Purim – A Brief History
Megillat Esther or Scroll of Esther recounts the story of how a seemingly unrelated series of events unfold to bring about the salvation of the Jewish People from being eternally destroyed.
After the destruction of the first Temple around 4th Century BCE, the Jews, exiled deep into Persia, came under the rule of the evil King Ahasuerus who had an even more evil advisor, Haman, who hated the Jews and decided to kill them. He convinced the King to issue an edict ordering the total annihilation of every single Jewish person. Shortly before this event, the King threw a lavish party in the capital city of Shushan, which culminated in him killing his wife, Queen Vashti. After a drawn-out international search, he appointed a new Queen, Esther, whom he did not know was Jewish. Mordechai, a holy Rabbi and advisor to the King, uncovered an assassination plot to kill the King and subsequently managed to convince his niece, Queen Esther to save the Jewish people by talking to the King. At risk of her own life, Esther did so without being summoned. She revealed her own Jewish identity to the King and exposed Haman’s evil plans. The tables were turned, the King was furious at Haman and decided to kill him and his 10 sons on the very gallows which Haman built to hang Mordechai and the Jews are saved.
Seeing as Haman had signed his decree with the seal of the King however, it was irrevocable. The King therefore needed to make a new decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves on the designated day. This day was the 13th Adar. The Jews defended themselves from the onslaughts of their attackers and were victorious. On the following day they rested from battle and celebrated their triumph. The Jews that lived in Shushan fought for another day on the 14th Adar and therefore the celebrations were postponed there until 15th Adar.
- From the beginning of the month of Adar, in the build-up to Purim, one should increase their levels of simcha –
- Purim is celebrated differently depending on where one is located. In a city which is known to have been walled from the times of Joshua (around 1300 BCE), Purim is celebrated on 15th This is known as Shushan Purim. In all other cities around the world, Purim is celebrated on 14th Adar.
- Practically speaking, nowadays, the only cities where Purim is observed on 15th Adar are Shushan (where the events took place) and Jerusalem.
- There are some cities in Israel which were possibly walled from that time so as a stringency the Megilla is also read there on the 15th Adar (e.g. Jaffa, Akko, Hebron).
- If Shushan Purim falls out on Shabbat, some of the observances are brought forward to Friday and some are pushed off until Sunday.
Taanit Esther – Fast of Esther
The Megilla relates that Esther, prior to going to visit the King uninvited (which in Persian law was a crime punishable by death unless the King extended his royal sceptre) requested that the Jewish People observe a three-day fast beforehand. Another source for this fast is that the Jewish People were likely to have fasted and prayed as a Spiritual preparation for defending themselves against Haman’s decree.
- As a commemoration of these events, the day before Purim (13th Adar) is observed as a fast day and we refrain from eating or drinking from dawn until nightfall.
- Pregnant and nursing women and mildly sick people are exempt from the fast since this is not one of the four major fasts of the year (ask a competent Rabbinic authority).
- If the fast falls out on Shabbat, because of the honor of Shabbat, it is brought forward to Thursday (11th Adar).
Machatzit Ha’Shekel – The Half-Shekel
In the days that the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the custom was for everybody to give half of a silver Shekel and the beginning of the month of Adar. This money went towards the communal offerings of the Temple service. The merit of this donation stood by us many centuries later when Haman paid 10,000 kikar of silver to King Ahasuerus as a bribe to hand over the rights of the lives of the Jewish People.
- The custom is to mark this tradition by giving money to charity (tzedakah) on the eve of Purim.
- We give three coins seeing as the Torah mentions the word donation (teruma) three times in reference to this Mitzvah.
- The amount that is given is three coins of half of the value of the national currency (e.g. half a Dollar in the US, half a Pound in the UK, half a Shekel in Israel)
- Some are accustomed to give on behalf of all family members too (husband, wife and children including unborn children if the wife is expecting)
Kriat Ha’Megilla – Reading of the Scroll of Esther
The end of the Megilla informs us: “All of his [king Ahasuerus] mighty and powerful acts, and a full account of the greatness of Mordechai…are recorded in the chronicles of the Kings of Media and Persia.” The message being that if you’re interested in history, you can search through the archives and annals and you’ll find plenty of information about the events of the Purim story. The Megilla however, is not a historical account or journal, rather, it tells of a story of Divine Providence. The events recounted within unravel to reveal the Hand of G-d guiding the fate and destiny of the Jewish People.
- The Megilla is read twice over the course of Purim, once in the evening after nightfall and once in the morning after sunrise.
- It is read in Synagogue in order to publicise the miracles in a more public forum.
- Men, women and children are obligated to hear the reading of the Megilla and can be an extremely fun event for the whole family, although very young children should not be brought to Synagogue if it will not be possible to keep them quiet throughout.
- The Megilla must be read clearly from a kosher scroll of from parchment made from a kosher animal and written with dye which is completely black.
- The custom is to make a noise when the reader says Haman’s name (some also cheer when Mordechai’s name is mentioned).
Mishloach Manot – Sending Food to Friends
One of the primary reasons for the continuity of the Jewish People throughout history is the aspect of unity that we have always shown as a nation. Purim is no exception to this rule and it is precisely the unity with which we faced the challenges that kept us alive.
- In order to promote unity and feelings of friendship and love within the community, we send food-items to friends on Purim.
- Men and women are obligated in this Mitzvah.
- Two food-items should be given to at least one person.
- Where possible, one should try to use a third person to deliver the package to add to the friendly feelings.
- The food should be ready-to-eat and enough for one meal.
Matanot Le’Evyonim – Gifts to the Poor
Giving charity (tzedakah) is one of the fundamental principals in Judaism as it expresses the appreciation that we are not living in bubble, disconnected from the rest of humanity. It also makes a statement of recognition that any money which we receive is a gift from G-d and is therefore our responsibility to use it for the right reasons and funnel it to the appropriate cause.
- To extend the feelings of unity and responsibility for each other, there is a Mitzvah to give money to the needy on Purim.
- Men and women are obligated in this Mitzvah.
- Enough money to purchase a regular meal should be given to at least two people.
- One should clarify that the receiver is genuinely needy in order to fulfil the Mitzvah in its proper fashion.
- In addition to this, although normally we are careful not to be naïve in who we give our charity to, on Purim, one should try not to refuse anyone who extends their hand in need whatever their situation.
- It is better to spend more money on gifts to the poor (Matanot Le’Evyonim) than on Mishloach Manot.
Seudat Purim – Festive Purim Feast and Other Laws
The danger that we faced on Purim was physical in nature, in that Haman wanted to kill every single Jewish person. The appropriate way of rejoicing, therefore, is by celebrating our physical lives and bodies by eating and drinking. There is also a special Mitzvah to get drunk on Purim until one doesn’t know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” for after all, the Megilla teaches us that there really is no difference. At the end of the day, Good will always overcome Evil. We also have a custom to dress up in costumes on Purim as an allusion to the nature of the Purim miracle being in a hidden manner.
- The grand finale of the day is a festive meal which should begin during the day and continue into the night.
- The meal should include meat and wine.
- Songs of thanks and words of Torah should also shared at the meal.
- After the meal, one should include the paragraph “Al Ha’Nisim”, describing the Purim miracle, in the Grace After Meals.
- This paragraph should also be included in the Amidah prayers recited throughout the course of the day.
Purim Sameach – Happy Purim!