Purim is the yearly festival commemorating the deliverance of the Jewish people in the days of King Xerxes of Persia (called Ahasuerus in Hebrew), as described in the Biblical book of Esther.
The Book of Esther, which is read in its entirety in the synagogue on Purim, tells of a Jewish girl named Hadassah, also known as Esther, whose circumstances placed her in a position to save her people from an evil plot to annihilate the entire Jewish population of the Persian Empire. The story is full of delightfully ironic twists and extraordinary coincidences.
The villain of the story is Haman the Amalekite. (The enmity between the sons of Israel and the sons of Amalek goes all the back to the Exodus.) Haman was held in high regard by the King of Persia, and expected to be venerated by all whose paths he crossed. Proud Haman took serious offense when a certain Mordechai refused to bow down to him. When he learned that Mordechai was a Jew, Haman determined to use his influence with the King to have a law decreed that would declare “open season” on Jews throughout the land on a certain date to be determined by lot. (The word “Purim” means “lots”).
Meanwhile, Queen Vashti of Persia had been deposed for insubordination, and a beauty pageant was arranged to find the comeliest replacement to please the King. Thus, did the young Jewish girl called Esther become the new queen of Persia, but neither Haman nor the King was aware that she was Jewish, or that Mordechai was her close relative and surrogate father. Mordechai had instructed her to keep her nationality a secret! One night King Ahasuerus was unable to sleep, and called for the annals to be read to him. Thus, he was reminded that a certain Mordechai had once uncovered a plot against the throne, and saved the royal neck. Realizing that Mordechai had never been suitably thanked, Ahasuerus began to cast around for a suitable way to honor him.
By extraordinarily ironic coincidence, the evil Haman just then approached the palace to request to have Mordechai hanged on a 70-foot gallows! But before he could make his request known, the King began to question him on “what should be done for the man the King delights to honor.” The vain and wicked Haman immediately assumed it was him the King intended to honor, and described the sort of fanfare he would fancy for himself: “Dress him in a royal robe, one the King himself has worn, and put him on the finest horse, and have him led about the city by one of the King’s highest nobles, proclaiming ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!’” Imagine his chagrin when the King revealed it was Mordechai he wished to honor, and “honored” Haman by picking him to lead the horse!
Now as gratifying as it is to see Haman put in his place while Mordechai is honored, the law is still set that Haman had earlier arranged for — that on Adar 15 every Jewish soul in Persia should perish, and the law of Medes and Persians was irrevocable. Once a law was sealed with the signet ring of the King, not even the King himself could repeal it. What could be done?
Esther realized it was up to her to appeal to the King for help, but this would not be easy. Not even the queen was allowed to approach the king unsummoned, and if the mood struck him wrong, he could have her hanged. The fate of the Jewish People was at stake however, and Esther took it as her solemn duty to do what she could, saying, “if I perish I perish. ” When she did approach the king, he welcomed her, but she did not make her request all at once. Instead she invited him to a banquet, and Haman also. She had three such banquets, and the King was so pleased with her he offered her “up to half of the Kingdom.” Only then did she reveal that her people were in danger, and that Haman was responsible. The King then left the room in anger, and while he was gone Haman threw himself at Esther to beg for mercy. When the King returned to the banquet hall and found Haman inappropriately close to his queen, he had the evil Amalekite dragged off and hanged — on the very gallows Haman had prepared for Mordechai! He then gave Haman’s estate to Esther, who gave Mordechai charge of it, and the King gave them his signet ring to draft another law — stating that the Jews of the empire would have the right of resistance when the fateful day arrived, and so be able to save themselves. According to the book of Esther itself, that day has been a day of celebration ever since.
It is traditional at Purim to read the entire story of Esther in the synagogue. In keeping with ancient custom, it is read from a scroll, which in Hebrew is called a “Megillah.” (It is from this custom of reading “the whole Megillah” of Esther that the expression “the whole megillah” originates). There is a carnival atmosphere in the synagogue on this occasion, with people wearing colorful costumes and making lots of noise whenever the
Name of the evil Haman is mentioned.
People wear costumes at Purim. Of course, the kids really get into this, but grownups dress up as well. There are differing opinions as to how exactly this custom originated. It may have been an outgrowth of the Purim pageants, and may people to do choose to dress as characters from the Esther story. Others dress as other Biblical characters. Another line of thinking associates the costumes with the need of the Jewish people to
disguise themselves to avoid the massacre which Haman had arranged, and hence it is considered appropriate to dress as things there decidedly not Jewish (e.g., a nun, Santa Claus, the pope). Obviously, between these two ideas, anything goes, and one is apt to find anything from Adam to Darth Vader.
The story is naturally dramatic, and can be great fun to act out. The people have fun with it, and find innovative ways to tell the story.
As the megillah is being read, the people listen for the name of Haman and try to drown it out with noise. Any kind of noise will do, but the traditional noisemaker is the grogger, a mechanical device which makes a loud grating sound when twirled in the hand.
A three-cornered cookie or pastry served at Purim, and filled with poppy-seed or other filling. The exact origin of the word is uncertain, but it is typically rendered “Haman’s Hat.” (In Israel, they’re know as “Haman’s Ears!”)
This custom comes right from the book itself — the sending of gifts. These gifts usually take the form of festively wrapped plates of delicacies.
Purim is a Biblical holiday, but it does not have the religious importance of the Holy Days mandated in the Torah. It was not commanded at Mount Sinai, but stems from the subsequent history of the Jewish people. It serves as an important reminder that G-d is always intervening for His people, even if it seems He is not present. This holiday is also a celebration of Esther’s obedience to G-d and G-d’s protection of His people at the first attempt to annihilate the Jews.
The book of Esther has the unusual distinction of being the only book of the Bible which makes no reference to God, the temple, the priesthood, the prophets, the patriarchs, prayer or any Jewish religious observance. Even the pagan gods of the Persians are not mentioned, making this the most secular book in Scripture.
The Book of Esther demonstrates that God’s promise to preserve his people cannot be overcome. Even though the book expresses no acknowledgment of God, his hand is evident in the outplay of events. Mordechai and Esther may have been God-fearing Jews, but the text itself leaves this open. One could as easily read the story as being about two determined secular Jews participating in God’s unfolding drama without even knowing who was behind it, just as secular Zionists and modern Israelis have done — fighting for the sake of the people while failing to acknowledge the God who assures their eventual success. From the Exodus to the Persian Gulf War, history is full of incidents in which the Chosen People have survived when the odds were against them. Is it only luck, or is it the God of Abraham, who promised to preserve his people?
Esther is a story of God at work behind the scenes. Someday He will step out from behind the curtain. Will you be glad to see Him?
Shalom v’chag Samech! (Happy holiday)
Rabbi Tamah Davis