The account of Purim, found in the book of Esther, takes place during the last biblical exile of the Jewish people from their Land. The redemption from destruction is seen as the great forerunner of the ‘End of Days’ when the archetypal enemy Amalek finally will be destroyed. Even though God’s plans, and even His Presence, may at times seem ‘hidden’ we can, nevertheless, constantly rejoice in the knowledge that He always sees and watches over us. As His children, we can rest in His present protection and joyfully anticipate the ultimate victory when His Kingdom will be established and Mashiach ben David, Messiah Son of David, will reign as the King of kings over all the earth.
This year, the holiday of Purim begins at sundown on 13 Adar (21 March) and continues through the day of 14 Adar (22 March). The celebration of Purim centers on the reading of the book, or scroll (megillah) of Esther. It is read during congregational services and is incorporated during the festivities in the afternoon of 14 Adar in the form of a Purimshpiel, or Purim play. The latter can be as elaborate or as simple as one desires. For example, a condensed script can be read, with the audience booing and cheering in the appropriate places; or the story can be read from a children’s Bible and the parts can be mimed by the children dressed in costumes fitting the characters, which can be a simple mask. A puppet show is always fun. Or, a more elaborate performance can be scripted and rehearsed beforehand.
[Please note: If you would like to make use of it, a condensed version of the story is included below for your convenience.]
Usually, in accord with the jovial nature of the day, Purimshpiels are presented in the form of a skit and are far from serious. The participation of all in attendance adds to the fun. The audience is equipped with noisemakers. A traditional one is a gragger, a type of spinning rattle. Others are whistles, drums, tambourines, and a good, loud “Boooo” and stamping of the feet. Children can make their own by adding a few pebbles or dry beans to a small empty tin, which they can paint or decorate. These noisemakers are employed whenever the name of the villain Haman (Boooo!) is mentioned, in order to drown it out. On the other hand, when the name of Mordechai (Yaaaay!) is mentioned all give a loud cheer and applaud the hero. I have heard a few wolf-whistles when the name of Esther is read, quite fitting in the spirit of the day; however, she is quite content to remain demurely in the background!
Other Purim practices are mishlo’ach manot, giving baskets, or gifts of ‘goodies’ to friends and giving money to the poor and needy, matanot le’evyonim. These also are drawn from Esther 9:22,
“They were to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, and as a time for sending gifts to one another (mishlo’ach manot) and presents to the poor (matanot le’ev’yonim).”
In the mishlo’ach manot one can include, for example, cake, cookies, hamantaschen [a delicious, traditional Purim pastry; see recipe below], fruit, nuts, a small bottle of wine, candy. Two varieties of foods is usually the minimum. The family can have fun decorating the plates or baskets and delivering them to friends.
The gifts to the poor, matanot le’ev’yonim, are donations beyond one’s general giving of tzedakah, or charity. One can give, preferably anonymously, to local families who are struggling or through a church or community fund. Also, a coin collection can be taken at the party in order that the children can participate in giving. In biblical times, each Israelite donated a half-shekel towards the Temple maintenance. The term half-shekel appears three times in Exodus 30:13 & 15; so some people give three coins. This collection also is given to the poor.
The Purim party is a time of “feasting and gladness” to enjoy before the serious preparations begin that lead up to Passover, the first of the three main “Appointed Times” of the year. Some traditional denominations in Christianity mark this time of preparation before Passover/Easter as the season of Lent. The word ‘Lent’ is derived from the Middle English word lente, springtime. It is a time of penitence and abstinence, seen by some as a means of identifying with the fasting of Christ in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism. But, before the soul-searching and the cleaning out of chametz/leaven begin, it’s time to rejoice with gladness.
Purim is a time of masquerade and laughter, a time to let loose one’s regular decorum and inhibitions (within reason of course). Another practice, one that can cause some contention, is that of imbibing far more liquor than usual at the Purim party. Jews do not customarily drink in excess. A Talmudic dictum regarding Purim states however: It is the obligation of each person to be so drunk as not to be able to tell the difference between “Blessed be Mordechai” and “Cursed be Haman”.* Rabbinic scholars have argued this point. Some say it means that one only drinks a little more than one is accustomed to; others that it means until you feel sleepy, or are unable to recite a tongue twister.
