Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar with costumes, masquerades, plays, parodies and carnivals. It is a time when things are turned upside down, and it is considered one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar.
It is so beloved, the rabbis predicted that Purim will be observed even in the messianic days, when almost all other Jewish holidays will be abolished.
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The story of Purim is told in the Scroll of Esther, known as Megillat Esther. It is a tale of glamorous banquets, political intrigue and high drama resulting in the Jews overturning a death decree issued against them.
Haman, an advisor to King Ahasverus of Persia, convinced the king to issue a decree that all Jews residing in the city of Shushan be killed. Haman then drew lots, determining that the decree would be carried out on the 13th day of the month of Adar (the word Purim comes from pur, the Hebrew word meaning "lots"). Haman's desire for the decree was rooted in his hatred for Mordechai, a pious Jew who refused to bow down to him. Haman saw Mordechai's actions as a lack of respect for the king, and an indication of the prevailing attitude of the Jews toward the kingdom. In reality, Mordechai was a loyal citizen who had demonstrated his allegiance by foiling a plot to assassinate the king.
Meanwhile, Esther, the young cousin of Mordechai, was chosen in a beauty contest to be the next queen, after Queen Vashti was banished for disobeying King Ahasverus. Esther never revealed her Jewish identity to him, as Mordechai had warned her that it must remain a secret.
When Mordechai was alerted to the death decree and the imminent danger facing the Jewish community, he begged Esther to intercede on behalf of her people and convince the king to rescind the decree. Esther was afraid, but knew that only she could save her people. She then concocted a clever scheme: she invited Haman and King Ahasverus to an elaborate banquet, during which she revealed that she was Jewish and feared for her life because of the decree Haman instigated. The king was outraged that his beloved Esther's life was in danger. He then remembered that it was Mordechai, a Jew, who had saved him from assassination in the past. At that point, the tables turned on Haman, and his plan to hang Mordechai and kill the Jews came back against him. The king ordered his soldiers to hang Haman from the same tree originally planned for Mordechai's demise, rewarded Mordechai with Haman's job and instituted Purim as a holiday throughout the Jewish community.
The Fast of Esther
Many people fast on the 13th day of Adar to commemorate the fact that Esther asked the Jews to fast and pray so that she would succeed in saving their lives.
The story of Purim is recounted in Megillat Esther. This handwritten scroll is read after sundown on the 13th day of Adar, and again on the next morning. The story of the triumph of the Jews over their enemies was recounted in scrolls dispatched throughout Persia. Therefore, it is customary to fold the megillah up like a letter as it is being read. The megillah is of rabbinic origin and is not part of the Torah.
Purim is the one time that everyone can make as much noise as they want in the synagogue—but only when the name "Haman" is read aloud. People use groggers (noisemakers), stamp their feet and clap or yell to drown out the name of the evil Haman.
Everyone, including women, is commanded to hear the megillah. One should listen carefully to the recited blessings before the actual reading and answer "amen" to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the megillah.
One of the most enjoyable mitzvot associated with Purim is sending gifts of food to friends and family. The mishloach manot package should contain at least two different types of food, one of which should be cooked. Usually included are hamantaschen, which are triangle-shaped pastries with prune, poppy seed or other filling. They symbolize the tri-cornered hat Haman was said to have worn. To fulfill the minimum of this mitzvah, one should send two ready-to-eat items to at least one person. It is customary for children dressed in costumes to deliver the mishloach manot.
One of the most important mitzvot of Purim is giving gifts to the poor. Charity is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, but it is particularly important during holidays to ensure that everyone can celebrate and observe the holiday. You must give at least one gift of charity to two different people in order to fulfill the mitzvah of matanot le'evyonim.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
It is written in Megillat Esther that "They were to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, as a time for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor." (9:22) Purim comes to an end with a festive meal (seudah) late in the day. There are no specific rituals; it is just a time for family and friends to get together and enjoy a meal.
Wine has always played an important role in sanctifying Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, but on Purim it has a different meaning. It is written in the Talmud, "It is the obligation of each person to be so drunk [on Purim] as to not to be able to tell the difference between blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman." Some rabbis explain that one shouldn't get drunk, but rather drink a little more than usual to enjoy the holiday. Purim is also a time for carnivals and masquerades. In Israel, a costume parade (the adloyada) takes place yearly.
Purim Thoughts for Today
There are timeless lessons for us all through Megillat Esther. One is the active role Esther takes in saving her community. She could have kept her identity as a Jew a secret, and would not have jeopardized her life nor faced danger. But Esther knew she had a responsibility, both to herself and to her people, and she had to do everything possible to save them. Esther used her ingenuity and her power as queen to save her people.
God and Country
The story of Purim is an example of the obstacles and life-threatening experiences Jews have faced in the diaspora. Mordechai exemplifies how Jews in the diaspora can adhere to their religious convictions while still remaining loyal to the local laws and customs of their governing countries.
Reality and Illusion
The story of Purim illustrates that things do not always appear on the surface as they really are. Thus, Haman's loyalty to King Ahasverus is a ploy to try to attain more power for himself. Esther, at first seemingly powerless as she is forced to become queen, exhibits tremendous strength and wisdom to save her people.
Nowhere in the megillah is God's name written. But if one looks closely at the story, perhaps the omission of God's name is consistent with the theme of things not always appearing as they really are.
One discovers many incidents that set the stage for the Jews to be saved. Mordechai "happens" to overhear two people discussing a plot to kill the king, Esther "happens" to be chosen out of thousands to be queen and Haman picks Mordechai as the object of his anger. Are all of these coincidences? Or could it be that despite the absence of God's name in the megillah, there is actually a divine presence interceding and arranging the circumstances by which Mordechai and Esther save the Jews?