Purim

by Herschel Allerhand

This year Purim falls on March 16th and 17th. Traditionally, the Book of Esther (Megillah) is read in the evening and the following morning. 

“The Jews organized and took upon themselves and upon their descendants … that these days of Purim should not cease from among the Jews nor the memory of them perish from among their descendants … to observe these days of Purim at their appointed time.” (Esther 9:27-31) 

Purim is a joyful holiday with a somber undertone as the Megillah is the story of our peoples’ rescue from the threat of total annihilation. 

Customs of Purim 

“Mordechai (Esther’s guardian) wrote that they (the Jews] should make these days of feasting and gladness and of sending portions one to another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:20-22) The reading of the Megillah in the evening takes place in a joyful, almost raucous atmosphere. People come in costumes and use noisemakers (groggers) to drown out the name of ‘Haman.’A festive meal is held in the afternoon and families exchange gifts of food and pastries. Hamentaschen, a three-cornered pastry filled with poppyseeds or apricot jam, are baked and given out. Religious schools stage Purim plays and masquerade contests. In Europe, amateur players, known as Purim “shpielers’ would portray scenes from the Megillah. In the United States, in some urban neighborhoods, streets are closed and petting animals brought in for the children. Congregations put a collection plate on a table for half-dollars in memory of the half-shekel collected as tributary, around Purim time, for the upkeep of the Temple and as a reminder of the obligation to give charity. 

The Somber Side of Purim 

Rabbi Soloveitchik, the doyen of Modern Orthodoxy in the twentieth century, lectured that Purim teaches us to be ever vigilant as civilization is only skin-deep and the demonic in man can burst out at any time. 

To emphasize this danger, as well as in solidarity with the Jews of that time (Persia-Shushan 4th and 5th century B.C.), our sages proclaimed a fast from the morning before until the reading of the Megillah in the evening (the fast of Esther). 

[Esther to Mordecai:] “Go assemble all the Jews in Shushan … and fast for me. I… will fast also, then I will go into the king though it is unlawful, and if I perish, I perish.’ (Esther 4:16) 

The Megillah portrays the classical anti-Semite that we have had to deal with throughout the ages. Haman is consumed by his hatred; it becomes an obsession. He is the second most powerful man in the world, showered with honors. “Yet all this means nothing to me as long as I see that Jew Mordechai sitting at the King’s Gate.” (Esther 5:13) His hatred encompasses all Jews regardless of belief or lifestyle. Letters were sent to all the King’s provinces, to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all Jews, young and old, children and women …” No one is exempt, regardless of their history or position. “Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews.” [Mordechai to Esther] (4:13) 

Haman makes the classical anti-Semitic argument. “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people… Their laws are different from every other people’s. They do not observe even the King’s laws; therefore, it is not befitting for the King to tolerate them.” (3:6-9) 

The Lesson of Purim 

The Purim story teaches vigilance but emphasizes hope and joy. The fast ends with the reading of the Megillah in a party atmosphere. “The Jews had light and joy and honor.” (8:16) We add the words “so shall it be with us” and incorporate this sentence into the Havdalah service at the end of every Sabbath evening as we face the new week.

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