It has all the makings of a modern-day thriller: intrigue, a beautiful woman with a secret, an evil adviser, an assassination plot, and a table-turning ending. The latest best-selling novel? No, it’s the story of Purim.
One of the most festive and joyous holidays on the Jewish calendar, Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from a plot to massacre them.
Told in the Book of Esther, the story of Purim revolves around events that took place when Ahashverosh reigned as king. His wife had fallen in disfavor and Ahashverosh held a beauty pageant to crown a new queen.
Mordechai, a Jewish man who was raising his cousin Esther as his daughter, encouraged Esther to enter the competition. The king chose the young beauty, but at Mordechai’s urging, she did not reveal she was Jewish.
To be nearer to Esther, Mordechai often sat near the gate of the king’s palace. It was there that he overheard two men plotting to kill the king. He passed this information to Esther, who told Ahashverosh. The treasonous plot was thwarted, and Esther grew in the king’s favor.
The king’s advisor, Haman, was evil and egotistical and rode through the streets demanding that all bow down to him. When Mordechai refused because Jews bow to no one but God, the enraged Haman plotted to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. Haman drew “purim” or lots to determine that the killings would take place on the 13th of Adar, and convinced the king to approve his plan.
Learning of the planned massacre, Mordechai convinced Esther to go to the king and tell him of the plot. She revealed that she was Jewish and that it was Mordechai who had uncovered the earlier assassination plot. She told Ahashverosh of Haman’s plan and while he would not countermand Haman’s orders, he issued another allowing the Jews to defend themselves. Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, which is usually in March. The primary commandment of Purim is to read the Book of Esther, known as the Megillah in synagogue. It is read once at night — Purim begins at sunset — and once again on the following morning of the holiday.
Because this is a joyful holiday, merrymaking is encouraged, and during the reading congregants boo, hiss, stamp their feet, or rattle noisemakers called gragers, whenever Haman is mentioned so that no one will have to hear the name of the evil-doer.
Plays and pageants are held during the one-day holiday, and it is common for adults and children to attend Purim services in costume. While tradition dictates that people dress as Esther, Mordechai, Haman or Ahashverosh, today it is not unusual to see Disney Princesses, superheroes, Harry Potters, and Sesame Street characters happily rattling their gragers when Haman’s name is spoken.
The Book of Esther also commands celebrants to eat and drink until they cannot tell the difference between “cursed Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai,” a practice that has been moderated considerably over the years.
A festive meal is part of the holiday, however, and a favorite Purim activity is baking hamantaschen. This triangular pastry is filled with prune, poppy seeds or other sweet jams. The traditional food of Purim, it is meant to look like Haman’s three-cornered hat. Purim would not be Purim in our home without these delicious pastries.
In addition, the celebration of Purim includes giving baskets of food to friends and neighbors, and charity to the poor so they too can have a special meal.
A Much-Loved Holiday
This year Purim begins at sunset March 7, and it’s easy to see why it’s such an eagerly anticipated holiday. Joy is freely expressed, children are encouraged to be loud when they are normally told to be quiet, costumes are worn, good food and good deeds are exchanged, and spirituality and levity find a common ground. What should not be lost in the festivities of the holiday, however, is that Purim’s story of a small and threatened community that rose up and fought back against an oppressor has relevance even today.
Union of Reform Judaism
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