By Shira Schechter
Imagine you’re reading a thrilling tale of a heroine who risks everything to save her people from annihilation. The story is full of suspense, political intrigue, and unexpected twists and turns. Yet, as you turn the pages, you notice something odd. The name of the most powerful character in the book is missing!
Welcome to the Book of Esther. It is a tale of salvation and heroism that has captured the imagination of Jewish people for centuries. Yet God’s name is not mentioned even once in the entire book, though we know he was working behind the scenes.
In fact, the name of the book, Esther, which tells the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, is actually derived from the Hebrew word hester, meaning “hidden.” This concept of hiddenness is prevalent throughout the story of Purim, and is also reflected in the character of Esther herself as well as many of the holiday’s customs and traditions as well.
How do we see this concept of hiddenness, and why is it such a major theme of the holiday?
As mentioned, the name of God does not appear at all in the Book of Esther, though He is clearly orchestrating events to bring about the salvation of the Jewish people behind the scenes. In fact, the Talmud says that there is an allusion to the Book of Esther in Deuteronomy 31:17-18, which says that God will “hide [haster astir] My face on that day.” According to the sages, this is a veiled reference to the Book of Esther in which God’s name is not mentioned and His face is hidden.
This theme of finding God in the midst of darkness and difficulty is an important one in Jewish thought and practice. It reminds us that even when we can’t see or understand God’s actions, He is always with us, guiding and supporting us through every challenge and trial.
The idea of revealing what is hidden is also seen in the development of the character of Esther herself. The book’s heroine is initially portrayed as a passive and obedient character, subservient to her cousin Mordecai. However, as the plot unfolds and the Jewish people are threatened with annihilation by the evil Haman, Esther is pushed to find and reveal her true heroic self. She risks her own life to approach King Ahasuerus and plead for her people, ultimately foiling Haman’s plot and saving the Jews from destruction. In doing so, she reveals the hidden strength and courage that had been hiding within her all along.
This theme is also reflected in many of the customs and commandments associated with the holiday. One of the most popular traditions is to wear costumes and masks, disguising one’s identity. One reason for this is that wearing costumes and disguising ourselves is an allusion to the fact that on Purim, God and His miracles were actually hidden under the guise of nature. Furthermore, by stepping outside of our usual roles and personas, we can explore new aspects of our personalities and reveal hidden talents and strengths, just like Esther did in the Purim story.
Another Purim tradition is the custom of drinking wine. According to Jewish tradition, drinking wine has the power to reveal a person’s true character. This is reflected in the Talmudic saying, taught by Rabbi Ilai, that a person’s true character is revealed through three things: how they drink, how they spend their money, and how they express anger (Eruvin 65b). Through drinking wine on Purim, we are encouraged to let down our guards and reveal our true selves.
In keeping with the above teaching, the act of giving charitable donations, another commandment of the holiday, is another way of revealing what is hidden. By giving to others, we also reveal our generosity and compassion, and connect with the hidden spark of divinity within us. In doing so, we emulate God’s own hidden kindness, which is always at work in the world even when we may not see it directly.
The name of the book of Esther reflects the theme of obscurity that runs throughout the story of Purim. However, this concealment is not a cause for despair or confusion. Rather, it is an invitation to look deeper and find God, and the hidden aspects of ourselves, that are always present but may not be immediately apparent. Embracing this theme and celebrating Purim with costumes, wine, and giving charity, helps us unearth these concealed parts of ourselves as well as remind us that God is always present in our lives, even when we can’t see Him.