What does the “pur” in Purim really mean?
Soon we will bake hamentaschen, dress up in costume, and read the Book of Esther (“The Megillah”) to celebrate the joyous holiday of Purim. According to verse 9:26 of that very book, we get the name “Purim” from the pur that was cast: “Therefore, they called these days `Purim’ after `pur.'” But while purim is the Hebrew plural of pur, pur itself is not a Hebrew word. For this reason, twice before in Esther, when pur is mentioned, we are told, “…pur, that is, the goral.” So a pur is a goral, but what is a goral?
In all likelihood, goral originally referred to a bunch of small pebbles or similar objects used to make decisions by chance: they would be cast down on the ground or put in a vessel of some sort, from which one would be drawn at random. (A similar practice, in which stones were placed in a helmet, is clearly documented from Homeric Greece. The Greek verb for casting these objects was ballo, from which we get our English word “ballot.”)
For example, in Leviticus 16, Aaron takes “two goats,” “a goral for God” and a “goral for Azazel.” Then the goat that God’s goral lands on is God’s goat, and the goat that Azazel’s goral lands on is Azazel’s goat; this latter goat is sent “to Azazel” in atonement. (Based on an ancient misunderstanding of the Hebrew “to Azazel,” a 1530 translation reads “to scape” instead of “to Azazel,” giving us the English phrase “scapegoat.”)
Other examples include Nehemiah (10:35): “we have cast the gorals to see who shall bring the wood offering.” In Psalms (22:17), the Psalmist laments that “they divvy up my clothes, casting a goral for my garments.” In Numbers 26, God tells Moses to divide up the land by goral. Joshua, too, draws a goral and uses it to apportion the land among the Israelites.
Goral later progressed to mean not only the item which was cast, but also that to which the victor was due. (And because real-estate was so often allocated by goral, goral also meant “real-estate” in particular.) In the meantime, presumably on the assumption that destiny or fate had something to do with who won, goral began to mean “destiny,” as well.
The English word “lot” followed exactly the same path, meaning at first a small (usually wooden) object used to make random decisions (as in “draw lots”) and then both what one received (for example, a “lot of land”) and what one is destined to receive (as in one’s “lot in life.”)
Up to this point in the story, a Hebrew goral is exactly an English “lot.”
But the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls frequently mention goral, using it to mean “group of people” or “followers.”
In “The Rule of the Community,” a document (technically referred to as “1QS”) that describes all aspects of life in the Qumran sect, God has a goral and Belial (God’s Qumranic foe) has a goral. The priests bless those in God’s goral with a version of the priestly benediction, whereas the Levites curse those in Belial’s goral (1QS 2:2-5).
The War Scroll (“1QM”), which describes the final battle between the forces of good (“light”) and the forces of evil (“darkness”) before the “end of days,” begins with the prediction that the first attack by the sons of light will be against the goral of the sons of darkness.
If this usage of goral is akin to the English expression “to throw one’s lot in with,” God’s goral are the people who chose God, not the people that God chose.
As for pur, the word probably comes from Akkadian, which has a root pur that means “real-estate lot,” and a similar-sounding root meaning “vessel.” Perhaps Akkadian real-estate lots, too, were allocated by drawing lots. (Ibn Ezra thought the word might be Persian, but while Persian has a word pur, it means “son.”)
By curious chance, the word pur, if it were Hebrew, would have to have come from the Hebrew root p.r.r, which means “to break into crumbs.” And so in addition to reflecting our choice in God and our ancient good fortune, our early-spring holiday’s name indirectly reflects the hamentaschen we use to celebrate it.
Which in the case of Purim is just the way the cookie crumbles.