Tonight and tomorrow, we celebrate one of the most joyous and fun-filled holidays on the Jewish calendar — Purim (Feast of Lots).
This festive day commemorates God’s victory and deliverance of the Jewish People from their enemies in ancient Persia.
“This [victory] happened on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth they rested and made it a day of feasting and joy.” (Esther 9:17)
Hamantaschen, the traditional filled pastry of Purim, are a reference to
Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther. The cookie’s triangular shape is
thought to resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat. The groggers
(noisemakers) are for drowning out any reference to his name.
Before the Purim feast tonight, we fast.
Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Esther) is held in honor of Queen Esther’s three-day fast before pleading with the king to spare the lives of her people. She told her cousin and adopted father, Mordecai:
“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Shushan, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
This fast traditionally falls on Adar 13, the day before Purim, which was the day Haman set aside for the destruction of the Jewish People.
Today’s fast begins an hour before sunrise and ends at nightfall. Because this fast is not one of the four public fasts called by the Prophets, its observance is more lenient. Women who are pregnant or nursing, as well as the weak, are not required to fully observe it.
A Purim parade in Israel
The Fast of Joy
While most fasts have an element of mourning, this fast (tzom) is one of joy. It affirms that Israel’s strength is not found in its military might, but in the Lord. Our victory comes by keeping our eyes on the Lord through prayer and by God’s Divine mercy.
“‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.”(Zechariah 4:6)
Although the Jewish People did take up arms and fight their enemies, that victory was only possible because courageous people prayed before taking action.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons writes that Ta’anit Esther is not a fast involving sadness (as is the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av or on Yom Kippur when we repent for our sins of the prior year) but one of “elevation and inspiration.”
He compares it with the Torah injunction that soldiers should fast on the day prior to battle, thus recognizing that victory does not come through our own strength but from God. (Aish)
Israeli Orthodox Jewish men read the Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther).
Purim: A Day of Merrymaking
“Celebrate annually … observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:21–22)
The Book of Esther describes Purim as a time of “light, gladness, joy and honor for the Jewish people.” (Esther 8:16)
One indispensable way of spreading joy on Purim is the giving of Purim baskets filled with delicious goodies to family and friends, as well as gifts to the poor.
Purim is such a festive celebration that it is marked by wearing costumes, feasting at elaborate meals, and the reading of the Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther).
As we listen to the story of Purim read in the synagogue, we grind our groggers (noisemakers) to block out the hated name of Haman whenever it is mentioned during the reading. With equal enthusiasm, cheering ensueswhen Mordecai’s name is spoken.
This is a reminder that throughout history, there have been Hamans that have tried to wipe out the Jewish nation as a people, but in every generation, God has protected us from complete destruction.
The importance of unity and friendship is emphasized on Purim by
sending gifts of food to friends called mishloach manot. As well, it is
considered a special mitzvah (good deed) to give to the needy (Matanot
L’Evyonim) on Purim. It is traditional to give to (at minimum) two poor
individuals on Purim day.
Another custom practiced by some to blot out the name of Haman is to drink until we are not able to discern between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai.”
This is one time of the year in which being drunk might be acceptable in Judaism.
Perhaps the rabbis encouraged such behavior because this is to be a joyous holiday, one in which we recall how God protected His People from total annihilation at the hands of an evil adversary.
A more compelling reason, though, may be that God installed a Jewish queen on a Persian throne as a result of excessive drinking.
Of course, the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant) encourages Believers not to drink excessively:
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:18–19)
The Book of Esther, however, begins with a drinking spree sanctioned by the Persian king.
The Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther)
The Story of Purim
“By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.” (Esther 1:8)
In the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus of Persia, who probably can be identified as Xerxes I who reigned during the fifth century BC, holds a drinking fest that lasts 180 days.
After months of excess, celebrating with his army, government officials, and the people of Shushan, he orders his queen, Vashti, to appear before the guests so that he can show off her beauty.
Vashti refuses, so Ahasuerus has her banished (executed, according to traditional Jewish accounts) at the urging of Persia’s seven nobles, who are concerned that women would follow her example.
“Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.” (Esther 1:20)
A child wears a Purim costume as he listens to the reading of Esther
in a synagogue in Ofra, Israel.
To replace the queen, the king orders a kind of beauty contest featuring the most beautiful young women of his kingdom.
