- Tereza Krautová
Jews Around the World Celebrate Purim Today; An Explanation of the Holiday
Once a year, Jews should get drunk – according to religious regulations, on the feast of Purim (in hebrew פורים). Purim is also called Festival of Lots, because the word Pur in Akkadian means „lot“. Purim is a historical holiday, so it does not have the same holiness as pilgrimage holidays or high holy days, which are directly prescribed by the Torah.
It is a holiday commemorating the liberation of Persian Jews from the intrigues of the adviser to the Persian ruler Ahasuerus (Xerxes I.), Haman. As is well known, Jews have often lived under stronger nations in their history. In the 4th century BC, they found themselves in Persian captivity. The empire was ruled at the time by king Ahasuerus, whose advisor was Haman.
At that time, a Jew named Mordecai lived in the capital of the Persian empire, Susa. Mordecai had a cousin Esther, who was very beautiful. Because King Ahasuerus sought a new wife after his queen, Vashti, refused to obey him, Mordecai sent Esther to the palace to apply for the post of the queen. However, he advised her to conceal she was Jewish. Esther enchanted Ahasuerus with her beauty and truly became a Persian Queen.
Haman, the advisor of the king, wanted to exterminate the Jews from the empire, as it is recorded in the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther). The name of the holiday is reminiscent of Haman's tossing of lots to determine the most suitable day for his plan. In ancient times, it was customary to believe in fate in the preparation of such events. However, the prudent Mordecai learned of Haman's devious plans and immediately went to Esther to save the Jews by intercession with the king. Esther was reluctant at first, afraid to enter Ahasuerus's bedroom without the king's invitation, because such an act like this was indiscriminately punishable by death. So Mordecai said to her: „Haven’t you become a queen to help your people in times of greatest danger?“. So, Esther finally went. According to the Midrash, a miracle happened – Esther was accepted, although the king had previously issued an order, he did not want to be disturbed under the threat of the death penalty. But Ahasuerus was not angry with her and asked what she would like. Esther replied that she would like a feast, attended by the king, herself, and Haman. The king agreed. At the feast, the King asked Esther again what she would like. She replied that another such banquet with him and Haman. At Esther’s second banquet, she revealed that she is Jewish, and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people.
Ahasuerus loved his wife immensely, and without hesitation he sided with her. Haman was punished by death, Mordecai was honored by the king, and all the Jews in Persia were saved.
It is a happy story and that is why Purim is a holiday of merriment and joy.
Purim is celebrated annually on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. In the cities that had walls in Joshua's time, including Jerusalem, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of Adar as Shushan Purim. This year, Purim starts from the evening on Thursday, February 25, and lasts until the evening of the following day.
At Purim, it is necessary to observe the four main mitzvot (obligations) set by the Sanhedrin:
1. Mikra Megillah (the reading of the Megillah) – the Megillah is read twice on Purim, once at night and once during the day. It is permissible to read the night-time reading any time during the night and to read the daytime reading at any time during the day. This obligation applies to both men and woman, and it is also permissible to hear it be read.
2. Mishte Purim (the festive Purim meal) – after dawn on 14 Adar a large feast should be held. Wine or another alcoholic beverage with which the whole Purim story is associated must be served.
3. Mishloach Manot (sending gifts) – everyone sends at least one friend two portions of something to eat or drink. Only what is edible or drinkable without further cooking or preparation, is considered a portion. According to the halakha, every Jew over the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah should send a food gift consisting of two different types of food to at least one recipient.
4. Matanot l’Evyonim (gifts to the poor) – at least one gift to at least two poor people (food, clothing, etc.). All men, women and children over the age of Bar and Bat Mitzvah are obligated, even if they do not have their own income, and even if they themselves would qualify to receive these gifts.
Purim’s feast is preceded by the fast of Esther because queen Esther fasted for three days and asked God for help before she dared to go to the king, to beg to save her people. The fast is commemorated on the 13th of Adar, on the eve of Purim. It is a smaller fast, that applies from dawn to dusk.
When it comes to the dishes, vegetarian food is recommended, as a reminder that Esther avoided meat at the royal court. During the main course, dishes made from beans, peas and chickpeas are served. In North Africa, the traditional food served is berkoksh (coarse couscous) with beans and butter topped with milk, or various cereal porridges with raisins, sugar, and cinnamon. Favorite sweets are stuffed cookies, so called Haman’s ears or Queen Esther’s sweets. Adults drink alcoholic beverages; the Talmud even exhorts a person to get drunk so much that he does not distinguish the blessed Mordecai from the cursed Haman.
One of the funniest Purim customs is wearing masks and costumes; the so-called Purimishpil is played, in which the story of the good Esther, the wise Mordecai and cruel Haman is portrayed in a cheerful way.
Judaism considers Haman to be the successor of the biblical Amalek, the prototype of all enemies of the Jews. Whenever his name is heard in the synagogue while reading Megillat Esther, there is noise – adults beat on the benches, children spin the ratchets. Fifty-four times when reading the Book of Esther, the name Haman is mentioned, just as many times the Jews present overwhelm it, and thus symbolically "erase it from under heaven."
It is necessary to read passages about the Amalekites to commemorate the constant struggle with the various forms of oppression and hatred that make the story of the Book of Esther still important to this day.
And finally, here is an easy Hamantaschen recipe, the favorite treat for the Purim holiday.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 12 minutes
Total: 27 minutes
Yield: 24 cookies
1 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup vegetable oil
2 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup orange juice
5 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup fruit preserves, any flavor
1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees C. Grease cookie sheets
2. In a large bowl beat the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Stir in the oil, vanilla and orange juice. Combine the flour and baking powder; stir into the batter to form a stiff dough. If dough is not stiff enough to roll out, stir in more flour. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough out to 1/4 inch in thickness. Cut into circles using a cookie cutter or the rim or a drinking glass. Place cookies 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheets. Spoon about 2 teaspoons of preserves into the center of each one. Pinch the edges to form three corners.
3. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until lightly browned. Allow cookies to cool for 1 minute on the cookie sheet before removing to wire racks to cool completely.