Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Riddle of Sizdah Bedar

Many academics have traditionally viewed the Biblical book of Esther as nothing more than a mythical story with no historical validity. There has also been significant confusion and debate about dating the events of the book of Esther and identifying the historical Persian king behind this unusual canonized book. To date, no sources in ancient Persian history have been uncovered that have clarified any of the dilemmas facing historians and biblical students. In this article we would like to propose a possible piece of evidence which seems to indicate a tremendous political and military event took place in the Persian empire on the 13th of a certain month which had such a powerful effect that it sprung up two Official holidays of two peoples which continue to be celebrated to this date.

The holiday of Purim is well known throughout the Jewish world and celebrated annually on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (or the 15th of Adar for walled cities) as a day of festivities and joy. The source for the celebration of this Holiday is the book of Esther which is also traditionally read on this holiday. Chapter 9, verse 20-22 provides the dates and reason for the celebration of this holiday as it pertains to the Jewish world, it reads “Mordechai recorded these events and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Aẖashverosh …..[charging them] to observe annually the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and its fifteenth day, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies …]”.

The Persian holiday of Sizdah Bedar is a national Persian holiday celebrated primarily in Iran but also in parts of Afghanistan and other areas on the 13th day of the Persian New Year Nowruz. The holiday is celebrated as a festive day where people celebrate by going outside their homes to parks and the outdoors. The official translation of Sizdah Bedar given is “getting rid of the 13th” where ''Sizdah-'' means thirteen, and ''bedar'', means to get rid of. Since the holiday is on the 13th day of the Persian New Year Nowruz, it is purported to be related to it and associated with the ancient mythical lore of casting the negative and unlucky number 13 out by going outdoors and casting its negativity out of their homes. This is the primary understanding of this holiday to the local population today. Other theories also relate the holiday to mythical Zoroastrian beliefs in which on the 13th of the New Year the demon of drought is defeated and the people celebrate this victory of the Angel of Rain on the 13th of the new year. The origin of this Persian holiday is somewhat unclear and some have purported that its origins can go as far back as 536 BCE.

There are a number of questions about Sizdah Bedar that have not been fully answered. Although it is universally accepted that Sizdah means thirteen and does have that meaning in the context and meaning of this Persian holiday, such is not the obvious case with Bedar. Bedar can certainly be translated as to get rid of (as in to get rid of the number 13) but can also taken to mean “outdoors” as in 13th Outdoors. This does in fact fit well with how the holiday is celebrated, which is to go outdoors to parks and the countryside. Although some of the above reasons may in fact be true and somehow related to this holiday, it still leaves the question of how and why such a holiday should be celebrated nationally instead of just another family centered celebration? Moreover, if the 13th day is a negative cursed number and the idea is to get rid of it, why is the celebration taking place on the 13th? Shouldn’t the celebration take place after 13th has passed ? And more importantly why is it pertinent to celebrate it by going outdoors as a opposed to just another indoor holiday?

In order to answer these questions we are going to look at an unlikely source to shed additional light on this Persian holiday and how and why it is celebrated on this date and in such manner. The book of Esther is on the surface primarily interested in relaying a Jewish message of triumph and salvation at a moment of possible extermination and is the main source for the Jewish holiday of Purim celebrated annually by the Jewish world. However, a deeper look at the book also reveals the historical, political and socio-geographic background of the Persian Empire at that particular time. There are a few general ideas gleaned from the book that strike the alert reader. Political instability seems to be the main force behind many of the prime events. The entire book of Esther (irrespective of how one reconciles its chronology to actual Persian history or who this Persian king was) covers a span of 10 years from the initial party of the King to the “civil war” that took place on the 13th of Adar. Within a 10 years span, Queen Vashti was “demoted” (Esther 1:19), four years later Queen Esther was crowned (Esther 2:17), an assassination plot against the king by two top ministers was uncovered (Esther 2:23), and a new minister, Haman, was promoted to a high ranking position (Esther 3:1). All this indicate significant instability over 127 provinces with various different peoples, languages and cultures. This instability is further evident from Persian history itself. Although some Scholars have claimed that the king in the book of Esther was Artaxerxes I, most scholars have theorized that the Aẖashverosh of the Book of Esther was in fact Xerxes I. Xerxes’s began his reign at age 36 and his kingship lasted only 20 years from 486 to 465 BC 1. Almost immediately, he had to suppress various revolts in Egypt and Babylon. His lack of control continued with the Greek’s over many battles and his army included peoples of all origins and nations including Jews 2. He was finally assassinated by a commander of royal bodyguard 3. Both the Book of Esther and the history of Xerxes I, clearly show the King did not seem to have absolute control over his country. With the promotion of Haman who seemed to have been promoted immediately after the assassination plot to kill the King, the King hoped to solidify his control over all his kingdom and provinces. This is why Haman felt opportune to ask the King for annihilating an entire group of people (Esther 3:9) whom he claimed did not abide by the rules and regulations of the country and the King granted such request without even knowing the identity of the people (Esther 3:10)! The King felt that in fact this proposition was beneficial to solidifying the Empire and the King’s reign and ordered Haman to execute on his plan. However, as the book reveals Haman’s objectives were more purely based on racial hatred of the Jews and financial and political gain.

