So what is Purim anyway?
1. Purim (Hebrew: פורים "lots", related to Akkadian pūru) is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people of the ancient Persian Empire from Haman's plot to annihilate them, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther (Megillat Esther). According to the story, Haman cast lots to determine the day upon which to exterminate the Jews. (Thanks Wikipedia, I couldn't have said it better myself. So I didn't.)
And now for some help from Judaism 101 (no reason to reinvent the wheel here, is there?):
2. Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.
3. The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter. Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to become part of his harem. King Ahasuerus loved Esther more than his other women and made Esther queen, but the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her identity. Children learn the Purim story in school each year. Even my 4 year old daughter, who was very busy dressing up for the holiday as Cinderella, can tell you about Esther, Mordecai, Ahaseurus and the rest of the crew.
4. The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. In a speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Haman told the king, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them." Esther 3:8. The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, to do as he pleased to them. Haman planned to exterminate all of the Jews.
5. Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king's presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went into the king. He welcomed her. Later, she told him of Haman's plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.
Back to me again for the modern secular Israeli take on things:
6. Purim today bears a striking resemblance to an American Halloween. While the holiday is rooted in religious tradition, the costumes look remarkably like Anytown, USA (among secular Israelis that is, the more religious segments of society often prefer traditional biblical costumes or costumes from the story of Purim). This year my 7 year old is dressed as a boxer, complete with satin "Champ" robe while my daughter is Cinderella (oh my aching feminist sensibilities...). Itai's friends are dressed as soccer players, cartoon characters, wizards, you name it. In Maya's class the girls were mainly princesses - Cinderella, Snow White, a damsel in distress, Minnie Mouse and others and among the boys Peter Pan and Bob the Builder were in the lead when I left.
7. It is traditional to bring baskets of sweets to friends and neighbors. These baskets are known as mishloach manot in Hebrew or shalach manos in homes with a Yiddish/Eastern European tradition. For school-age children, this means preparing a basket filled with various chocolates and candy, a small toy (usually a noisemaker) and a few hamantaschen. The baskets are then "raffled" off in the classroom, with each kid bringing home someone else's basket.
8. Hamantaschen ("Haman's Hat"), and called "Haman's Ears" in Hebrew, are the Purim cookie. They are 3-sided, with various types of filling inside. Traditional fillings in North America are jelly or poppyseed. Here in Israel dates are more popular, and of course chocolate-filled is usually the children's filling of choice. You can find a recipe for hamantaschen here. You can find a wheat-free, gluten-free version here, towards the bottom of the page.
9. The primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther. To "blot out the name of Haman" people boo, hiss, stamp their feet and rattle groggers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the reading.
10. Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar, which is usually in February or March. The 13th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews, and the day that the Jews fought to save their lives. The next day, the 14th, celebrates the survival of the Jewish people.
11. In cities that were walled in the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month, because the book of Esther says that in Shushan (a walled city), deliverance from the massacre was not complete until the next day. The 15th is referred to as Shushan Purim.
12. Purim calls for celebrants to eat, drink and be merry. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai," though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. No one is supposed to become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or get seriously ill, and alcoholics or others who might suffer serious harm from alcohol are exempt from the obligation. (I suspect this commandment is more widely obeyed in the religious sector. Other than a few raucous Purim parties I attended during my misspent youth I've never been to an event where the adults get plastered, or for that matter even really drink. Israelis on the whole are not big drinkers at all.)
13. Purim begins at sunset on Thursday March 20 this year, and ends at sundown on Friday.
A very happy Purim to all who are celebrating.
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