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Rabbi Daniel F. PolishFebruary 13, 2018

It struck me as strange timing. The Eastern European bakeries near my home were deluged by throngs of people lining up to buy their bags of paczkis, those delicious jelly-filled donuts so dear to people who hail from Poland, just as my family and other Jews were beginning our preparations to desist from eating wheat-based products during the upcoming holiday of Passover. I would learn it was not nearly as paradoxical as it appeared.

Paczkis denote the beginning of the Lenten season—the last eruption of self-indulgence before the prolonged period of self-denial leading up to Easter. At precisely that time Jews would be indulging in their own seasonal delicacy: the hamantasch, the poppy seed-filled tri-cornered pastry associated with the holiday of Purim, the minor holiday that falls exactly a month before the far more consequential festival of Passover.

Purim bumps up against the pre-Lenten expression of excess: the carnival celebrations that culminate on Mardi Gras.

Moving beyond the bakery counter, we find some other notable similarities. Falling as it does at the beginning of Lent, Purim also bumps up against that other pre-Lenten expression of excess: the carnival celebrations that culminate on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

First, a quick introduction to Purim. Purim is wholly unlike any of the other holy days on the Jewish calendar. Other holidays are orderly and constrained. They involve the commemoration of significant historical moments or the opportunity for serious spiritual engagement. Purim offers none of these. Instead, it is observed with the encouragement of those things that are normally forbidden: gluttony, gambling and drinking in excess until one is “unable to distinguish between the pious Mordechai and the wicked Haman” of the Book of Esther, which forms the basis of Purim.

No less significant, the ordinary conventions of ordered Jewish society are overturned. The respect due to elders and teachers is replaced with mockery and derision. Wives are given latitude to mock or publicly reprove their husbands. Costumes and masks are the order of the day, making it difficult to distinguish between men and women, rich and poor, beggar and benefactor. The biblical Book of Esther is read, much as Scripture is read at every Sabbath and holiday service, but here it is drowned out by the raucous stamping of feet and the sounding of noisemakers. “On Purim,” it is said, “all things are permissible.”

Purim and Mardi Gras serve, paradoxically, as a farcical introduction to a period of deep religious seriousness.

If this description of this strange Jewish holiday sounds familiar, that is because it is like nothing so much as Mardi Gras. Both of these celebrations are marked by a raucous atmosphere, the excessive consumption of intoxicants, masks and costumes and the transgression of even the most consequential social norms. These are all commonalities of form. But there is a deeper commonality of function, meaning and purpose shared by the holidays as well.

Purim and Mardi Gras each fall exactly one month before a major, perhaps the major religious observance of their respective traditions. Each serves, paradoxically, as a farcical introduction to a period of deep religious seriousness. For Christians, the excess of Fat Tuesday serves as an outlet for self-assertion and self-gratification before the period of Lent, with its prolonged period of self-denial and even self-mortification. It is an eruption of sensuality before the spiritually demanding rigors that are entailed in the preparation for Easter.

Purim and its hamantasch, Mardi Gras and its attendant paczkis turn out to have far more meaningful connections than pastries.

Purim can similarly be seen as the gateway to the oft-times frantic but deeply serious and demanding period of preparation for Passover that customarily begins the morning after Purim. Falling as it does before the onset of preparations for Passover—which centers on the idea that “in every generation each of us should regard ourselves as if they themselves had gone out of Egypt”—Purim offers Jews the paradoxical opportunity to play at being someone else before they enter into the most profound expression of embracing who they are.

On a basic human level, it is also noteworthy that both celebrations fall at the onset of spring, as winter is in retreat. Winter was, for our earliest ancestors, a time of scarcity, darkness and uncertainty. Our forebears had to store produce from the fall harvest and were forced to allocate it sparingly. They well understood that should the stored provisions be insufficient, the implications could be mortal.

The arrival of spring, therefore, represented a time of new beginnings. This was the time for planting and harvesting, and with the promise of plenty, people felt liberated from the fear of insufficiency. They were freed to eat without anxiety—or constraint. These survivors of winter’s peril could reasonably be expected to be intoxicated with relief and hope. It was only natural for them to join together in a shared communal demonstration of this exhilaration.

Purim and its hamantasch, Mardi Gras and its attendant paczkis turn out to have far more meaningful connections than pastries. Both talk of the sense of release that came to our ancestors in the spring and that lifts their descendants’ spirits still. Both express an emotional venting that comes before the most profound spiritual engagements of each tradition. As different as the respective theological backgrounds of the two festivals are, their very human core unites the celebrants of both.

More: Lent / Judaism
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