient use of the word has its source in an ancient custom of drawing lots by throwing small stones or stone splinters into an urn. We know of this manner of drawing lots from the Bible. In the book of Joshua, it was discovered that Achan had violated the `herem' on Jericho only after lots were drawn on all the people, first by tribes and then within the tribe, by families.

A similar usage was prevalent in ancient Greece, in the city of Athens. In order to determine who was undesirable in the city and should be banished, the names were written on potsherds (ostracon) and thrown into an urn. This is the origin of the word ostracism, that means to exclude, by general consent, from society and privileges.

The wicked Haman chose to draw lots in order in order to determine the most propitious month and day for attacking the Jews. The ancient Persians believed that the signs of the zodiac affected man's destiny, and accorded great honor to the astrologers and magicians. In the view of many scholars, the lot did not fall on the month of Adar by chance, but intentionally, since an important festival of the goddess Anahita was celebrated in the middle of that month, and they wished to turn the people against the Jews precisely during these days of rejoicing and revelry.

The word "pur" is similar in meaning to the word "payis" - lottery, so widespread in Israel today. The Mishnah relates that in the Temple worship in Jerusalem the Cohanim vied for the important tasks. It once happened that two priests raced to take the place, and one pushed the other, who fell and broke his leg. It was then decided that this, and the other tasks, would be allocated only by casting of lots in a kind of urn.

In modern times, when a suitable name was sought for Israel's national lottery, the word "payis" was chosen, a word appearing in the Hebrew language some six hundred years after the word "pur". "Purim" was left as the name of the festival only.

A word recently introduced into the Hebrew language is "purimon", a kind of small Purim festival, or party. Over time, the word "Purim" became a symbol of deliverance and salvation for the Jews, and special Purims were introduced to mark days on which Jews in various places in the world had been saved from danger. These special Purims were called after the place in which the miracle had occurred, for instance: Frankfort Purim, Saragossa Purim, Casablanca Purim, etc.

Reference material for teachers and students in the Diaspora, Edited by Dr. Aviv Ekroni & Rafi Banai From: "Hetz", Journal of
the former Department for Jewish Education and Culture in the Diaspora






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15 Jun 2005 / 8 Sivan 5765 0