Purim- February 24, 2013
Purim (Hebrew: פורים Pûrîm “lots”) is a rabbinically ordained Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from Haman’s plot to annihilate all of them in the ancient Persian Empire as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther. The Jews were in the Babylonian captivity because Babylonia had destroyed Solomon’s Temple and dispersed the defeated Jews of the Kingdom of Judah. Babylonia was in turn conquered by Persia. Purim is characterized by public recitation of the Book of Esther, giving mutual gifts of food and drink, giving charity to the poor, and a celebratory meal (Esther 9:22); other customs include drinking wine, wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebration.
Purim is celebrated annually according to the Hebrew calendar on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the day following the victory of the Jews over their enemies which was on the 13th day of Adar. In cities that were protected by a surrounding wall at the time of Joshua, including Shushan and Jerusalem, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month, known as Shushan Purim. As with all Jewish holidays, Purim begins at sundown on the previous secular day.
Fast of Esther- February 21, 2013
The Fast of Esther, observed before Purim, on the 13th of Adar, is an original part of the Purim celebration, referred to in Esther 9:31-32. The first who mentions the Fast of Esther is Rabbi Achai Gaon (Acha of Shabcha) (8th century CE) in She’iltot 4; the reason there given for its institution is based on an interpretation of Esther 9:18, Esther 9:31 and Talmud Megillah 2a: “The 13th was the time of gathering”, which gathering is explained to have had also the purpose of public prayer and fasting. Some, however, used to fast three days in commemoration of the fasting of Esther; but as fasting was prohibited during the month of Nisan, the first and second Mondays and the Thursday following Purim were chosen. The fast of the 13th is still commonly observed; but when that date falls on a Sabbath, the fast is pushed forward to the preceding Thursday, Friday being needed to prepare for the Sabbath and the following Purim festival.
Overview of the Holiday
The events leading up to Purim were recorded in the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther), which became the last of the 24 books of the Tanakh to be canonized by the Sages of the Great Assembly. The Book of Esther records a series of apparently unrelated events which took place over a nine-year period during the reign of King Ahasuerus. These coincidental events, taken together, are taken to be evidence of divine intervention, according to interpretations by Talmudic and other major commentaries on the Megillah.
The holiday of Purim has been held in high esteem by Judaism at all times; some have held that when all the prophetical and hagiographical works are forgotten, the Book of Esther will still be remembered, and, accordingly, the Feast of Purim will continue to be observed (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1/5a; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Megilla).
Its status as a holiday is on a lesser level than those days ordained holy by the Torah. Accordingly, business transactions and even manual labor are allowed on Purim, though in certain places restrictions have been imposed on work (Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chayim, 696). A special prayer (“Al ha-Nissim”-”For the Miracles”) is inserted into the Amidah during evening, morning and afternoon prayers, as well as is included in the Birkat Hamazon (“Grace after Meals.”)
The four main mitzvot of the day are:
- Listening to the public reading, usually in synagogue, of the Book of Esther in the evening and again in the following morning (kriat megilla)
- Sending food gifts to friends (mishloach manot)
- Giving charity to the poor (matanot le’evyonim)
- Eating a festive meal (seudah)
Reading of the Megilla
The first religious ceremony ordained for the celebration of Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther (the “Megilla”) in the synagogue, a regulation ascribed in the Talmud (Megilla 2a) to the Sages of the Great Assembly, of which Mordecai is reported to have been a member. Originally this enactment was for the 14th of Adar only; later, however, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3d century CE) prescribed that the Megillah should also be read on the eve of Purim. Further, he obliged women to attend the reading of the Megillah, inasmuch as it was a woman, Queen Esther, through whom the miraculous deliverance of the Jews was accomplished.
In the Mishnah, the recitation of a benediction on the reading of the Megilla is not yet a universally recognized obligation. However, the Talmud, a later work, prescribed three benedictions before the reading and one benediction after the reading. The Talmud added other provisions. For example, the reader is to pronounce the names of the ten sons of Haman (Esther 9:7-10) in one breath, to indicate their simultaneous death. The congregation was to recite aloud with the reader the verses 2:5, 8:15-16, and 10:3, which relate the origin of Mordechai and his triumph.