Irresponsible drinking is viewed as a sin of which one needs to repent. Thus, the day of fasting beforehand is seen as an act of repentance in advance of the laxity of drinking on Purim.
Time to Party!
The party consists of a special meal, or seudah, which is not necessarily a sit-down, banquet style dinner but rather a finger food, colorful paper plate style meal, with loads of cookies and candy too! Music, fun, laughter – we celebrate the fact that we are alive and God has preserved us to reach this season!
People arrive in fancy-dress and masks and everyone has fun guessing who is who. Prizes can be given for the Best Costume, Worst Costume, the Funniest or the Non Costume… whatever!
After partaking of refreshment, the highlight of the evening is the Purimshpiel, or the fun reading of the megillah. The noisemakers are passed around and all prepare to participate. “Boooo Haman!” “Yay Mordechai!”
THE STORY OF ESTHER
The biblical book, or scroll (megillah) of Esther is set in ancient Persia, a great kingdom that stretched from India to Ethiopia. It relates the story of the victory of the Jews, through our heroes Mordechai [YAY!] and his niece and adopted daughter, Esther (or Hadassah, her original Hebrew name), over the villain Haman [BOO!]. Haman [BOO AGAIN! – Just a reminder, from now on you’re on your own!], a descendent of Amalek, is grand vizier in the court of King Achashverosh, also spelled Ahasuerus. (In Hebrew his name can be read as chash be’rosh, which means straw in the head, which says it all!).
The story of Queen Esther begins and ends with a party. The first party lasts one hundred and eighty days. It is celebrated throughout the kingdom to commemorate the king’s third year of reign, and Achasverosh shows off “…the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his majesty” (1:4). Immediately this is over, he hosts another party in his capital of Susa. It is a lavish affair “…for both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace” (1:5). There is great fun and merriment until the queen, Vashti, refuses her husband’s order to dance before the drunken revelers and she is banished for her disobedience.
Then, a program is launched to find the most beautiful maiden in the land who will be crowned the new queen. In what resembles an extravagant and extended beauty contest, our heroine Hadassah-Esther is chosen. Her only relative and protector, the wise Mordechai [Yay!], advises her to continue to conceal her Jewish identity. There is an Amalek in the court! Haman [Boo! That’s the last reminder!], second only to the King, who proudly commands that all bow down in his presence. Mordechai refuses to do so, for Jews prostrate themselves only before God. In his fury, Haman convinces the King to sign a decree calling for a massacre of all the Jews in his kingdom. Mordechai and Esther must do something to counteract the decree and save their people! He points out to her that God has placed her in the palace “for a time such as this” (4:14). What can our brave queen do? Knowing her husband’s predilection, she plans a party! To present him with the invitation, however, she must enter his presence uninvited, which can mean death.
Esther sends word and calls for all the Jews to fast with her and her maidens for three days, interceding before God for success in the venture. On the day, she prepares herself and she approaches him with the thought, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). Achashverosh however, is delighted to see his beautiful queen, and happily accepts her invitation to a banquet to be held that evening for himself and…Haman.
A wonderful banquet is prepared and she wines and dines them. When the king asks her to state any request she might have, up to half his kingdom, Esther simply replies, “ Let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the dinner which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said” (5:8).
Haman rushes home to boast to his family and friends about his high position and favor with the royal couple, but complains that his irritation at Mordechai, whom he saw sitting outside the palace gate in sackcloth and ashes, overshadows it all. His wife and friends suggest he build a huge gallows that very night and arrange to have Mordechai hanged; then he would be free to enjoy the second royal banquet.
The plot now thickens! The king also is unable to sleep and calls for the chronicles, the book of memorable deeds, to be read before him. An account is read of how, in the past, Mordechai had successfully uncovered an assassination plot against the king by two of his guards. When asked what had been done to reward and honor Mordechai, the reader responds that nothing had been done. It seems a certain Haman had taken all the credit for himself! It just so happens that at that point Haman arrives to try and persuade the king to have Mordechai hanged the next day.