Haman had conspired his plans on the 13th of Nissan, and plotted to execute his final solution to his Jewish problem 11 months later on the 13th of Adar. When Mordecai uncovered this plan (Esther 4:1), just as he had uncovered the previous plot to assassinate the King (Esther 2:22), Esther revealed her nationality and pleaded for the King’s mercy. The King was then alerted to Haman’s real plot and intentions. Haman’s plans were so elaborate and planned in advice that the King felt a threat to his own sovereignty and Haman was deemed a traitor and hung. What was perhaps more alarming to the King was the loyal militia that Haman had put together which could be a threat to the King and his sovereignty even though the plot was uncovered. On 23rd of Sivan, about 68 days form the time the plan was plotted the King ordered a new set of executive orders be sent by the King to allow the Jews to actually battle their enemies on this auspicious day and defend themselves against their adversaries (Esther 8:12). The King hoped that in addition to saving the Jewish population from their adversaries, he would also gain by terminating Haman’s militia who did also pose a threat to his sovereignty. Since these events were already advertised and expected to take place on the 13th of Adar, it was natural for rumors to be circulating and all disinterested parties would naturally want to stay out of the “war zones”. Therefore, on the auspicious day of the 13th there were only going to be two groups of people outdoors, either Haman’s militia who came out to battle the Jews or the Jews (and possibly soldiers offered by the King as well) who came out to defend themselves and battle the adversary. This is clearly indicated by what is said in Chapter 11 verse 8 “that the king had given [permission] to the Jews of every city to organize and to defend themselves…and to exterminate every armed force of any people or province that threaten them”. Therefore, the dread and fear of the 13th dooms day most probably kept the majority of the people confined to their homes and out of the ensuing battles between Haman’s militia and the Jews and their allies. As indicated above, the main celebration of the holiday of Purim from the book of Esther’s perspective is the gaining of relief from their enemies who had plotted to annihilate the Jewish people on the 13th of Adar (Purim is not a celebration of a military victory but a celebration of gaining relief from being annihilated!). However, from the King’s perspective the 13th of Adar was a major civil war in which he gained relief from all the armed militia forces that could threaten his leadership and the uncovering of the plot of that day and its victor helped solidify and unite his Kingdom. This is why he ordered the 13th to be designated as a National Holiday and a day of joy and festivities and it was celebrated by people going outdoors as opposed to how they stayed confined to their homes on that dreadful 13th day of the month. We can see a hint that these events had significant ramification even on the Persian Kingdom on the fact that the book of Esther goes on record by informing its reader that these events were also recorded in Persian history as it says, “And all the acts of his power and his might and the full account of Mordecai's greatness, how the king advanced him-are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia” (Esther 10:2)
In light of the above, we can now shed additional light on another spurious custom generally celebrated on this holiday which does not fit well with any of the conventional theories on Sizdah Bedar and its conventional translation. This spurious tradition is termed “Dorough Sizdah Bedar” or the “lie of the Sizdah bedar” and will usually involved telling a lie or pulling of a prank (in fact some have proposed that April Fools day actually originated from this old Persian Custom). But exactly what is this lie? Why must a prank be pulled on this day? Looking at the proposed theory set forth above, we can now get a better insight into this unusual custom and why it must be done on Sizdah Bedar itself. The prank/lie originates from the very events of that day. Everyone was under the assumption that the Jewish Population would be attacked, defeated and annihilated in battle, but the reverse happened and everything was turned around. This was most likely the perceived "prank" which set off the ensuing tradition to pull of a prank or tell a lie on the Sizah Bedar Holiday. Perhaps this too was why the 13th became to be known as such an “unlucky” number. After all didn’t an entire plan, orchestrated reverse on this date ?!
There are additional supportive evidence these two holidays most likely emerged from one and the same event but celebrated from two distinct perspectives. As was noted above the exact rendering of bedar is not so clear. It is primarily translated and read as “to get rid of” as in to get rid of the unlucky 13th. However, with the theories set forth above we can re-read the Bedar differently which could further support our theories. Bedar literally can also be translated as “gained relief” or “survived something” taken this way it would mean that the 13th was the day that populace survived a major national battle on that day but survived all the war by staying out of trouble. But even more profoundly the Bedar can be simply read as B-Adar. This allusion further adds a connection between Purim and Sizdah Bedar in that upon careful observation of the very name of this holiday one can see “Sizdah bADAR” which can theoretically be read and translated in Farsi as Thirteenth of/in Adar. To actually read and translate the holiday this way, the “bedar” portion of the name would not read as a noun (which would mean get rid off or survive) but actually bADAR where b (which could either mean IN or FOR in Farsi) would be read as IN and ADAR would stand for the very month all these events took place. It is significant to point out that Jewish sources officially acknowledge that the names of many of the Jewish months (including Adar, Av and etc.) are actually of Babyolian/Persian origin. Considering that the Persian new year is always in spring time and never deviates more than 2-4 weeks from the Jewish month of Adar it would not be far fetched to say these two stories are related. Considering these connections, it would certainly be possible that Adar was an actual month in both Persian and Jewish calendar and that the Persian New Year and New month on Jewish Calendar fell on the same date that year and that these two stories are directly related. The Jews commemorated these events by celebrating every year on the 14th for gaining relief from their adversaries from all the battles that had been fought on the 13th and the National Government and rest of population and the masses commemorated these events by celebrating every year on the 13th for the fact that the 13th bedar ghozast (gained relief from the battle of that day and survived) and they do so by GOING OUTDOORS

If what we have outlined above is in fact plausible and supported and considering both Purim and Sizdah Bedar continue to be celebrated yearly by both the Jewish population and also by the Persian population, it would provide a living testimony that something of historical significance and validity took place in ancient Persia at those times which involved both its political, Jewish and non Jewish population and that there might in fact be historical basis for the stories outlined in the book of Esther.

This article was researched and its theories have been proposed and written by Kamy Eliassi. A special thanks to Eman Zadeh for alluding to the BAdar connection. Kamy can be reached at kamy@sizdahbedar.net.

1. Dandamaev, M. A., A political history of the Achaemenid empire, p. 180.
2. Farrokh 2007: 77
3. Iran-e-Bastan/Pirnia book 1 p 873

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