The Megilla is read with a cantillation (a traditional chant) differing from that used in the customary reading of the Torah. In some places, however, it is not chanted, but is read like a letter, because of the name iggeret (“epistle”) which is applied (Esther 9:26,29) to the Book of Esther. It has been also customary since the time of the early Medieval era of the Geonim to unroll the whole Megilla before reading it, in order to give it the appearance of an epistle. According to Halakha (“Jewish law”), the Megillah may be read in any language intelligible to the audience.
Boisterousness in the Synagogue
Partly due to the festival’s national rather than religious character, it was appropriate to celebrate the occasion by feasting. Purim is an occasion on which much joyous license is permitted within the walls of the synagogue itself. For example, during the public service in many congregations, when the reader of the Megillah mentions Haman (54 occurrences), there is boisterous hissing, stamping, and rattling. This practice traces its origin to the Tosafists (the leading French and German rabbis of the 13th century). In accordance with a passage in the Midrash, where the verse “Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek” (Deuteronomy 25:19) is explained to mean “even from wood and stones”, the rabbis introduced the custom of writing the name of Haman, the offspring of Amalek, on two smooth stones and of knocking or rubbing them constantly until the name was blotted out.
Women and Megilla Reading
Women have an obligation to hear the megilla because “they also were involved in that miracle.”
Giving of Food Gifts and Charity
The Book of Esther prescribes “the sending of portions one man to another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22). Over time, this mitzvah has become one of the most prominent features of the celebration of Purim. According to the Halakha, each Jew over the age of bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah must send two different, ready made foods to one friend, and two charitable donations to two poor people, to fulfill these two mitzvot. The gifts to friends are called mishloach manot (“sending of portions”) and the donations are matanos l’evyonim (“gifts to the poor”).
In the synagogue, regular collections of charity are made on the festival and the money is distributed among the needy. No distinction was to be made among the poor; anyone who was willing to accept charity is allowed to participate. It is obligatory upon the poorest Jew, even one who is himself dependent on charity, to give to other poor people.
The Purim Meal
On Purim day, typically toward evening, a festive meal called Seudat Purim is held, often with wine as the prominent beverage; consequently, drunkenness is not uncommon at this meal. The jovial character of this feast is illustrated in the saying of the Talmud (Megilla 7b) stating that one should drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between (ad delo yada) the phrases, arur Haman (“Cursed is Haman”) and baruch Mordechai (“Blessed is Mordecai”). In Hebrew these phrases have the same gematria (“numerical value”), and some authorities, including the Be’er Hagolah and Rabbi Avraham Gombiner known as the Magen Avraham, have ruled that one should drink wine until he is unable to calculate these numerical values.
Costumes and masks are worn to disguise the wearers’ identities. Mistaken identity plays an important role in The Book of Esther, as Esther hid her cultural origins from the king, Mordecai hid his knowledge of all the world’s languages (which allowed Bigthan and Teresh to discuss their plot openly in his presence), and Haman was mistaken for Mordechai when he led Mordechai through the streets of the capital city of Shushan. According to the Talmud, Haman’s daughter, thinking that it must be Mordechai leading her father around, dumped a chamber pot on her father’s head as he passed by, and, realizing her error, committed suicide.
The one who is truly hidden behind all the events of the Megillah is God. The Jewish Sages referred to His role as הסתר פנים (hester panim, or “hiding of the Face”, which is also hinted at in the Hebrew name for the Book of Esther, Megillat Esther-literally, “revelation of [that which is] hidden”). Although Jews believe that everything turned out in the end for the best as a direct result of Divine intervention (that is, a series of miracles), the Book of Esther lacks any mention of God’s name and appears to have been nothing more than a result of natural occurrences. On the other hand, Jewish philosophy and scriptural commentators believe that the reason for the omission of God’s name is in order to emphasize the very point that God remained hidden throughout this series of events, but was nonetheless present and played a large role in the outcome of the story. Furthermore, this lesson can be taken into consideration on a much larger scale: Throughout Jewish history, and especially in the present Jewish diaspora, God’s presence has been felt more at certain times than at others. Megillat Esther (and the omission of God’s name in it) serves to show that although God may not be conspicuously present at times, He nevertheless plays (and has played) an important role in everyone’s lives and in the future of the Jewish nation. In remembrance of how God remained hidden throughout the Purim miracle, Jews dress up on Purim and many hide their faces.
