ASK FATHER: Can we Catholics observe Jewish feasts like Purim?

From a reader…


I have a friend who, with his family, observe several of the historical Jewish holidays, including Purim which apparently is this week. In his defense, I don’t know exactly what they do to “observe” the holiday, but I don’t think they go so far as to attend a Jewish temple.

Is it appropriate for Catholics to observe such holidays? In the case of things like Purim and Hannukah, it seems they’re more in the nature of Jewish civic holidays, celebrating the victories of the Israelites over their enemies. But I’m also aware that there are usually aspects of the holidays that anticipate the coming of Christ, aspects that would surely be inappropriate for a Catholic to observe since we believe Jesus was the Christ.

As I write, Purim ends this evening.

Should Catholics observe Jewish holidays?  Good question.

Firstly, if there is some Christian feast on the Church’s calendar on some day when a Jewish feast occurs, then that’s a no brainer.  We give all things Catholic priority.

That said, our Church and Faith flowed and flows forth from what God in His providence wrought before.  I cannot find any reason why Catholics could not, for example, observe some Jewish custom on a Jewish feast day.

The Jewish festivals pointed backward to important events in salvation history and pointed forward to their fulfillment in the Lord’s life and mission.

Take, for example, Purim.

Purim is not one of those major festivals like Passover or Tabernacles, but it was a time of rejoicing, annually celebrated with traditions.  Purim celebrates how God, through Esther and her adoptive father Mordechai, saved the Jewish people from the hateful Hamman and the King during the Persian captivity.

It is probable that when the Lord went up to Jerusalem for a “feast of the Jews” in John 5, and when he healed a man at the Pool of Bethesda, it was Purim.  Coincidently, today in the Roman calendar for Ember Friday of Lent, the reading for Holy Mass in the traditional rite is about that very incident!  How the stars sometimes do line up.  I digress.

One of the customs of Purim is to read or sing the whole Book of Esther, which is called “the whole megillah (megillat – scroll)”.   Now you know where that phrase comes from. There are several “megillah books”, but Esther is probably the most associated with the word.

During the singing of the whole megillah, when the name of the evil Hamman is pronounced, the people often shout and make noise with noisemakers to blot out his name, a kind of damnatio memoriae.  There are some interesting Youtube videos of the singing of Esther that have this blotting out of “Hamman”.   For example, HERE, at synagogue in Tampa, they really get into it.  Check out about 1:30.

By the way, don’t be puzzled by the seemingly cheerful raucous music that introduce some of these Megillah Esther videos.  Purim is a time of serious partying.   There is a lot of dressing up in costumes and feasting.  We, however, are in Lent, so serious partying might not be how we honor old Purim.

Speaking of feasting, yes, it is Lent, but perhaps you could make Hammantaschen.  Today is a Friday of Lent, and an Ember Day to boot.  Today is not the best day to make and eat Hammantaschen.  However, even in Lent every Sunday is a little Easter.  Perhaps a couple of Hammantaschen after the family meal on the Lord’s Day would be in order.

Perhaps at Hanukkah a family might have, after taking care of the proper Christian ornaments and customs for Advent/Christmas a menorah.  Then one could explain to the kids about the rebuilding of the Temple and how the Temple represented the whole created cosmos, the lights of the great menorah being the seven known planets, the bronze water basin being the oceans, the great veil adorned with stars being the heavens, etc., and how Christ is the new High Priest in the heavenly temple renewing His offering to the Father so that we can have Mass simultaneously on thousands of altars.

In any event, I don’t see why we can’t take stock, from a Catholic perspective, ceteris paribus, of the Jewish Feasts which the Holy Family observed together.

Finally, knowing about the Jewish feasts, and how the Lord fulfills what they foreshadow is a super enrichment for our faith lives and our participation in our sacred liturgical worship.  Knowing, for example, that when the Lord road into Jerusalem before the spring feast of Passover, suddenly the people switched to singing the psalms from the autumn harvest festival of Tabernacles because they thought the Lord was going to go to the Temple as Davidic Priest and offer sacrifice.  Knowing that it was after the lighting of the enormous oil lamps, 70 feet tall candelabra, on the second night of Tabernacles is when Jesus, standing in the gold-covered Temple reflecting the flames across the city, said “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), might be an enrichment of our Faith.

We must always give priority to our Catholic Christian identity.  But that doesn’t mean that we should be ignorant of or ignore the Jewish heritage of our magnificent God-guided family history.

