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A painting of the triumph of Mordechai, who was paraded in royal clothing by
Haman around the city of Shushan
ilhe 'Role' Of The Dice
What is the name "Purim" all about?
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he names of religious holidays
are usually fairly straight-
forward, pointing us to the
central symbol or theme of the festi-
val. Pesach refers to the ancient lamb
offering, the korban pesach; Shavuot,
meaning "weeks:' points to the care-
ful counting of seven weeks that
precede it; Sukkot are the booths that
Jews inhabit during the celebration of
that name. But just what is the name
"Purim" all about?
Savvy readers will have already
detected a grammatical error in my
title — Purim is a plural noun, but
incidentally, not a Hebrew one. Pur, as
I will explain in more detail below, is
an Assyrian word meaning "lot:' some
object involved in a game or ritual of
The Megillah (or "Scroll") of Esther,
whose reading (this year on March
15-16) is the highlight of the Purim lit-
urgy, uses the word pur to describe the
method employed by Haman to choose
the day on which the Jews of Susa (or
Shushan) were to be massacred.
For the benefit of its Hebrew-
speaking audience, the Megillah
offers an on-the-spot translation: hipil
pur hu hagoral, meaning "he cast pur,
that is, lots," goral being the common
biblical term for a lottery. We can
infer from this quick annotation that
even ancient readers of the megillah
would have been unfamiliar with the
What then do we know about
Haman's pur? In a fascinating 1983
article for The Biblical Archaeologist
titled "The First Purim," William Hallo
explains that the pur was nothing less
than the oldest game in human his-
As the curator of the Yale
Babylonian Collection, Hallo had
under his care a clay cube dating back
to the 9th century BCE that belonged
to a minister of the Assyrian king
Salmaneser III. A portion of the cunei-
form text inscribed on the cube reads,
"Iahali the grand vizier... in his year
assigned to him by lot (pur) may the
harvest of the land of Assyria prosper
and thrive, in front of the gods Assur
and Adad may his lot (pur) fall."
Here we see two striking simi-
larities to the Megillah text. Firstly, in
both places the pur is used to make
a decision about calendar time; sec-
ondly, both sport the verb "far as in
"Haman caused the pur to fall (hipil
So how did it work? Hallo suggests
that the ancient dice were dropped or
thrown (that is, made to fall) from a
specialized bowl toward statues of the
gods, in this case Ashur and Adad.
With each minister casting his own
dice, the hope was that one's own cube
would end up in some desirable posi-
tion, perhaps closest to the idol. The
prize was extremely valuable — the
winner of the game had an entire year
of the king's reign named after him
(e.g. the "year of lahali"), resulting in
widescale publicity and immortaliza-
tion in the official chronicles.
Exactly how similar Haman's use
of the pur would have been to Iahali's
is still not clear. Scholars assume that
the Scroll of Esther was written in the
late Second Temple period, centuries
later than Salmaner III's reign, and
the practice of pur may have evolved
and changed over time. There is still
much more for archaeologists and
biblical historians to uncover. In the
meantime, novel insights like this one
continue to de-mystify and animate
our ancient texts.
The image of Haman rolling his dice
enhances the color and drama of this
most distinguished Jewish tale about
the twists and turns of fate.