The Jewish holiday Purim marks the commemoration of the story of the Book of Ester found in the writings of the Hebrew Bible. The book chronicles the first attempted genocide of the Jewish people in third century Persia under the rule of King Ahasuerus, and the holiday celebrates the victory and survival of the Jews.
The Book of Ester details King Ahasuerus’ marriage to Esther after he expelled his previous wife Queen Vashti in pursuit of a royal power play. Shortly after the marriage to Esther, the King’s Prime Minister Haman came before Ahasuerus to propose a genocide of the Jewish people. His anti-Semitism was not uncommon in the day, and one man’s refusal to bow down to Haman had further fueled the fire. The King gave Haman permission to carry through with the execution of the Jews in the Persian Empire on the 13th of Adar.
However, the Jew who refused to bow was Mordechai, who happened to be the cousin and guardian of Queen Esther. He convinced Esther to appeal to the King, reveal herself as a Jew, and stop the intended genocide of her people. Esther fasted for three days and appeared before Ahasuerus who heard her plea, changed his mind, and ordered Haman to be executed instead. However, the massacre of the Jews had already been ordered and the King could not stop it. He allowed the Jews to defend themselves against the Persian army. On the 14th of Adar in the Jewish lunar calendar, the Jews celebrated their victory.
The Traditions of Purim
While many may consider Yom Kippur to be the most sacred day of the Jewish year, in fact, Yom Kippur can be translated to mean “a day like Purim,” which is considered to be perhaps the holiest holiday in Judaism. And, as in many of the Jewish holidays, prayer marks an important ritual and custom of Purim. Traditionally, three prayers are recited on the 14th of Adar to celebrate the victory of the Jews in Persia, one of which honors the commandment to read the Megillah (the Book of Esther). This writing commemorates the eternal and familiar story of a threatened Jewish people. So it is quite literally a must-read.
2) Celebration and indulgence
The holiday is not only marked by gratitude, but by festivity, as well. On Purim, Jews are expected to enjoy a great feast and commanded to celebrate with excessive drinking. It is custom to blot out Haman’s name when the Megillah is read aloud in honor of the victory over the widespread Persian anti-Semitism.
3) A distinguished day
The indulgent celebration characterizes the drastic turnabout nature of Purim. In concordance with the unanticipated reversal of King Ahasuerus’ mind and the abrupt change to Haman’s plot, the day should be distinguished from other days of the year to remind one of the sudden, transient, and unexpected nature of existence. Customarily, Jews fast the day before Purim (the 13th of Adar) just as Esther fasted before pleading to the king to further facilitate this differentiation.
4) The element of disguise
Besides indulging in food and drinks, it is traditional to dress in costume or mask on Purim. Throughout the centuries, rabbis have interpreted this custom as a means by which one can remind himself of his individual and national identity, a concept that is rather significant in the Jewish culture. The masks are a reminder of the habit of assuming false identities, and reiterate the goal to unearth truth and self as Esther and Mordechai did.
5) Tzedakah (Charity, translated literally “commandment”)
Despite the revelry accumulated throughout the day, it is also tradition to give gifts to friends and charity to the poor. While Jews may celebrate the victory over Haman and the Persian army, Jewish culture endorses humility and gratitude, expressed in prayer and tzedakah.
Nowadays, it is custom to bake triangular cookies filled with fruit called hamantaschen, perform plays or skits of the Megillah story, or hold beauty contests to commemorate Esther. But while Purim marks a holiday of festivity and indulgence, it also represents a day of holiness and holds much cultural and historical significance in the Jewish religion.