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Lots of Strange Bedfellows: Toward a Plausible Translation for “Purim”

From: Conservative Judaism
Volume 64, Number 2, Winter 2013
pp. 72-79 | 10.1353/coj.2013.0025

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The Book of Esther famously describes the process by which Haman selected the date for implementation of his genocidal designs against the Jewish people: “A process of sortilege (pur)—that is, divination through the casting of lots—was conducted for Haman, so as to identify the most auspicious of all the days and all the months of the year, continuing all the way through the twelfth month, the month of Adar.”1 The import of this divination process is made explicit later in the biblical book: For Haman, son of Hammedata the Agagite, persecutor of the Jews, had plotted the destruction of the Jews. He conducted a process of sortilege (pur)—that is, divination through the casting of lots—determining when best to attack and destroy them. . . . It is for this reason that these days are called ‘Purim’—in reference to the sortilege (pur).”2 Thus Purim is widely and familiarly known as “The Feast of Lots.”

Evidence of the dubious quality of the etymological link between Purim and pur is inherent in the biblical text. Anticipating that the reader will be otherwise unfamiliar with the term, the Book of Esther twice finds it necessary to provide a more common synonym for pur—that is, goral. If the weak, purported etymology provided for Purim in Esther is less than persuasive, what exactly are the purim to which the name of the feast refers?

The Aramaic word purya, in addition to signifying the festival observed on the fourteenth of Adar, appears in a number of rabbinic texts ostensibly unrelated to the Book of Esther. Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah, for examples, exhorts rabbinic scholars regarding the virtues of humility and personal probity:

Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: Just as a bride is modest, so must a talmid ḥakham [an exemplary disciple of the sages] be modest. Rabbi Ḥalafta said in the name of Resh Lakish: Just as a bride sits upon her bed (purya) and says: ‘See, I am pure; this is the evidence I submit on my own behalf’—so must a talmid ḥakham be free of any unseemly quality.3

A similar use of purya as “bed” appears in a discussion of the minimum obligation to provide for the needs of itinerant indigents: “. . . We give him a meal to take along with him when he leaves. What of ‘compensation for lodging’? Rav Papa said: We provide a bed (purya) and pillows.”4

Elsewhere, Rav Papa adds to a playful discussion of word origins an explicit etymology for purya: “A door is called dasha (in Aramaic), said Rava, because it is the way in there (derekh sham). A ladder is called d’raga, said Rava, because it is the way to a roof (derekh gag). A bed is called purya, said Rav Papa, because it is there that we procreate (from p’ru u-r’vu, cf. Genesis 1:22, 28).”5

While the context of word-play deceptively suggests that Rav Papa’s derivation is yet more unlikely than that found in the Book of Esther, his etymology is in fact reprised by modern lexicographers. Gesenius6 defines the root p-r-h as “TO BEAR . . . to bear young, used both of human beings and beasts; to be fruitful,” explicitly citing Rav Papa’s Genesis verse. Similarly, Gesenius links the same root to the Song of Songs’ apiryon (a litter or bier)—that is, a palanquin: a bed or couch which is carried or “borne” just as children are carried and born. In addition to the Greek poreion, Gesenius cites the Sanskrit paryanka, translated as “litter-bed,” as a cognate of apiryon and the direct source of “palanquin.” Thus, “King Solomon made him a palanquin (apiryon) of wood from Lebanon.”7 The meaning of the biblical expression is reinforced by synonymous terms in the same chapter: “Upon my couch (mishkavi) at night I sought the one I love;”8 and “There is Solomon’s couch (mittato), surrounded by sixty warriors.”9 The immediate context of Solomon’s apiryon has been identified as “among the oldest parts of the Song.”10

While apiryon, a hapax legomenon within the biblical canon, at times...

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