One of those was the Jewish orphan Esther, who is being raised by her cousin Mordecai, a Benjamite “who had been carried into exile from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, among those taken captive with Jehoiachina king of Judah.” (Esther 2:6)
Each of the women completes 12 months of beauty treatments and eats special food before they are taken in to the king.
Esther, who had not revealed her identity as a Jew, is most favored by him.
“So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.” (Esther 2:17–18)
A little girl dressed as Queen Esther for Purim places
hamantaschen in a basket.
While Esther is serving as queen, Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill Ahasuerus, saving the king’s life.
Yet, this loyalty does not earn him favor with the king’s chief minister, Haman, who is appointed after this event.
Mordecai, who sits daily at the palace gate, refuses to bow to Haman.
In retaliation, Haman plots his death, as well as the deaths of all of the Jews living in the empire.
With the king’s permission, he casts lots (purim) to determine the best date on which to carry out the massacre. It falls on Adar 13.
Two Jewish men wear tefillin (phylacteries) for
morning prayer on Purim.
Celebrate Purim with the Jewish People, Bill, by making a difference in Israel today
Hearing of the plot, Mordecai instructs Esther, through the king’s eunuch, to approach the king in order to plead with him on behalf of her people.
In her reply to him, she reminds Mordecai that to enter the inner court without being summoned by the king would likely result in her death.
Mordecai reasons with her, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13–14)
Esther realizes the wisdom in her cousin’s words and calls for a three-day fast, saying, “I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish,” (Esther 4:16) — which is to say, “God’s will be done.”
Esther before Ahasuerus, by Giovanni Andrea Sirani
With much united prayer, therefore, Esther approaches the king and reveals Haman’s plans to destroy her people.
Realizing that even Esther would be killed, Ahasuerus hangs Haman on the same pole Haman designed for Mordecai.
The king also allows the Jews to defend themselves against the evil edict, resulting in the deaths of 75,000 enemies on Adar 13, in addition to 800 deaths in the king’s citadel of Shushan on the 13th and 14th. (Esther 9:6, 15–16)
An Israeli father and son deliver a mishloach manot, the traditional Purim
gift of treats.
Where Was God?
Much has been made of the fact that God’s name is not mentioned in the Book of Esther.
Many say that this was intentional — to teach us that what may seem to berandom events, such as the ten plagues in Egypt, in fact are not.
Even when God seems “hidden,” He is still in control. Nothing happens by chance.
The rabbis even link this apparent hiddenness of God to Esther’s name, as in “I will surely hide [as-tir] My face on that day.…” (Deuteronomy 31:18)
This idea of hiddenness in Esther, including her hidden identity as a Jew, explains why costumes and masks are worn by children and adults alike on Purim. The message of such masks is that though God may be hidden, He is there.
Part of the traditional Purim festivities is the Purim spiel, a comic,
informal dramatization of the events that transpire in the Book of Esther.
Purim and Modern-Day Hamans
Purim reminds us that a “Haman” seeking to destroy Israel arises in every generation.
To find our Haman today, we need look no further than modern-day Persia — Iran — where leaders openly call for Israel’s destruction. As well, tens of thousands of Hezbollah and Hamas “freedom fighters” surround Israel ready to carry out Israel’s ruin.
Whether Haman is supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran or Germany’s Hitler, who orchestrated the Holocaust, the Bible plainly states that those who curse Israel are doomed to destruction and those who bless Israel will forever be blessed. (Genesis 12:3)
The true message of Purim is that God does not break His promises to the Jewish People. They will survive and prosper in the homeland that He is bringing them back to in these tumultuous end times.
Even in what might seem to be random events today, God’s presence is constant and His hand is evident.
“He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 30:5)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and
his wife Sara bring a little joy to sick children
in honor of Purim.
Like Esther, there are times God is calling us to act on His behalf for the Jewish People.
We may not supernaturally hear a voice from Heaven commanding us to do this or that; instead, He might speak to us through a trusted family member, spiritual leader, or friend.
Most often, however, we will come to understand His will through reading the Word of God.
For instance, in Mark 16:15, Yeshua (Jesus) told His Talmudim (Disciples),”Go into all the world and preach the Good News to all creation.”
And in Isaiah 58:10, we read: “You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed.”