The Book of Esther tells the story of how the holiday Purim came to be. Ruled by King Ahashverosh, the king’s prime minister, Haman concocted a plan to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. Queen Esther and her cousin, Mordechai stopped Haman’s plot and saved the Jews of Persia from being killed. A rowdy affair, when Haman’s name is spoken during the reading of the m’gillah, it is usually followed by booing and other noise-making.
An unusual holiday, Purim is a unique Jewish holiday that is routinely celebrated. First, the Book of Esther does not mention God within its pages and is the only biblical book that does this. Secondly, like Hanukkah, which is viewed as a minor festival traditionally, Purim is also elevated to being a major holiday due to it being part of the Jewish historical experience. Haman, as the centuries passed, embodied every anti-Semitic person found in any land where Jews were being oppressed. Purim’s significance lies not how it started, but what it has become over the centuries: an affirmation of the Jewish survival against all odds that is both thankful and joyous.
The history surrounding Purim can be found in the Book of Esther, which is one of the books located in the Ketuvim or Writings section of the Bible. Set in Persia, which today is Iran during the reign of King Ahashverosh, the king ordered his queen, Vashti to come and dance in front of the guests he had invited to a banquet he was holding in the capital city of Shushan. The Queen refused to appear and because of this, lost her royal position in the kingdom.
Advised by his counselors, King Ahashverosh decided to hold a pageant in order to choose a new queen for his kingdom. Encouraged by her cousin, Mordechai who was a Jewish man living in Shushan, Esther entered the pageant and won, but did not reveal her Jewish origins to the king on the advice of her cousin.
While sitting near the gate of the king’s palace one day, as he often liked to do, Mordechai overheard two men plotting to kill the king. Telling his cousin, Esther let the king know on the threat on his life by Bigthan and Teresh and after an investigation, the news was proven to be accurate and Bightan and Teresh were executed for their crimes. In the king’s diary, Mordechai’s good deed was recorded.
Haman, the king’s evil advisor would parade through the streets and demand that all would bow to him. The Jewish people only bow in the presence of God and no one else and Mordechai refused to bow in front of the king’s advisor. Once Haman discovered Mordechai as being Jewish, a decision to kill the all of the Jews that were in the Persian empire. While plotting to kill the Jewish people, he convinced King Ahashverosh to agree to his plan and decided to cast Purim, which was a sort of lottery that would decide which day Haman’s evil plan would commence. That date was the 13th of Adar.
Once again, Mordechai informed his cousin Esther of the plan to kill the Jews. Esther decided to reveal her Jewish ancestry to her king, and convinced him to stop the plot by Haman and save the Jewish people. The king had Haman hanged for his crimes. Receiving his estates, Mordechai became the royal vizier to the king and going forward the Jewish people of Persia
would celebrate their good fortune of escaping the plot against them on the 14th of Adar, the day after they were to be exterminated.
The planned fate for the Jews of Persia had become Haman’s and the bravery of Esther and Mordechai as well as the freedom from the cruelty of oppression are celebrated on the holiday known as Purim.
While observed in many places on the 14th day in the month of Adar, it is celebrated on the 15th day in Jerusalem. The Book of Esther tells us “on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month – that is the month of Adar – when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews intended to have rule over them, the opposite happened, and the Jews prevailed over their adversaries.”
On the 13th day of Adar, the Jews fought their enemy and won and the following day, they celebrated their victory. M’gillat Esther (Book of Esther) continues to tell the tale that the Jewish people were not victorious in the walled city known as Shushan until the 14th of Adar. During the time of Joshua, any city that was enclosed would not celebrate the victory until the 15th of Adar. This celebration would be named Shushan Purim, which many feel, even to this day that is it an appropriate name for the celebration. In Jerusalem, because of its significance, Shushan Purim is the day that Purim is celebrated on.
Customs and Rituals
We are told that Purim is a time for “sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor” (Esther 9:22) and that it is also a time for “feasting and moneymaking” in the Book of Esther. While the Book of Esther (M’gillah) is read other people celebrating the holiday may wear costumes, perform funny little plays that adapt the story of the M’gillah, have festive parties, and will also give gifts to the poor, a practice known as matanot l’evyonim and also sending food baskets to friends and this practice is called mishloach manot.
In Yiddish, it is translated to mean Haman’s pockets and the shape that Hamantaschen is created to look like a pocket. A three-cornered pastry, they are filled with fruit preserves, chocolate, poppy seeds, and other ingredients that are normally enjoyed on Purim. In the weeks leading up to Purim, the smell of freshly baking hamantaschen can be smelled all over Israel. While to some they may look like pockets, they are believed to represent Haman’s ears or hat.
Many children and adults will choose to wear costumes during Purim’s carnival-like atmosphere and many will say that the tradition is to signify the fact that Esther hid or “masked” her true Jewish identity. While some choose to dress as characters from the story of Purim, others will choose to dress like other select heroes from the history of the Jewish people in the vibrant and highly participated custom.
The celebrations in Israel are extravagant and exciting full of people of all ages who rejoice with parades, costumes, carnivals, and parties. At the Western Wall, also known as the Kotel, thereading of the M’gillat Esther in the women’s section is done by volunteers for Women of the Wall. It is said that the parade in the streets of Tel Aviv can be particularly wild.
In the Synagogue
The scroll or M’gillah is also known as the Book of Esther, but most often is referring to the M’gillat Esther translated as The Scroll of Esther. The Talmud tells us “The study of Torah is interrupted for the reading of the M’gillah.” In teachings from the 12th-century rabbi and sage Maimonides, we learn, “The reading of the M’gillah certainly supersedes all other mitzvot.”
The Book of Esther is traditionally read during morning and evening services in North American and Isreal on Purim. The can be numerous customs that have been tied to the reading of the Book. The enemy of the Jews in the story, Haman, is the representation of those who, throughout history have tried to destroy the Jewish people. At every mention of his name, loud noises whether through verbal means or with noisemakers in order to drown out the mention of Haman’s name. From the Polish word for “rattle”, beginning in the 13th century, throughout Europe, the Jewish people would use a grogger would be played in order to drown out the name during the reading of the M’gillah during Purim celebrations.
Purimspiel is meant to be a humorous parody of the story in the Book of Esther performed on Purim. While meant to be fun, it can also be common for participants to not only pick on themselves in a gentle way but also laugh about their idiosyncrasies as well. There are some adults-only events run by some congregations on Purim.
Gifts of food that friends, and possibly new friends exchange during Purim is known as mishloach manit and while these baskets can include items such as the three-sided, traditional pastry known as hamantaschen but it can have many different foods and treats included in the basket. The gifts are commonly referred to by their name in Yiddish, shalachmanos.
These baskets are made at home by Jewish families and given out to friends and hamantaschen are typically made by these same families so the recipient can enjoy them at home.
Gifts to the poor, known as matanot l’evyonim are distributed during this time of year to those who are in need so that they can celebrate Purim as well and have a special meal. This aspect of social justice is met by the many Jewish families who commit to participating in this important event.