Origins of Purim
The minor festival of Purim is the closest Judaism gets to carnival, with alcohol, fancy dress and a noisy synagogue service that sometimes sounds like a football match. Based on the biblical book of Esther, it celebrates the deliverance of a diaspora community from a genocidal antisemite.
The story of Esther is set in the Persian empire of the fifth century BCE under the rule of King Ahaseurus (identified by some as Xerxes). When Haman – a descendant of the Israelites’ arch-enemy, the Amalekites – becomes the king’s right-hand man, he requires passers-by to prostrate themselves before him. But when Mordecai the Jew refuses to bow to another human being, Haman is incensed. In return for a substantial gift to the royal coffers, Haman buys the right to wipe out the Jews in the kingdom, arguing in classic antisemitic fashion they are a law to themselves. He casts lots – purim – to determine the date of their extermination.
Mordecai turns to his niece, Esther, the wife of Ahaseurus, to save her people. Although anyone entering the royal chamber unbidden risks the king’s displeasure and death, Esther takes her life into her hands. The tables are turned. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai and the Jews are given licence to destroy their enemies. The Jews rejoice and Mordechai becomes the king’s trusted lieutenant.
What we do on Purim
The eve of Purim is a fast day, the Fast of Esther (held on a Thursday if the festival falls on Sunday), which commemorates the heroism of the Jewish queen. Before she intercedes with the king, Esther enjoins her people to “neither eat nor drink” for three days.
The central ritual of Purim is the reading of the Megillah, the “scroll” of Esther, both in the evening which marks the start of the festival and the following morning. Each of the 54 times the name of Haman is mentioned in the public reading, a wave of noise erupts in the synagogue to drown it out. It used to be the custom to bring a grager, a football rattle, but now all sorts of instruments contribute to the cacophony.
Since no other book in the Bible mentions the word “feast” as many times, eating and drinking is integral to the festival. A seudah, festive meal, is held on the afternoon, which should begin during daylight as the Megillah refers to a “day” of rejoicing. According to one tradition, you should drink to the point where you become confused between Haman and Mordecai – although rabbis in recent times have been at pains to curb youthful excess and notices in Hebrew have been posted warning people not to go overboard with the alcohol.
Work is not forbidden on Purim, although should be avoided if possible. But just as the Jews of the Megillah engaged in mishloach manot, the sending of “portions” to each other, it is a mitzvah to give parcels of food to at least two neighbours or friends. One should also give charity to at least two poor people on the festival.
The custom of dressing up for Purim – Jewish schools often ask their pupils to turn up that day in fancy dress – probably derives from carnivals in medieval Europe. But some try to lend it a deeper significance. Unusually, the name of God does not appear in the book of Esther; but commentators relate the queen’s name to the Hebrew word for “hidden”. Divine Providence is seen to work through the twists and turns of the Megillah story even if there is no explicit miracle. Nothing there is what it seems at first, Esther’s true nature appears concealed from view, Haman who wears the trappings of power is finally unmasked as a villain.
Another tradition is to perform parodies of the Megillah or other biblical stories, or more general comic sketches known as Purimspiels. In Jewish neighbourhoods such as Golders Green, it is common to see costumed spielers going from house to house, performing their skits and collecting for charity.
Purim is celebrated on Adar 14, the day after the Jews of the Megillah rested after the defeat of their adversaries. But for the Jews of the city of Shushan, the celebration came a day later. Hence it became the practice in an ancient walled city such as Jerusalem, to have Purim on the following day, Adar 15 (known as Shushan Purim). So if you can’t get enough of Purim, you can do it one day in Tel Aviv and then again in Jerusalem.
Women and the Megillah
Although the commentator Rashi attributes the writing of the Megillah to Mordecai, from the actual text it seems clear Esther had a hand in it too. It is the queen herself who confirmed the commandment for Jews to institute a festival on this day.
Whereas within central Orthodoxy women are generally not allowed to read from the Torah, but this is not true of the Megillah. Over the past decade, it has been more common within United Synagogue communities in the UK to have women-only Megillah readings.
The festival’s distinctive food is the hamantaschen (in Yiddish), a triangular pastry which is said to resemble Haman’s hat. It comes with different fillings, but the traditional poppyseed evokes the silver Haman paid into the King’s treasury to carry out his evil plan.