In a few days –Saturday March 11th at night and Sunday 12th– we will celebrate Purim. Purim reminds us of our miraculous victory over anti-Semitism. Briefly, the prime minister of the Persian empire, Haman, issued a genocidal decree allowing and encouraging anyone in the empire who would kill a Jew and his family, to keep all their properties and belongings. As we all know, thanks to the intervention of Mordekhai and Esther, and the “invisible” help of HaShem, the decree was reversed.
The story of Purim contains no fables or metaphors, like some myths of antiquity, and these events have been recorded in the “Book of Esther”, which we read twice during Purim. To understand the dramatic story this book relates, and to appreciate the magnitude of the miracle and the genocide that was averted, I will now present a brief account of the history of Purim.
After leaving Egypt, the Yehudim lived for about 800 years as a sovereign people in the land of Israel. In the year 586 before the common era (BCE) the emperor of Babylon, Nebukhadnetsar conquered and destroyed Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). Hundreds of thousands of Jews died of hunger and disease or were killed; the Bet haMiqdash was destroyed, and about 70,000 Jews were captured as captives and taken to Babylon.
In 539 BCE, Ciro (called in Hebrew Koresh) defeated and conquered the Babylonian empire, becoming the first monarch of the Persian empire.
In the year 538 BCE one of the greatest miracles in the history of the Jewish people took place: the Persian Emperor Cyrus issued an edict (הכרזת כורש) inviting and encouraging all members of the Jewish people to return to Israel and rebuild the Bet haMiqdash. This great miracle is recorded in the very last words of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).
Thousands of Jews returned to Israel, led by Zerubbabel, and in 516 BCE, 70 years after the exile, as Yirmiyahu had prophesied, the construction of the second Bet haMiqdash began.
Over time, the Jewish population of Israel continued to grow and in the days of Purim, first half of the fifth century BCE, there were in Israel not less than 50,000 Jews.
But not all the Jews returned to Israel. Why? Just as unfortunately happens today, although every Jew was able to live in Israel, most Jews still lived outside Israel. We will try to understand how and why the Yehudim resided in a voluntary exile.
During the reign of Ahashverosh (484-465 BCE) the Persian empire became the largest that existed in the history of mankind (from India to Ethiopia). This provided the Jews, who were very successful in trade, the opportunity to establish an international commercial network that proved very profitable. The Jews dispersed throughout the confines of the Persian Empire reached what today is the boundary between India and China. Taking advantage of the fact that the trade routes were protected against thieves, they set up a network of trade between Indochina and the West. Using the newly inaugurated “silk route”, also protected by imperial guards, Jews imported silk and gold from China and exported spices, dyes, jade, lapis lazuli and glass. There is a book, unfortunately unknown but absolutely fascinating, “The Eighth Day”, by Samuel Kurinsky, which describes in detail all the commercial enterprises in which the Jews stood out in the times of the Persian empire and beyond.
Kurinsky explains that since the Jews were (Esther 3: 8), “scattered among all the nations of the Persian empire,” they were able to establish a new industry in which they also became very prominent: credit. A written document (probably in Hebrew) by a Jew from Turkey could be collected in India, when presented to another Jew who lived there. There are very important archaeological evidences about a Jewish family of “bankers” of the time, the Murashu (see this).
All of these data is important to understand the following:
1. Given the success of their trade, the Yehudim did not return to Israel. Although it is important to emphasize that they supported Israel financially sending permanently generous donations to the Bet haMiqdash and funds to help the Yehudim who resided there.
2. The Jews lived scattered all over the confines of the huge Persian empire, including Turkey, Egypt, and 50,000 in Israel. There were NO Jews living outside the Persian empire.
3. Therefore, since all the Yehudim of the world lived in the Persian empire, when Haman issued his decree to eliminate all the Jews of the empire, he was calling for the destruction of all the Jews of the world.
A potential holocaust was averted.