In the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on its thirteenth day ... on the day that the enemies of the Jews were expected to prevail over them, it was turned about: the Jews prevailed over their adversaries.
- Esther 9:1
Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar. We’re all probably familiar with the holiday’s story as told in the Book of Esther. A beautiful Persian girl named Esther becomes part of King Ahasuerus’s harem, and later his Queen, although he is unaware that she is Jewish. The King’s power-hungry advisor Haman plots revenge against the Jewish people as a way of getting back at Esther’s cousin Mordecai who would not bow down to him. Esther steps in to plead her case; the King listens, appoints Mordecai his prime minister, allows the Jews to defend themselves and Haman is sent to the gallows.
One of the dictates of Purim is that we are meant to listen to its story (“The Megillah”) being read. Interestingly, The Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible that doesn’t mention G-d. Instead, humanity, in the guise of a beautiful woman, must save itself. As such, in the third century, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi dictated that not only men should attend the reading of the Megillah but that women were obligated to hear it as well, since it was a woman who delivered the Jewish people into safety.
Over the years, the reading of The Megillah has turned into one of the most festive days in the Jewish calendar. This partially stems from the saying of the Talmud (Meg. 7b) that one should drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish "Cursed be Haman" from "Blessed be Mordechai".
Adding to the merriment, noisemakers (“groggers”) are in full force to block out the sound of Haman’s name. This tradition is traced back to the 13th century when French and German rabbis took to writing Haman’s name on two stones, knocking them together to make noise and physically rub off the text. Costumes and masks are also worn to mirror the many instances of mistaken identities that appear in the story of Esther as well as the “hidden face” of G-d directing the salvation of the Jewish people.
The Book of Esther also suggests that gifts of food (“Mishloach Manot”) are given to friends and the poor. Even those who have very little are meant to share with two other people. The traditional gift is, of course, hamantaschen, triangular shaped cookies that mirror the shape of Haman’s hat.
Things you can do to celebrate Purim:
- Go to the synagogue to hear the reading of the Megillah, wearing a costume and bringing a noisemaker.
- Send meshloach manot to friends. It feels great to give something sweet to someone, especially if you hand-deliver it. You can also send packages to children in hospitals or institutional settings or to elderly residents of a Hebrew home or who are isolated in their own homes.
- Institute a Purim talent show or bake-off. Plan these programs for the congregation after the Megillah reading or for the religious school students who would surely appreciate seeing adults performing for their benefit.
For more ideas, please see WRJ’s Jewish Holidays Study Guide.