Thursday, December 24, 2009

Biblical Satire: Meghillat Esther (Heb. מְגִלַּת אֶסְתּר)

The Book of Esther, also known as the Megillah (scroll), is part of both Jewish and Christian canonical scripture. It claims to be an historical account of how Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai helped to avert an insidious plot to annihilate the Jewish people by Haman, King Ahaseurus’ right hand man. This series of events are said to take place in Shusan or Susa, which was part of the Persian Empire, probably during the reign of King Xerxes I (486–465 B.C.).

Despite the threat of genocide, the story of Esther is considered one of the more satirically funny and instructive stories within the Hebrew Bible. It reveals a highly legalistic society devoid of social justice with a legislative process led by a foolish king who is easily manipulated by buffoons in his court. It is also punctuated by a series of ironic twists and role reversals. The ultimate satiric irony is that it is Esther, a Jewish woman and the King’s consort, who saves her people from total annihilation, despite the discriminatory laws passed by King Ahaseurus, relegating women to a subservient status and mandating the destruction of the Jewish people.

The satiric spirit of the Book of Esther is most visible during the Jewish Holiday of Purim, a Jewish holiday commemorating the deliverance of the Persian Jews from Haman’s evil plot to exterminate them as recorded in the Book of Esther. The end of the book stipulates that the event be remembered through an annual festive celebration. Since antiquity, Jews have celebrated Purim with a two-day festivity beginning with the reading of the Megillah in the Synagogue. Celebrants are encouraged to make noise with hand-held noisemakers upon hearing Haman’s name, drink wine and dress up in costumes, perhaps referring to Esther's concealment of her Jewish heritage to the King.

The satiric sprit of the Megillah also gave rise to the tradition of Purm-shpils (plays), a form of satirical, comic monologue delivered by a "Purim Rabbi", a student who was selected to parody his teacher. By the 18th century these satiric plays evolved into larger plays involving music and dance and bearing no relation to the story of Esther. These plays are said to be the precursors of the Yiddish Theatre.

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