By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
It’s time for Purim, the holiday on which the Jewish people celebrate deliverance from the evil plot of Haman.
In most of the world, Purim is observed on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar. In places that were surrounded by a wall in the times of Joshua when he conquered the Land of Israel, Purim is observed on the next day, the 15th of Adar. Therefore, in Jerusalem, and several other ancient walled cities, the holiday is observed on a day known as “Shushan Purim.”
The story of Purim is the subject of the Book of Esther, colloquially referred to as Megillat Esther – the Scroll of Esther. What follows are the major points of the story. (Warning: Traditional Purim silliness and humor included!)
The Purim Story Briefly
The king of Persia, Achashverosh (also known as Xerxes), threw a six-month party for the entire kingdom. At one point Achashverosh ordered his wife Vashti to appear in order for him to show the world how beautiful she was. Well, Vashti refused the King’s order, so that was the end of her. Urgent: New queen needed. The King ordered all beautiful maidens to be brought to him so that he could “interview” them and choose a new wife. The beautiful (and Jewish) Esther won the beauty pageant. But nobody knew that she was Jewish, as Mordechai, her uncle and guardian, told her not to tell.
Soon afterwards, the evil Haman, not to be confused with the evil Ayatollah, Haman came first, was promoted to the position of prime minister. (See – there’s never been democracy in Persia!) Now, one of the perks of being prime minister is that everyone whom you encounter is obligated to bow down to you. And everyone did, except Mordechai the Jew. There are many interpretations as to why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman, but no time for that now. He wouldn’t bow and that was final.
Haman was fuming. With his history of hatred for the Jews, Haman decied that not only would he kill Mordechai for not bowing down to him, but he figured that he’d also kill every last Jew on the planet while he was at it. Why not, eh? He basically fooled Achashverosh into agreeing to his plan of extermination and signing the royal edict. The 13th of Adar was the designated day.
When Mordechai found out what happened, he ordered the Jews to pray and repent to God that the evil decree be rescinded. He told Esther to reveal to the king that she, his wife, was also a Jew, and hence Haman was essentially trying to kill the Queen as well. Esther came up with a plan to invite Haman and Achashverosh to a private banquet (Jews like food, you know) and dropped the bomb – well, the news – to Achashverosh. With Haman present at the banquet, Achashverosh did not have to go too far to have Haman arrested and prepared for execution for attempted assassination of the queen. The Jews were saved. When the 13th of Adar came around, the Jews took up arms and took revenge upon their enemies. The next day, the 14th of Adar was party time.
Purim Customs: Drink, Eat, and Give!
As part of the observances of Purim, the Book of Esther (Megilla) is read twice – once on the night of Purim and then again during the day. There is also the mitzvah (commandment) of mishlo’ach manot – the obligation to give a minimum of two gifts of food to at least one person. Of course, most people give mishlo’ach manot to many people, which is quite important because we must ensure that every Jewish family has enough junk food in the house to last right until the moments before Passover. Then there is also matanot l’evyonim – the requirement to give gifts to the poor. Finally, there is the mitzvah of seudat Purim – the requirement to hold a festive meal. Yes, as is the basic summary of all Jewish holidays (and Purim is no exception): they tried to kill us, we won, now let’s eat.
The traditional food of Purim is hamantaschen – a sweet pastry cookie dough treat with a variety of fillings. Shaped as a triangle, these pastries are said to represent Haman’s ears. Eating them is a delicious way to recall the mitzvah to destroy the nation of Amalek from which Haman descended. (Deuteronomy 25)
Did I forget to mention the mitzvah to get drunk on Purim? This recalls Achashevrosh’s six-month-long party as well as Esther’s private banquets with Haman and Achashverosh – both of which revolved around wine. Indeed, the primary mitzvah to get drunk should only be performed with wine. But, you know, it’s just that some people feel they don’t properly fulfill the mitzvah fast enough without some assistance from Johnny Walker or Jack Daniels. Indeed, by the end of Purim, most people think that Jack Daniels was a rabbi whose real name was “Rabbi Yaakov Daniels.”
Make no mistake, United with Israel does not encourage alcohol abuse on Purim. We encourage extreme alcohol enjoyment, via brief but excessive pleasurable imbibing from enjoyable drinks with distinct grape or grain content!
Whatever you do, just enjoy Purim. Responsibly.
A joyous Purim to one and all.