The king asks him, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” and Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse which the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set; and let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble princes; let him array the man whom the king delights to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”
Then the king said to Haman, “Make haste, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned” (6:6-10).
And thus, the next morning we see the abject Haman leading a resplendently robed and crowned Mordechai on a king’s horse through the city, calling out, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”
But, wait, that is not the end of the story for the decree to massacre the Jews still stands! Fast forward to the evening banquet… Queen Esther, the king and a heavy-hearted Haman are drinking wine when the king again asks for her request. This time she replies: “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated.” The king is shocked and asks who would do such a thing. The now terrified perpetrator is right there, and Esther indicates, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” The tables are turned and, by the king’s order, Haman is hanged on his own gallows! The king promotes Mordechai to Haman’s position of grand vizier and gives him his signet ring. The decree cannot be annulled, but Mordechai now has the authority, with the approval of the king, to issue a second decree enabling the Jews of every city and village to prepare and arm themselves. On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, of Adar, they were permitted to fight back against any armed force that had been instructed to attack them. Which they did with great success, for many had heard the account of Haman and were in awe of the Jews. Indeed, the Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor (8:16).
In Susa, the capital, two days of battle were needed and many antagonists were overcome, including the ten sons of Haman who were hanged on the same gallows as their father.
The sons’ names are: (See if you can read them in one breath!)
and Aspa’tha and Pora’tha
and Ada’lia and Arida’tha
and Parmash’ta and Ar’isai
and Ar’idai and Vaiza’tha (9:7-9).
And Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Achashverosh, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending choice portions (mishloach manot) to one another and gifts to the poor (matanot la’ev’yonim) (9:20-22).
The Jews ordained and took it upon themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants (9:27-28).
The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing (9:32).
We can trust that the Persian kingdom enjoyed great unity and blessing under the governance of Mordechai, who now was next in rank to the king, for we are told that “he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people” (10:3).
When things are in order and beautiful we rejoice as we see the Kingdom of God being established in the earth. And when things seem confused and hopeless, God finds a way to tell us: “I am with you, as I have been all along. I will always be here for you. Choose in faith to see Me in all circumstances, and let your heart be filled with joy and peace.”
Interestingly, the name of God is not directly mentioned in the book of Esther. We are, however, strongly aware of His Presence “behind the scenes” as it were. This is the miracle and the message of Purim. It is found hidden in the midst of the confusion and noise in the world. It is the “hidden” face of God, the radiant light of His constant Presence that is with us in Messiah Yeshua no matter how dark the circumstances. We can celebrate, at Purim and every day, the reality that He is our hope, our protection and shield, our Redeemer through it all. Now and forever. Amen.
Recipe for Hamantaschen
Ingredients for about 2 dozen Hamantaschen:
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups flour (part whole wheat flour may be used)
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
Cream together butter, sugar, and vanilla. Stir in eggs.
Blend in flour, baking powder, and salt.
Divide dough in half and place in a plastic bag. Refrigerate for a few hours.
When ready to bake, roll each half of dough to ¼ inch thickness. With a 3-inch cookie cutter, or the rim of a water glass, cut out circles of dough. Alternatively, cut into 2½ inch squares.
Place a teaspoonful of filling in center of each circle. Pinch the edges tightly together, forming a triangle. Leave a little of the filling showing in the center. Place on a greased baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350° oven for 15–20 minutes until golden brown.
Poppy Seed Filling
1 cup ground poppy seeds
½ cup honey
1/3 cup raisins
juice of ½ a lemon
1 tablespoon oil
Combine all ingredients and spoon onto dough circles.
¼ cup butter or oil
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 ½ cups chopped dates
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
grated rind of 1 lemon
Melt butter over a low flame (or heat oil) and stir in sugar and dates. Simmer on low heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add cinnamon, ginger, and grated lemon rind and mix well. Spoon onto dough circles.
- Photo credit: Rabbi Tatz – Venetian mask
1. Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays, Harper and Row Publishers, NY, 1985; 189
2. Sara Finkel, Simply Delicious, via Aish.com