Jewish Holidays


Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It
commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved
from extermination.

The story of Purim is told in the Biblical book of Esther. The heroes of the
story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia, and her
cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter. Esther was taken
to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to become part of his harem. King
Ahasuerus loved Esther more than his other women and made Esther queen,
but the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her
not to reveal her nationality.

The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king.
Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so
Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. In a speech that is all too
familiar to Jews, Haman told the king, "There is a certain people scattered
abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm.
Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not
observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate
them." Esther 3:8. The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, to
do as he pleased to them. Haman planned to exterminate all of the Jews.

Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish
people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who
came into the king's presence without being summoned could be put to death,
and she had not been summoned. Esther fasted for three days to prepare
herself, then went into the king. He welcomed her. Later, she told him of
Haman's plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman
was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.

The book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the Bible that does
not contain the name of God. In fact, it includes virtually no reference to
God. Mordecai makes a vague reference to the fact that the Jews will be
saved by someone else, if not by Esther, but that is the closest the book
comes to mentioning God. Thus, one important message that can be gained
from the story is that God often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways
that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck.

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which is usually in March. The
13th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews,
and the day that the Jews battled their enemies for their lives. On the day
afterwards, the 14th, they celebrated their survival. In cities that were walled
in the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month, because
the book of Esther says that in Shushan (a walled city), deliverance from the
massacre was not complete until the next day. The 15th is referred to as
Shushan Purim.

In leap years, when there are two months of Adar, Purim is celebrated in the
second month of Adar, so it is always one month before Passover. The 14th
day of the first Adar in a leap year is celebrated as a minor holiday called
Purim Katan, which means "little Purim." There are no specific observances
for Purim Katan; however, a person should celebrate the holiday and should
not mourn or fast. Some communities also observe a "Purim Katan" on the
anniversary of any day when their community was saved from a catastrophe,
destruction, evil or oppression.  The word "Purim" means "lots" and refers to
the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for the massacre.

The Purim holiday is preceded by a minor fast, the Fast of Esther, which
commemorates Esther's three days of fasting in preparation for her meeting
with the king.

The primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the
book of Esther. The book of Esther is commonly known as the Megillah,
which means scroll. Although there are five books of Jewish scripture that
are properly referred to as megillahs (Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of
Songs, and Lamentations), this is the one people usually mean when they
speak of The Megillah. It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet, and rattle
gragers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the
service. The purpose of this custom is to "blot out the name of Haman."

Jews are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry. According to the
Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference
between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai," though opinions
differ as to exactly how drunk that is. However, Jews say that a person
certainly should not become so drunk that he might violate other
commandments or get seriously ill. In addition, recovering alcoholics or
others who might suffer serious harm from alcohol are exempt from this

In addition, Jews are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to
make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as
shalach manos (lit. sending out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews, a
common treat at this time of year is hamentaschen (lit. Haman's pockets).
These triangular fruit-filled cookies are supposed to represent Haman's
three-cornered hat. My recipe is included below.

It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to
perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests. It has
been reported that the usual prohibitions against cross-dressing
are lifted during this holiday.  Americans sometimes refer to
Purim as the Jewish Mardi Gras. Purim is not subject to the Sabbath-like
restrictions on work that some other holidays are; however, some sources
indicate that Jews should not go about ordinary business on Purim out of
respect for the holiday.
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