What is Purim?
Of all the Jewish holidays, the most festive one, Purim, is probably one you've never heard of. Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar which falls in early spring. This year, Purim began on March 16th and continued through March 17th. Purim celebrates the time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination by the courage of a young Jewish woman named Esther during the First Persian Empire in 550 BCE.
The story of Purim begins with a feast made by King Achashverosh (pronunciation: ah-huh-sh-vey-ruh-sh) in the city of Shushan. In the pavilion of the royal courtyard, there was a separate drinking feast held for women hosted by his queen, Vashti. A drunken King Achashverosh commanded his wife to dance before him. When she refuses, King Achashverosh has her beheaded.
In order to find a new wife, the king holds a beauty pageant in search of the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. (Think 5th century BCE The Bachelor!) For those who watch The Bachelor, Esther, a Jew, receives the final rose. For those who don’t watch The Bachelor, the king chooses Esther as his new queen. Esther hides the fact that she is Jewish at the request of her uncle, Mordecai. At the same time, Mordecai discovers a plot to assassinate King Achashverosh and swiftly informs the king’s men. The king is grateful and indebted to Mordecai.
Here is where the plot thickens. King Achashverosh’s viceroy or right-hand man, Haman (Boo!), a narcissist, orders everyone to bow down to him as a sign of respect. Mordecai rightfully refuses, as bowing to an idol or image, such as the one Haman wears, goes against his religion. Mordecai is the only man to refuse to bow down, which infuriates Haman. Because Mordecai was Jewish, Haman convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the extermination of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar, a date chosen by a lottery.
After Mordechai found out this fearful news, he convened all of the Jews, convincing them to fast and pray to God. Meanwhile, Esther asked the king and Haman to join her for a small feast. At the feast, Esther revealed her Jewish identity to her husband and told the king how Haman is an abhorrent person who intended to exterminate her people. Enraged, Achashverosh demands that Haman be hanged, with Mordechai appointed prime minister in his place. In addition, a new decree was issued, granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
There are four main obligations to observe Purim. 1: The Purim story is read twice, on the night that Purim starts and the next morning. People are obligated to go to synagogue to hear the reading of the Purim story. This is called The Book of Esther, or in Hebrew, Migilat Esther. It is customary to make loud noises and spin a grogger (a noisemaker) when Haman’s name is said while chanting the story. This explains why I added “boo!” when I mentioned his name for the first time. 2: The holiday ends as the story begins, with a festive meal called a seudah (pronounced seh-ooh-DAH). The meal is required to take place during the day and should be more festive than most meals. 3: People send gifts of food to friends called mishloach manot (pronounced: mish-LOW-ach MAN-ot). The idea is to ensure that everyone has the means to celebrate Purim. It is customary to include homemade Hamantaschen, triangular shaped pastries that are intended to look like Haman’s hat. 4: The last obligation of Purim is giving to the poor. Everyone over the age of 13 is obligated to give, even if they do not have their own income, and even if they themselves would qualify to receive these gifts.
While not an obligation, it is a tradition to dress up in costumes and masks (no, not those kinds of masks). Dressing up for Purim was first documented by a 14th century Jewish poet in Rome. Coincidentally, Carnival, an annual festival held in Venice, Italy associated with Mardi Gras and renowned for its elaborate masks, was being celebrated at the same time. We honor Esther and disguise our identity as she hid her Jewish identity. The joyous holiday is made exponentially more fun when a costume is added to the mix.
So, the next time you pass by a bakery in early spring and see triangular-shaped cookies with funny-looking fillings, remember this story of miracles and determination, remember the story of Purim, and summon the courage to try one! (Scan the QR code for a recipe!)