Songs associated with Purim are based on sources that are Talmudic, liturgical and cultural. Traditional Purim songs include Mishenichnas Adar marbim be-simcha (“From the beginning of [the Hebrew month of] Adar, joy increases”-Mishnah Taanith 4:1), LaYehudim haisah orah ve-simchah ve-sasson ve-kar (“The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor”-Esther 8:16), and Mechayav inish livesumei (“There is an obligation to drink”-Talmud Megilla 7b.) The prayer, Shoshanat Yaakov, read at the conclusion of the Megillah reading, is often sung to various popular melodies.
During Purim it is traditional to serve triangular pastries-called homentashn (“Haman’s pockets”) in Yiddish and oznei Haman (“Haman’s ears”) in modern Hebrew. A sweet cookie dough is rolled out, cut into circles, and traditionally filled with a sweet poppyseed filling, then wrapped up into a triangular shape with the filling either hidden or showing. It is customary to eat seeds on Purim in remembrance of Jews in ancient times who had no access to kosher food and subsisted on seeds. More recently, prunes, dates, apricots, and chocolate fillings have been introduced. This pastry belongs to the Ashkenazi cuisine, its Sephardic equivalent is a thin dough called Fazuelos. Kreplach, a kind of dumpling filled with cooked meat, chicken or liver and served in soup, are also traditionally served by Ashkenazi Jews on Purim.
Shushan Purim (the 15th day of Adar) is the day on which Jews in Jerusalem and Shushan (in Iran) celebrate Purim. The Book of Esther explains that while the Jews in unwalled cities fought their enemies on the 13th of Adar and rested on the 14th, the Jews in the walled capital city of Shushan spent the 13th and 14th defeating their enemies, and rested on the 15th (Esther 9:20-22).
Although Mordecai and Esther decreed that only walled cities should celebrate Purim on the 15th, in commemoration of the battle in the walled city of Shushan, the Jewish sages noted that Jerusalem, the focus of Jewish life, lay in ruins during the events of the Book of Esther. To make sure that a Persian city was not honored more than Jerusalem, they made the determination of which cities were walled by referring to ancient cities walled during the time of Joshua. This allowed Jerusalem to be included on the basis of that criteria; paradoxically, they included Shushan as the exceptional case since the miracle occurred there, even though it did not have a wall in Joshua’s time.
The Megillah is also read on the 15th in a number of other cities in Israel-such as Jaffa, Acre, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron-but only as a custom based on a doubt over whether these cities were walled during the time of Joshua. These cities therefore celebrate Purim on the 14th, and the additional Megillah reading on the 15th is a stringency. Jews in these cities do not recite the blessings over the reading of the Megillah on the 15th.
When the main Purim date, the 14th of Adar, comes out on a Friday, then in Jerusalem there is a situation called Purim HaMeshulash – a 3 part Purim celebration. Shushan Purim is then on the 16th day, rather than the 15th day, of Adar. Each day has a different focus. The giving of money can’t occur on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, and since it would be unfair to make the poor wait a day, so it is moved to the 14th of Adar. The Megilla reading in Jerusalem takes place on the 14th as well.
This “triple” Purim is a chance to strengthen the celebration even outside of Israel, since on Friday the Purim meal cannot be carried over after dark, as is usually done. These are not very common; they cluster (about every 2-3 years) and then they leave gaps as large as 13 years.
In leap years on the Hebrew calendar, Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar. (The Karaites, however, celebrate it in the first month of Adar.) The 14th of the first Adar is then called Purim Katan (“Little Purim” in Hebrew) and the 15th is Shushan Purim Katan, for which there no set observances but have a minor holiday aspect to it. The distinctions between the first and the second Purim in leap years are mentioned in the Mishnah (Megillah 1/46b; compare Orach Chayim 697).