What Is Purim?

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Purim is a Jewish holiday, celebrating the story of Esther, the queen of Shusan- Persia, or Iran in modern times, who saved the Jews from attempted genocide. Photo courtesy of GodTV.

Today is Purim, a Jewish holiday celebrating the story of Esther. Esther was the queen of Shushan — Persia, or Iran in modern times, who saved the Jews from attempted genocide. On Purim is also customary to eat hamantaschen, triangular-shaped cookies meant to represent either Haman’s ears or his hat. Another tradition on Purim is to listen to the story, the megillah, and dress up in costume, drowning out Haman’s name with noisemakers every time he is mentioned. The reason for wearing a costume is largely because of the Hebrew phrase, “v’nahafochu,” which roughly translates as “and everything was turned upside down.”    

“One of the amazing things about Purim is that with many mitzvos [commandments, good deeds] in the Torah you see are, like, mitzvos that are around social justice, mitzvos that we do for other people,” Leah Shemtov, co-director of Chabad of Stamford said. “On Purim, even though we take care of people that are in need: matanot l’evyonim [gifts for the poor], tzedakah [charity]; one of the things of Purim is also that we give shalach manos, which are gifts of food to our friends.”  

It is customary, around the time of Purim, to give gifts to others.  

On Purim is also customary to eat hamantaschen, triangular-shaped cookies meant to represent either Haman’s ears or his hat. Photo courtesy of ClassicallyKosher.

Esther’s cousin, Mordechai, who she was living with before her marriage to King Ahaseurus, encouraged her not to go by her Hebrew name, Hadas. It was only later when Ahaseurus’s advisor, Haman, was strolling through Shushan and Mordechai didn’t bow down to him, and Haman revealed a plot to kill all of the Jews on a random date, that Mordechai instructed Esther to reveal her Jewish identity. Coming to the king without an invitation was punishable by death. It was risky, even if that person was the king’s wife, but Mordechai warned her that if she decided not to confront Ahaseurus, not only she would die, but all of the Jews would die, as well. Esther obliged.   

People often think that “v’nahafochu” means the decree to murder all of the Jews was reversed when Esther revealed to Mordechai and Haman that she was Jewish at a dinner party she hosted. This is only half true, and is the version that is told to children because the real version is much more gruesome. Yes, Esther hosted a dinner party — two, actually — to reveal her Jewish status to the king and his advisor, but Ahaseurus let her know that once the decree was made, there was nothing he could do to change it. He did, however, add a clause saying that the Jews were allowed to fight back. There was a huge, bloody war in an entire chapter that is omitted when teaching to children. Esther fasted and instructed the Jews of Shushan to fast for three days before the war. When the war happened, the Jews survived.  

But, why did Esther become queen in the first place? Ahaseurus, who definitely abused alcohol, frequently held drinking parties. At one of his men’s parties, he bragged about how attractive his then wife, Vashti, was, who was at a separate women’s party. He asked her to dance naked. Vashti, of course, refused. Ahaseurus had her executed.  

Destined to find a new queen, Ahaseurus held a beauty pageant throughout all of Shushan. Ambivalent about prospects of becoming queen, Esther (then Hadas) didn’t even try to beautify herself, whereas other women put in a ton of effort. Despite this, Ahaseurus found her to be the most gorgeous woman in the land, so he picked her as queen.  

“The story does not once include God’s name. Some Torah scholars theorize that, like the meaning of Esther’s name, God was hidden.  “

Mordechai, who had no official royal role, frequently consulted with Esther on how to proceed with her queenly duties. Once an assumed polyglot, he even saved Ahaseurus from getting poisoned, something he was rewarded for, which made Haman livid.    

The story ends with Haman and his 10 sons being hanged.  

The story does not once include God’s name. Some Torah scholars theorize that, like the meaning of Esther’s name, God was hidden.  

Nevertheless, Purim is a happy holiday. There is a song, frequently sung at the beginning of the month of Adar, the month Purim is in, which goes like this: “When the month of adar arrives we should increase our joy!” Some celebrate Purim by having parties and drinking alcohol. If you celebrate, please celebrate responsibly, and Happy Purim. If you don’t, I hope you learned something about this Jewish holiday.

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