What Is Purim?
Purim celebrates the story told in the biblical Book of Esther, in which the evil Haman plots to exterminate the Jewish people of ancient Persia, but is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai, who are Jewish.
Take the Christian Christmas pageant, add a down-home Halloween and a couple bottles of wine, and you start to get a good idea of the Purim festival.
Purim is celebrated on the day after the great battle in the Book of Esther, on the 14th of Adar, which is usually in mid-March. However, in Jerusalem, it’s celebrated on the 15th of Adar as well because Jerusalem is a walled city, and as the story goes, the Jews had to defend themselves for two days in the capital city of Shushan, which also was walled.
There are four traditional requirements at Purim:
Reading the Book of Esther out loud
Being festive and rejoicing
Giving gifts of fruits and nuts
Offering gifts to the poor
The book of Esther relates the story of a Persian King named Achashveyrosh who decided that he wanted to show off his Queen, Vashti, to all his cronies. Some interpretations suggest that he asked her to dance naked, and she refused. The King, following advice that he must punish the Queen, lest all wives in the kingdom be encouraged to talk back to their husbands, banished her.
Unfortunately, this left him queen-less, so virgins were brought to the harem, and then offered to him for an evening to see which woman he would choose as queen.
Meanwhile, there was a Jew named Mordecai who had adopted his cousin Esther after her parents died. Esther was taken to the palace to prepare for a rendezvous with the King, and Mordecai forbid her to reveal that she was Jewish. When it was Esther’s turn before the King, he was so smitten with her that he crowned her the new Queen.
Haman, the prime minister, became furious when Mordecai wouldn’t bow down to him. (Jews aren’t supposed to bow down to anyone except God.) Haman decided to wipe out every Jew in the kingdom.
The King agreed to Haman’s wicked plan. They dispatched a royal decree saying that on the 13th of Adar anyone could kill Jews and take their property. The story says that this fateful date was decided by throwing lots. Thus, the name of the holiday: purim means “lots.”
Mordecai urged Ester to approach the King. Esther was reluctant; the King didn’t know she was Jewish, and the rule of the land said that anyone who appeared before the King without an invitation could be put to death immediately (even the Queen).
Fortunately, Mordecai pressed her with the most interesting lines in the story: “If you persist in remaining silent at such a time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but both you and the house of your father will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the throne for just a time as this.”
Esther and the Jews of the city fasted for three days and when the King saw her, he stretched out his golden scepter, and invited her to make a request of him. Esther invited him and Haman to a special private banquet. At that dinner, her only request was that they both come to a second banquet, the following night.
Full of himself, Haman’s ordered gallows to be erected immediately so that the Moredecai could be hung in the morning. However, that night the King discovered that earlier, Mordecai helped foil an assassination plot. When he learned that nothing was ever done in appreciation, he called Haman and asked him what should be done for a man who the King wishes to honor.
Haman suggested that the man be carried on one of the King’s horses through the town in fine royal attire, with an attendant yelling, “Here’s how the King treats those who he wishes to honor.”
The King then told Haman to give this honor to Mordecai. What’s worse, Haman himself had to attend to Mordecai and lead his horse through the city.
When Haman and the King showed up at the second banquet, Esther revealed that she was Jewish, and that because of Haman, she and her people were about to be killed. The King called for Haman to be hanged on the gallows built for Mordecai.
If this were a Disney movie, the King would simply reverse his decree permitting the killing of Jews, and everyone would live happily ever after. But the King insisted that his royal edict couldn’t be reversed, so there was only one way forward: Mordecai (who had become the prime minister) sent out a royal decree that the Jewish people could fight back in self-defense on the 13th of Adar.
The day came, the battle ensued, and when the dust settled, the Jews had won, ultimately killing over 75,000 of their opponents. And, just to make the point, Haman’s ten sons were killed . . . twice — once in the battle and again by public hanging. And the people rejoiced.