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History shows many versions of the Purim story

  • Jewish-Islam
Purim is a unique festival during which we celebrate the miraculous deliverance of the Jewish community of Shushan from the designs of the grand vizier of Persia, Haman. Or is it?
by JORDAN MOSHE | Mar 14, 2019

Taking place in about 300 BCE, the Purim story is feted as a miraculous event, commemorating Jewish victory against all odds. Unique it may be, but there are in fact similar events in history that all bear an uncanny likeness to what happened in Persia.

Over the course of Jewish history, there have been numerous occasions on which communities experienced tumultuous crises that threatened their lives in all parts of the world. Upon surviving these ordeals, many Jews chose to commemorate the event by establishing a Yom Tov, marked by special observances of gratitude and celebration.

In fact, many of these observances were fashioned after and even called Purim, and over the last several 100 years there have been dozens of recorded local Purim-like occurrences, with some celebrated by the Jewish community of a town or city, and others observed by families.

With the passing of time, most of these celebrations and the events they commemorate have been forgotten, but they remain fascinating, nonetheless.

Algiers, Shiraz, Tunis and Frankfurt all have Purim stories of their own. In every instance, the local Jewish community is threatened with plunder, expulsion or massacre, but against all odds emerges triumphant against a tyrant bent on its destruction. Perhaps most notable among these accounts is that of a Cairo-based Purim miracle, the events of which are strikingly similar to the Purim miracles of Shushan. Some Egyptian Jews and Jews of Egyptian descent still commemorate the event, recounting the narrative from a historical document originally written in a form of Hebrew.

According to Jewish historian Jacob Marcus, this narrative concerns a festival that was celebrated in Cairo on 28 Adar, a strong similarity to the original Purim. In 1524, the governor of Egypt, Ahmed Pasha, usurped the throne of the Ottoman-controlled Egyptian kingdom, becoming incredibly powerful in a bid to revolt against Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. To fund his rebellion, Pasha intended to plunder the wealth of the prominent Egyptian Jewish community, and considered massacring them shortly thereafter.

As part of his revolt, Pasha ordered that his name be used in place of the sultan's in the Friday sermon at local mosques, and on locally minted coins. The head of the mint was an Egyptian Jew, Abraham de Castro, who, thinking on his feet, requested that Pasha put his request in writing. Escaping secretly from Cairo, de Castro sneaked the written order to Constantinople, where he revealed it to Sultan Suleiman and recounted what had befallen Cairo.

When he learned that he had been exposed, Pasha flew into a rage, arresting 12 of Cairo’s prominent Jewish leaders, including the community’s rav, the Torah giant known as the Radbaz. To bolster his rebellion financially, Pasha demanded an exorbitant ransom for their release, threatening to execute them, plunder Jewish homes, and exile the entire Jewish community if it wasn’t paid by 28 Adar.

Like the Jews of Shushan, Cairo’s Jews responded by declaring a day of prayer and fasting, and they began gathering the ransom money. When they had amassed what they could (about a tenth of the demanded ransom), they brought it to the palace, hoping the vizier would accept it as a down payment.

Presenting themselves to deliver their funds, they were informed by Pasha’s secretary that the amount was insufficient. He added that Pasha would have no choice but to order his decree to be carried out – as soon as he emerged from his bath.

Unbeknown to him, however, Suleiman had amassed an army and marched on Cairo that very day, determined to eliminate the political upstart. Although Pasha attempted to flee, Suleiman gave chase, catching up with him and proceeding to destroy his force and beheaded the rebel.

With Pasha’s head fixed on a spear, he entered Cairo and announced that the tyranny of Pasha had passed.

In so doing, Suleiman ensured that 28 Adar was joyously proclaimed a local festival and observed for as long as a sizable Jewish community existed in Cairo. The day of their liberation was proclaimed Purim Mitzrayim, or “The Purim of Cairo”, owing to its striking resemblance to the original Purim story. This Egyptian version is always within a few weeks of Purim as we know it.

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