Next week we are going to celebrate the festival of Purim. So what do we know about this holiday? Purim is not one of the holidays commanded in the Torah, but it is rooted in the biblical book of Esther and its requirements are outlined in the Talmud. Purim has been celebrated since at least the second century CE, and probably long before.
The word “Purim” means “Lots,” and refers to Haman’s casting of lots in the story of Esther. Purim is also known as “The Feast of Lots.”
On Purim, all Jews are required to fulfil the four Purim mitzvot:
- Two readings of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) (Mikrah Megillah);
- Festive meal (Seudah Purim);
- Gifts of food to friends (Mishloach Manot);
- Charity to the poor (Matanot l’Evyonim).
The first reading of the Megillah must occur sometime between sunset the night before Purim and sunrise on Purim. The second reading must occur between sunrise and sunset on Purim. It is ideal to hear the Megillah in the synagogue with many people, but the most important thing is that the reading is heard clearly. When Haman’s name is read, it is customary for the congregation to yell and make noise so that it cannot be heard. This symbolically blots out the memory of his name from the earth.
“The Purim feast is unlike any other in the Jewish year. In addition to good food and lots of alcohol, the meal is characterized by its zany raucous atmosphere — trombones blare, silly string flies, and grown men dance together for hours on end. One of the most well-known (and beloved) aspects of the Purim festive meal is that each (adult) participant is obliged to become so drunk that he or she cannot distinguish between the phrases, “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai.”
Opinions vary as to exactly how drunk this is, but there is no doubt that the intoxication is intended to be significant. However, one should not become so drunk that he endangers his health or neglects other mitzvot such as ritual washing, praying, or saying the blessing after meals, and it is improper to pray if one is so drunk that he is “unfit to stand before the King.”
A third mitzvah of Purim is to give a gift of two types of food or drink to at least one friend (the Mishloach Manot). It is inappropriate to give overly expensive gifts, as this takes away from how much can be given to the poor. It is especially meritorious to send gifts to those from whom one is estranged, to demonstrate the falsity of Haman’s accusation of dissention among the Jews.
Finally, charity must be given to at least two poor people on Purim, in an amount at least equal to the value of one inexpensive meal. Each Jew’s donation need not be given to the poor directly, but it must be distributed on Purim. Most notably, Purim charity must be given without regard to the merit, desert, or even need of the recipient. On all other days, Jews are required to ensure their donations are used properly, but not on Purim. “On this day of unbridled joy, no questions are to be asked.”
As with many holidays, non-religious customs for celebrating Purim have developed over the years. One very popular custom is the baking of hamantaschen (“Haman’s ears” or “Haman’s pockets”), three-cornered pastries with a fruit filling. It has also become customary to celebrate Purim with plays, satirical skits (Purim shpiels), disguises, and beauty contests to commemorate Esther’s story.
Hag Sameach! Rabbi Julia Margolis