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Virtual Purim brings insight but no substitute for Megillah

NEW YORK, Feb. 22 (JTA) — This Purim, the Internet is putting a new twist on the Scroll of Esther. Revelers preparing to celebrate the springtime holiday can use the World Wide Web for a deeper understanding of the Megillah, or scroll, which tells the story of the fourth-century-B.C.E. redemption of the Jews of Persia. Purim begins March 1 this year, one week after the second annual Jewish Web Week (Feb. 22-26) promoting Jewish activity on the Internet. The Web Week’s organizers estimate that there are 5,000 Jewish Web sites, 613 — the number of commandments in the Torah — of which are linked to their host site (www.jww.org). One of the newest Jewish cyberspace locations is Jewish Interactive Studies, which hit the Web in August. The service invites students to “study the classic sources of Jewish knowledge,” ranging from the Midrash, rabbinic commentaries from the first to the fifth centuries C.E., to the 18th-century Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna. Its 5-week Purim Holiday Handbook course, which runs through the end of February, provides weekly updates on the Purim story. Each installment summarizes an episode in the tale of the Jewish heroine Esther’s marriage to the Persian King Ahasuerus and her strategies, worked out with her cousin Mordechai, to save the Jews from the genocidal plot of the king’s adviser, Haman. The role of divine providence in the tale of political intrigue — though not specifically mentioned — is underscored by rabbinic interpretations. By examining the detailed account of the Megillah, the Web site explains, the student will realize that the “seemingly trivial events that preceded the salvation of the Jewish people” in fact “depict a sequence of concealed miraculous events that brought about the ultimate salvation.” To date, classes have covered the Book of Esther and the biblical narratives of Isaac and Jacob. Future offerings will delve into the foundations of Judaism and an overview of the Hebrew Bible. Jewish Interactive Studies has some 500 registered students logging on from places as far flung as France and rural West Virginia. About half of them have “little to no Jewish knowledge” according to Michael Zauderer, the director of public relations for the group, which is sponsored by a family foundation in memory of relatives who perished in the Holocaust. Students’ questions are answered personally by the Jerusalem-based Talmud lecturer (and certified public accountant) Rabbi Moshe Zauderer and his staff of teachers. Occasional chat rooms have allowed students to exchange their own views as well, but the main interactions occur between teacher and individual student. “I was overwhelmed by the depth of your response,” writes one student from Philadelphia, identified simply as “Y.S.” “I assume you respond to all your students that way,” Y.S. adds, “I am not sure how you find the time. It’s like having a private rabbinical tutor.” A few other Web sites offer users rabbinic exegesis on the Purim story and the holiday’s customs and themes (such as www.vjholidays.com/purim). Some sites- – including one run by an outreach group called Project Genesis (www.torah.org) — also provide instant e-mail links to rabbis for questions and comments. While supporting the effort at virtual Purim, most rabbis will tell you that according to halacha, Jewish law, the ideal way to observe the Purim holiday is by attending a reading of the Megillah. “It is the hearing that is essential,” said Rabbi Alan Cohen, a conservative rabbi in Kansas City.

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