Purim: The Feast of Lots

A Bissel of This and That

The joyous holiday of Purim is celebrated every year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (late winter/early spring). Purim 2021 begins on Thursday night, February 25, and continues through Friday, February 26, (February 27-28 in Jerusalem). It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.

The story of Purim is told in the Biblical book of Esther. 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, and he loved her more than his other women and made her queen. But the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her nationality.

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 thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them” (Esther 3:8).The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman to do as he pleased to them. Haman’s plan was to exterminate all of the Jews.

Purim is so called after the lots cast by Haman to determine the month in which the slaughter was to take place. In Hasmonean times it was known as the “Day of Mordecai”.

Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people, telling her that it was possible she had attained her royal position in order to serve her people “at such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). This put Esther in a dangerous position 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 to see the king. Thankfully, 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

The book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the bible that does not contain the name of  G-d. In fact, it includes virtually no reference to G-d. Mordecai makes a vague reference to the fact that the Jews will be saved by someone else, if not by Esther, but that is the closest the book comes to mentioning G-d. Thus, one important message that can be gained from the story is that G-d often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck.

The holiday of Purim is preceded by a minor fast, the Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther’s three days of fasting in preparation for her meeting with the king. Then the celebration begins! The centerpiece of the communal celebration is the reading of the Scroll of Esther, the Megillah, in the synagogue. This is typically a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noisemaking when Haman’s name is read aloud. Another tradition is the Purim shpiel or play.

One of the favorite activities in preparation for the holiday is the baking and eating of hamantaschen, triangular filled pastries bursting with poppy seeds, apricot or other sweet fillings. In addition, following the commandment to give gifts to friends and the needy, the preparation of so-called mishloah manot baskets is a fun activity to engage in, as is their distribution on the holiday. 

Although considered a minor holiday, Purim has become one of the best-loved holidays of the Jewish year. The reasons for this are easy to see. It is a joyous day on which everyone is encouraged to have fun and enjoy themselves. Most significant, however, is the story of Purim, in which a small and threatened Jewish community in exile is able to triumph over its foes. This is a powerful image for a community that over the centuries has been faced with threats from many different sources. The story of Purim holds out the hope that no matter how bad the circumstances, things will turn out well in the end.

Sources of information: https://www.chabad.org/holidays/purim/article_cdo/aid/645309/jewish/What-Is-Purim.htm; https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/purim; https://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/purim