What is Purim?
Purim is the most joyous day in the Jewish calendar, celebrating the defeat of Haman, one of the most evil and vicious antagonists in all of human history, as recorded in the biblical book of Esther. Because of a slight to his own massive ego, Haman decreed death on the Jews of the Persian Empire in the fifth century BCE. Using guile and subterfuge, Haman persuaded Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to act on his plan. Unknown to both Haman and Ahasuerus, Esther, Queen of Persia, was secretly Jewish and the cousin of Mordechai, a member of the “Great Assembly” (120 prominent leaders of the Jewish people, also including the prophets Ezra and Daniel). Working from within, Esther was able to reveal Haman’s insidious plot and save her people.
Purim is about more than just the defeat of one enemy. On Purim, the Jews reconfirmed the pact they made with God at Mount Sinai. Sure, they willingly accepted the Torah the first time (Exodus 24:7), but after seeing the Ten Plagues that God brought in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea and the majesty of God’s Presence at Sinai, was there really any way they were going to decline? After the salvation of Purim, the Jews joyfully “renewed their vows” with God (see Esther 9:27). The Midrash (Mishlei 9) tells us that in the future, after the Messiah comes, all holidays will be abolished except for Purim, which was established as an everlasting celebration.
How is Purim Celebrated?
There are quite a few components to the Purim celebration. They include:
Reading the Megilla. The Book of Esther, which tells the Purim story, is read publicly in the synagogue at night and in the morning. It is customary to make noise to drown out the name of Haman whenever it appears (being careful to still hear every word of the Megilla).
Mishloach Manot. It is a mitzvah (religious duty) to send gifts of food to our friends. To fulfill this obligation, one must send two food items to at least one other person.
Matanos l’Evyonim. It is also a mitzvah to give gifts to the needy. This mitzvah is fulfilled by giving charity to at least two people.
The Purim Seudah. We eat a festive meal on Purim afternoon, which typically includes meat and wine. (Regarding whether one should drink more than usual on Purim, please see here.)
These, of course, are just the barest basics. For fuller details, see here.
The Custom to Dress Up
Many people wear costumes on Purim, even to the synagogue (which would be considered inappropriate on other occasions). What is the source of this practice? There are several.
For starters, unlike other biblical books, the Name of God is conspicuously absent from the Book of Esther. Though God orchestrated events, there were no overt miracles on Purim. He operated hidden, from behind the scenes. Similarly, the name “Esther” means “hidden” in Hebrew. As mentioned, Esther concealed her identity, even from Ahasuerus.
Much of the Megilla revolves around people changing their clothes. Among these: Esther sent Mordechai a change of clothes which he refused; Haman was forced to dress Mordechai in the King’s finery before parading him through the streets; Haman’s face was covered before his execution; Mordechai left Ahasuerus dressed in robes of blue and purple; and many more examples.
A Holiday We Can Be Proud Of
There are many aspects of Purim in which we can take pride. The Purim saga features a courageous, proactive heroine, who risked her own safety and security to save others. Esther could have sat safely in her palace and said nothing. Instead, she risked all by revealing her identity at the crucial moment. There is much we can learn from Esther.
There is also much we can learn from Mordechai. God’s hand is hidden throughout the Book of Esther. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see why He allowed events to unfold as they did, so that all the pieces of salvation would be in place at the proper time. It was Mordechai who first pointed out this valuable lesson (Esther 4:14).
But we may take the most pride in the greatest of all lessons, the one we learn from one another as Purim is celebrated today.
Superficially, Purim resembles another, non-Jewish holiday. People in costumes are scurrying around, exchanging food door-to-door. What’s the difference between Purim and Halloween?
The difference between the mitzvah of mishloach manot and trick-or-treating is all the difference in the world. The first is about giving to others. The second is about how much one can get for oneself.
We can be proud of the lesson of Purim. We use feasting, costumes and gifts of food to publicize the miracles that God performed for us and to share the goodness He has given us with others. What could make one prouder to be Jewish than Purim?