Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Holiday of Purim

Amidst such devastation going in Japan right now, it is fitting to bring a little light into your day. I want to introduce to you the holiday of Purim, which is to take place on the 15th day of Adar (or, on the traditional Gregorian calendar, March 20 of this year). In fact, I believe that the Jewish holiday of Purim could not happen at a more opportune time, given that the holiday's message is to rejoice in the light of hope at the end of a dark and depressing tunnel. Purim is the happiest of all Jewish holidays and having fun is not only permitted, but it is commanded.


The story of Purim goes a little something like this....thousands of years ago, back when King Ahashverosh was the ruler of the Persian empire, he decided to have a great feast. Amidst this drunken feast, replete with jesters and wild celebrations, he requested that his wife Vashti present herself before the King and his officials in order to show off her beauty. She adamantly declined the order. In response to her blatant disobedience, the King decreed her death (a bit heavy a blow if you ask me...). 

Anyways...some time after the Queen's death, the King ordered his officials to put together a search to organize a harem of women (or a beauty contest if you will...) from which the King would select the most beautiful one to be his new bride. All the eligible maidens from the Kingdom were gathered and from them all, the King selected a young Jewish girl by the name of Esther to be his new bride. Esther's uncle, Mordecai, urged her to keep her Jewish identity a secret, which she did for many years.

Years later, the King appointed an evil man by the name of Haman to be his chief advisor. Allegedly, Haman was a wicked soul who expected everyone to bow down to him. There was one man, however, who refused to bow down to Haman's feet, and this person was Mordecai, Esther's uncle. Out of rage and anger, Haman threatened to have Mordecai killed, and not only him, but also the entirety of the Jewish people. Haman even went so far as to convince the King to carry through with his evil plan, and thus, lots were drawn in order to select the day of annihilation for the Jewish people. 

Mordecai sought Esther's counsel, and convinced her to present herself before the King (which risked a fatal decree) in order to reveal her secret Jewish identity and to plead with the King for redemption. For three days, Queen Esther fasted in preparation for what was to come. A huge banquet was then organized on the night of Esther's reveal, again replete with court jesters, wine, food and good times. Before a great crowd, Esther revealed her secret Jewish identity to the King and plead for forgiveness. The King's love for his Queen was so great that he agreed to reverse the fatal decree. Evil Haman was removed from office and was replaced with his enemy, Mordecai. Queen Esther is considered a great heroine in Jewish literature and is thought of as having saved and redeemed the Jewish people.

Since ancient times, the festive holiday of Purim has been celebrated as its traditions continue to be passed down from generation to generation. Currently, the festivities can be seen all through the streets of Israel and the traditional songs can be heard in every classroom and home. Traditional gift baskets, called mishloah maanot are sent out to all family and friends on the holiday.


It is typical to wear costumes on Purim in honor of the big banquet that took place on the night of Esther's reveal. Thus, all over the city you will see endless seas of costumes being sold, just like Halloween back in the states. Not a single soul will be costume free come Purim day. Additionally, because it's a regal story, you will see regal paraphernalia decorating the city, including masks, tiaras, crowns, jester hats, clowns and scepters.

In every bakery, you will find the typical holiday treat, which is called a "hamantaschen", or a triangular shaped jelly-filled cookie (my favorite are the chocolate-filled) which are meant to symbolize evil Haman's three-pronged hat. 

Arguably, the funnest part of the holiday is the commandment that we drink until the point that we cannot tell the different between "blessed is Mordecai" and "cursed is Haman".  Along with such drunkenness comes the decree that we engorge ourselves with sweets and feasts with family and friends. 

Finally, the story of Purim is recounted annually by reading The Megillah, the scroll depicting Purim's historic tale. During the reading, people (dressed up as the characters of course) will reenact the story. Especially typical is the custom of holding noisemakers which are used ad oblivion every time Haman's name is mentioned. I have always loved hearing the story of Purim since I was named after its heroine, Esther. My great-grandmother from Poland was also named Esther, and my parents chose this name as my Hebrew name (for those of you who are curious, my Hebrew name is Esther Rivka, which is where I get the "E" for Erin and the "R" for Rachelle).

I particularly love this holiday not only because it is a high-spirited one, but also, because of its message. It reminds us to keep faith in even the most dire of times. As a token of appreciation for what we have, it is a customary tradition of Purim to give to charity. And so, I hope that each and every one of us will find it in our hearts to give at this time of year - and I can think of nowhere more fitting that to the devastated regions of Japan.


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