Here is a singing of Esther from the Synagogue in Rome (Hebrew with an Italian accent).  Chapter 3 starts at 12:35 or so and right after is a mention of the hated Hamman.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. acardnal says:

    I wonder if Magilla Gorilla was Jewish.

  2. TomG says:

    Father, you have really outdone yourself this time. This is ecumenism at its best.

  3. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    Thank you, Father, for honoring the Elder Brother.

  4. PostCatholic says:

    Nice new template, congrats. I know how much work it is to revamp a big site like this one.

    Your readers may wish to be careful about which Jewish temple to visit for Purim. The service often features costumes and skits and lampoons current political figures. I remember going to a Conservative (as opposed to Reform or Orthodox) Synagogue here in DC in 1999. Esther was a nice Jewish girl named Monica from California, Hamman was Kenneth Starr, etc… That was probably the most extreme but last February before the outbreak, I went with the same friend to a different jewish community (this time Reform) and then, President Trump was getting a similar (hilarious!) treatment.

  5. Ages says:

    Is it not strange that those who worship the Crucified keep common festival with those who crucified him? – St. John Chrysostom

  6. Ages says:

    That is not a one off insult. St. John preached a number of sermons Adversus Judaeos, against Christians who would venerate the Jewish religion.

    @Sid: Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets whom the Jews persecuted are our elder brothers, not the modern religion that rejects incarnate God and the Holy Trinity.

  7. Semper Gumby says:

    Sid Cundiff in NC and Ages: Good points.

    In Acts chapters 6-7 we read of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Then again, we also read in John 4: “Salvation is from the Jews.”

    We Christians are instructed, for very good reasons, to “hold fast to tradition” and “make disciples of all nations.” Meanwhile, the Church of Engendering Togetherness Together, with clown clergy and kazoo-playing parishioners, is thin gruel for the soul. Particularly if one finds themself onboard a troopship in 1943 on a cold night in the north Atlantic with a U-boat nearby…

    “…The U-223 approached the convoy on the surface, and after identifying and targeting the ship, he gave orders to fire the torpedoes, a fan of three were fired. The one that hit was decisive–and deadly–striking the starboard side, amid ship, far below the water line.

    “Captain Danielsen, alerted that the Dorchester was taking water rapidly and sinking, gave the order to abandon ship. In less than 20 minutes, the Dorchester would slip beneath the Atlantic’s icy waters.

    “Others, stunned by the explosion were groping in the darkness. Those sleeping without clothing rushed topside where they were confronted first by a blast of icy Arctic air and then by the knowledge that death awaited.

    “Through the pandemonium, according to those present, four Army chaplains brought hope in despair and light in darkness. Those chaplains were Lt. George L. Fox, Methodist; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, Jewish; Lt. John P. Washington, Roman Catholic; and Lt. Clark V. Poling, Dutch Reformed.

    “By this time, most of the men were topside, and the chaplains opened a storage locker and began distributing life jackets. It was then that Engineer Grady Clark witnessed an astonishing sight.

    “When there were no more lifejackets in the storage room, the chaplains removed theirs and gave them to four frightened young men.

    “As the ship went down, survivors in nearby rafts could see the four chaplains–arms linked and braced against the slanting deck. Their voices could also be heard offering prayers.

    “Of the 902 men aboard the Dorchester, 672 died, leaving 230 survivors. When the news reached American shores, the nation was stunned by the magnitude of the tragedy and heroic conduct of the four chaplains.”

    “During the fourth watch of the night He came toward them, walking on the sea.”

  8. EC says:

    St. Thomas gives a very hard take on using the sacraments and ceremonies of the Old Law (I-II q. 103 a. 4), but I wonder how deeply the logic would extend into feasts, especially those not actually prescribed by Scripture and a bit distant in character from the Paschal Mystery (like Purim). The critical tension is that the exterior observance is, regardless of one’s subjective intention, objectively ordered towards a certain kind of worship in some cases (cf. I-II q. 94 a. 2 – where Thomas absolutely blasts Seneca for pretending to worship pagan deities despite not believing in them). In this case, the question seems to be, to what degree does a feast like Purim objectively signify anticipation of the Christ and the Paschal Mystery? Maybe it’s a thesis waiting to be written.

  9. samwise says:

    @Ages: well said. Rabbinical Judaism pales in comparison to the faith of the Patriarchs. We need more Hellenistic influence per Ratzinger’s Regensburg Address!

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  11. samwise says:

    Moses Maimonides is a key example of a well-rounded rabbi open to Aristotelian logic. Ratzinger’s references to the septuagint are so crucial. Written by Jews in Greek under the influence of the Holy Spirit

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