Purim is a joyous Jewish holiday rooted in liberation from oppression. Its themes are a piquant mixture of festivity and frivolity with profound theological reflection upon persecution and providence.
Purim is observed on the 14th day of Adar, a month before Passover. It commemorates the salvation of the Jewish community in Persia from a massacre. The primary ritual is the public reading of the scroll of Esther in the synagogue.
The book of Esther tells the story of Purim. Two Jews, Mordecai and Esther, thwart the evil scheme of Haman to wage a pogrom. The name Purim comes from the Aramaic word “pur,” meaning “lot.” Haman has lots cast to determine the date the Jews will be killed (Esth 3:7; 9:24-26). Mordecai learns of the plot and goes to his adopted daughter Esther, who has become a part of the royal court.
Esther has kept her Jewish identity secret, but Mordecai persuades her to act decisively on behalf of her people: “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for a time like this” (Esth 4:14). In a reversal of fortune, Haman is foiled and the Jews throw off their oppressors (Esth 6-9). The holiday of Purim commemorates these events: “Therefore the Jews … hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day of gladness and feasting” (Esth 9:19).
There are four mitzvot (commandments) for Purim. The first is the reading of the Megillah (Esther). Whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, participants make noise and turn a gregger (noisemaker). Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein noted that blotting out the name of the evil Haman is a reminder of humanity’s duty to partner with God in replacing evil with good. It echoed Mordecai’s challenge to Esther not to keep silent in times of injustice (Esth 4:14). Eckstein wrote: “We are commanded to confront evil and eliminate it by combining our human initiative with our trust in God’s yeshuah or ‘salvation.'”
The second mitzvot is the festive Purim family meal, called seudat. It includes a special prayer, Al HaNisim, expressing gratitude to God: “But You, in Your abundant mercy, nullified his [Haman’s] counsel and frustrated his intention.” Because wine played a main role in the story of Esther (1:7-10, 5:6, 7:2), drinking wine is also a part of Purim. Celebrants are enjoined to partake of wine freely, but not to the point of harm. The Talmud says: “A person must drink until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’ ”
The third and fourth miztvot are the sending of “portions” to friends and gifts to the poor. In Esther 9:19 Purim is called “a holiday on which they can send gifts of food to one another.” Celebrants may exchange gifts of cooked food, fruit, candy or drink. At least two “portions” should be sent to another person. Celebrants also give gifts to at least two poor people or charities.
The Jewish scholar Maimonedes (1135-1204) wrote: “When giving gifts of money one must not count one’s pennies but must give to whoever asks. It is far more praiseworthy for a man to be extravagant in giving gifts to the needy than in preparing his own meal or in giving gifts to his friends.”
Purim reminds Jews of the mystery of God’s providence. The name of God is not mentioned in the book of Esther, but the deliverance of the Jews is more than coincidental. Jewish writer Ron Cantrell noted on BridgesForPeace.com that “God’s intervention on behalf of his people is so obvious and all pervading that it borders on irony that His name does not appear … Purim is a microcosm of Jewish history.”
Purim illustrates that “one of the greatest Jewish weapons against persecution is humor,” according to Rabbi Daniel M. Bronstein. He said that Purim is about disarming the powerful. “Because evil is defeated, Purim is a time for laughing, celebrating, masquerading, and parodying the high and mighty in our world today. But in the heights of Purim, we can glimpse at a just and whole world, and we can imagine a day in the future when evil will simply be laughed at.” (http://www.socialaction.com/bronsteinpurim.html)
James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.