The festival of Purim celebrates the deliverance, over 2500 years ago, of the Jews of the Persian Empire, whose total annihilation had been plotted by the diabolical Haman (Boo!), the Prime Minister at the court of King Ahashverosh. This last minute rescue was brought about by the intercession of the beautiful Queen Esther, and by the steadfast faith of her foster uncle, Mordechai, a prominent Jew, well-known and esteemed in court circles. The rescue is completed when Haman was hanged and Mordechai succeeded to his post.
The events surrounding this story of intrigue and rescue are recorded in the biblical book of Esther. Whatever the historical basis of Purim and the characters in the Book of Esther, we celebrate Purim as if the events it commemorates were authentic and historically reliable. The popularity of the story is predicated on the perennial problem of baseless, irrational anti-Semitism. The late Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan saw the imperative of Purim as “an occasion for considering anew the difficulties that inhere in our position as a people, scattered and dispersed among the nations”. Dr. Kaplan urges us to use this holiday to make us “conscious of the spiritual values which our position as a minority group everywhere in the Diaspora should lead us to evolve, and of the dangers which we must be prepared to overcome, if we expect to survive as a minority group”. (The Meaning of God, page 362).
The Fast of Esther
The celebration of Purim became the one official “party day” in our year, the one time when nothing may be taken seriously. On Purim, it is an “halakhic” expectation that everyone should be drunk enough not to be able to distinguish between the words “Aroor Haman” (Cursed be Haman) and “Barukh Mordechai” (Blessed be Mordechai). Considering the typically conservative and reserved approach of Jews to their Judaism, Purim is the one day of authorized and almost total abandon.
There are four Mitzvot or religious obligations that are the essence of our celebration of Purim.
The Reading of the Megillah - The central Mitzvah of Purim is that of hearing the public reading of the Book of Esther. Purim’s festivities center around this event. During the reading, we listen attentively to every word of the story and every time we hear Haman’s name, we use our noise makers, called Graggers, to drown out the sound of Haman’s name.
The Megillah reading is a wonderful opportunity for children to get a special feeling in the synagogue. Even without understanding the content of the story, children will immediately associate Judaism with joy and celebration and the Synagogue as a place where they can feel comfortable making some noise. Each child will feel bonded to a people and community that know how to laugh, and who love their tradition enough to play with it and enjoy it.
A Day of Celebration - Joy and celebrating are the central themes of Purim day. Making Purim into a celebration is Purim’s second Mitzvah. In the Book of Esther, Mordechai commands all the Jews to make the fourteenth day of Adar into a day of “feasting and gladness” (Esther 9:22). From this biblical verse, our Rabbis made part of the celebration of Purim participation in a Purim Seudah, a festive Purim meal with ample food, wine, and hamentaschen. It is secondary what the food is (at our home, there is a long standing tradition of serving lasagna). What is significant is that we each try to create our own Purim Seudah with our own favourite foods, games, activities, and most importantly, a lot of FUN!!! The Purim Seudah usually begins late in the afternoon, and with the extra wine and liquor, usually lasts well into the evening.
Mishloach Manot - Mishloach Manot (Shalachmonos in Yiddish) is a simple Mitzvah. This Mitzvah involves giving a gift of two or more kinds of food to the small circle of people who are important in your lives - grandparents, uncles, aunts, and close friends. This act of giving is also rooted in the Book of Esther. After the Jews emerged victorious from their struggle for survival, Mordechai commanded them by saying, “These days (Purim) should be observed as...a time to send gifts to one another and presents to the poor”. (Esther 9:22).
There is nothing elaborate about Mishloach Manot -a couple of hamentaschen, a piece of fruit, some cookies, candies, or nuts placed on a paper plate and wrapped up is all it takes, but, it provides another of Purim’s wonderful opportunities. The Mitzvah of Mishloach Manot not only allows for the “joy of giving”, but it is intrinsically a statement of connection, a wonderful way of saying, “We are not alone”, because the process of distributing Mishloach Manot forces us to draw up a list of family members and communal friends who make a difference in our lives.
Mishloach Manot are traditionally distributed on Purim day after the Megillah has been read in synagogue in the morning and before the Seudat Purim in the late afternoon.
Mattanot La’Evyonim - One mark of the genius of the Jewish tradition has been its innate sense that every act of celebration or every moment of significance should include an opportunity for giving Tzedakah. Tzedakah, coming from a Hebrew root which means “justice”, is the Mitzvah to help those in need by sharing part of what we have been fortunate to receive. From its ancient biblical root, our religious tradition linked Tzedakah and Purim in order to transform Purim from a day of self-indulgence to one that can potentially transform the world. Ever since the days of Mordechai and Esther, distributing Mattanot La’Evyonim on Purim day was considered a Mitzvah, a religious obligation.
Purim again provides an excellent educational opportunity for both parents and children. Children rarely see their parents’ acts of kindness because so much of charitable work is done by writing Tzedakah cheques as we pay our bills. Purim, with its specific mandate to give gifts to the poor, gives us the opportunity to involve our children in the process of choosing which agencies that specifically help the poor will be part of our annual charitable gift giving. In Montreal, we have no shortage of agencies whose sole purpose is to help the poor - Mazon, MADA, Agence Ometz, and Project Genesis names just a few. This year, we can enhance our total celebration of Purim by letting our children help us ease the burden of poverty.
Hag Purim Sameach Rabbi Lionel E. Moses