Did Purim really happen?
There are many very strong arguments against the historicity of Purim. Many of them you already know. One of them, you may not.
If Purim is true, if all the Jews in the world were saved from death by this miraculous turnabout, then every mitzvah associated with the story should be permanently in force. That means the fast of Esther should be observed in every generation, on the 13th of Adar, year after year. But it was not, as Uzi Silber notes:
…[T]he 13th of the month of Adar, the date on which the Fast of Esther falls, boasts a distinguished history as a day both jubilant and mournful.But it gets worse for those arguing for Purim's historicity:
During the early Maccabean era, the 13th of Adar was not the Fast of Esther, but the Feast of Nicanor - at the time one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish calendar.
So who was this Nicanor, why did he merit such an illustrious feast, and were did it go?
The First Book of Maccabees reports that not long after the events commemorating Hanukka, King Demetrius, nephew of Antiochus Epiphanes, dispatched his Jew-hating general Nicanor on a mission to slaughter Judah Maccabee and "The People" once and for all.
The fateful battle between Judah and Nicanor took place on the 13th of Adar. Happily, things didn't turn out as planned: the Jews routed the army of Nicanor, who himself fell in the battle, his head placed in short order on public exhibit in Jerusalem.
Nicanor's Day was decreed in the Second Book of Maccabees as a feast to celebrate this deliverance, and was widely observed in the Land of Israel over the next two centuries - until the destruction of the Temple.
YET DESPITE its onetime prominence, this feast has vanished from our calendar. What then happened to Nicanor's day? Before addressing this question another must be settled: how could such a happy occasion be celebrated on the 13th of Adar in the first place? Wasn't this particular date in the Jewish calendar already taken, and by a well-known fast day at that?
Apparently not. Until Maccabean times, neither Purim nor the fast that precedes it are mentioned anywhere outside of the Book of Esther (which Jewish tradition dates to the 5th century BCE, but was probably written around the time of the first Hanukka). In fact, it would be three centuries before the word "Purim" is first coined - in the Mishna….
The single hint of an emergent proto-Purim is found in the aforementioned decree in the Book of Maccabees II, announcing the Feast of Nicanor on Adar 13th. The text notes that the feast falls one day before a certain "Mordecai Day," a previously unmentioned, but obvious precursor of Purim.The point here seems clear. If the so-called Fast of Esther was overturned, some mention of that fast-to-feast transformation should have been made. But none was.
It seems that the holiday later known as Purim arose in the long-established Babylonian/Persian Diaspora, as a Jewish adaptation of a Persian end-of-winter masquerade celebration, similar to Europe's Carnivale and Louisiana's Mardi Gras.
One need look no further for the holiday's Babylonian roots than the names of its heroes: Mordecai is derived from the Babylonian god Marduk; as for Esther, Rabbi Nehemiah explains in tractate Megilla 13a as follows: "Hadassa was her original name; why then was she called Esther? Because Idol worshipers referred to her after the name of the planet Venus, or Ishtar."…
Further, the Mishna, which Silber says is the first mention of "Purim," does not as far as I recall mention "Modechai Day." Yet one would think it would mention a name the holiday had been known by until the Destruction.
There is no known record I'm aware of that talks about Purim as we know it being celebrated in Israel until after the Destruction.
So why was Nicanor Day transformed into the Fast of Esther?
I think because the early rabbis wanted to de-emphasize all things Hasmonean, especially anything that glorified the Maccabee's military victories, in part because these rabbis played no known role in those victories or in the liberation of the Temple they brought about, and in part because the Hasmonean dynasty usurped the kingship from the tribe of Judah and the House of David.
It is also important to remember the rabbis were not, shall we say, big fans of revelry. (Judging by the Lipa Schmeltzer ban, that holds true for today's rabbis, as well.)
If Nicanor Day had continued to be celebrated, that would have meant two separate celebrations back-to-back on the 13th and 14th of Adar, Nicanor Day and Mordechai Day. And Mordechai Day was in all probability much more like Carnival or Mardi Gras than a Yekkishe Purim.
These were the rabbis who seriously contemplated a two day fast for Tisha B'Av (in a hot, near-desert climate where going for two days without water would have literally killed people) and only backed away from it because they realized the burden of a two day fast would be too much for the people to bear.
Just as a two day fast was too much for the people to bear, a two day carnival celebrating a military victory of a hated dynasty on day one, and a fanciful story told in a book that even the rabbis seriously considered dropping from the canon on day two, was too much for the rabbis to bear.
And there was something they could easily do about it.
Megillat Esther calls for a fast. The Destruction of the Temple removed a large part of the purpose of Nicanor Day.
So out goes Nicanor Day in the aftermath of the Destruction, and in comes something appropriate for the sad mood of the times – the Fast of Esther. (It may be no one had ever kept the Fast of Esther before this. Or, it may be that it was kept in pre-Nicanor Day times, but not universally.)
But why was the Fast of Esther ever dropped? After all, this is a fast that had biblical (and by this I do not mean d'orita, I mean Tanakhian) status – or did it?
The Tanakh was not yet canonized and Megillat Esther was a book that many did not take seriously.
While the rabbis would later adopt Esther as a part of the canon, before that it was just one of many scrolls floating around, not much different from the dozens of books excluded from the Hebrew Bible – or the many dozens of books never even considered for canonization.
The Hasmoneans could easily have dismissed the Fast of Esther on these grounds, although, as I noted above, it seems much more likely the fast was not kept in the years leading up to the events of Nicanor Day. It may never have been kept at all.
Jews in the Early part of the Second Commonwealth would have recognized the Book of Esther for what it is – a morality play and justification for an end of winter blow out.
Jews living in post-Destruction Palestine, when a turnabout like the one portrayed in Esther was badly needed, may have begun to believe in the historicity of Esther. The book would have offered hope to a distraught and disillusioned populace.
I suspect Purim the religious holiday (as opposed to Moredechai Day, the end of winter blow out) took hold at that time and spread from Palestine to the Diaspora, including Babylonia.
By the time of the codification of the Mishna 130 years after the Destruction (and less than 70 years after the Bar Kokhba revolt failed), Purim the religious holiday had taken firm hold. And so did Ta'anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, whose first actual observance may very well be dated to late in the first century CE, to a Jewish community trying to make sense of the destruction of their Temple and of the Temple-based Judaism they had known for hundreds of years.
Have an easy fast and a Purim Samayakh.