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PURIM celebrates the miracle of the deliverance from persecution and suffering wrought for the Jewish people in Persia. The story is told in the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) c. 4th Cent. BCE. The celebration of Purim is not a celebration of redemption but rather a celebration of survival and as such it becomes a powerful text of hope for Jews who are spread throughout the world and exposed to oppression and persecution. Purim blessings - an image from 'Images from Megillot' in the HUC-JIR Library Collection

Purim is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar. [In leap years Purim falls in Adar II.] Traditionally, the date of Purim marks the first day following the victory/deliverance of the Jews in Persia.

"They [the Jews in the provinces] rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merry making" (Esther 9:17)

In cities that were surrounded by a wall in the time of Joshua Purim is celebrated on the 15th day of Adar, also called Shushan Purim. This is because of the tradition that the war was extended one more day in the ancient city of Shushan—the Persian capital, and a "walled" city (Esther 9:13-15, 18). For this reason the sages declared that Purim be celebrated in Israel as it was in Shushan, on the 15th Adar. Since the city walls of Israel at that time lay in ruins it was declared that all cities that had walls in the time of Joshua should celebrate Purim on Shushan Purim. Today the ruling is applied to Jerusalem and Shushan. ...Thus Purim is celebrated in Jerusalem in Adar 15 (B.T. Megilah 2b). In some other cities (e.g. Tiberius, Acco and Jaffa), cities which were partly walled cities, or because doubt exists as to their status at the time of Joshua, Jews have the custom of reading the Megillah (The Scroll containing the Book of Esther) on both the 14th and the 15th Adar.

The  Book of Esther  relates a tale about a community in the Diaspora, a community adapted or adapting to life in a foreign land where privacy of religious practice is balanced with public responsibilities as citizens of a foreign land.

Megillat Esther

Megillat Esther
The Scroll of Esther - Megillat Esther [»]
The story of Purim which is recounted in the Hebrew Bible, in the Megillat Esther, dates from the 4th Century BCE and is the last of the canonical texts to be determined for inclusion in the TaNaKh.

The Talmud attributes Megillat Esther to a redaction of an original text written by Mordechai (Baba Bathra 15a). The Book of Esther in the Septuagint [Greek Bible] differs from Megillat Esther and is understood as an interpretive adaptation. The Greek Esther (c. 2nd Century BCE) adds additional traditions, e.g., Ahasuerus is identified with Artaxerxes.

Jerome's Latin text [Vulgate] of the Book of Esther is a translation of the Hebrew text with additions based upon the Greek version.

How is Purim celebrated?

Purim is a day of rest and a day of celebration.
1. The Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) is read in the synagogue, twice, once in the evening and again in the morning. The reading to accompanied by a degree of joyfulness—whenever the name "Haman" is mentioned the congregation creates a huge noise to drown out the name.
2. Special prayers are recited. The Hallel is added to the morning service and Al Hanissim (“For the Miracles”) is added to the Amidah and the Birkat HaMazon.
3. It is customary to dress up in costume.1
4. A celebratory meal is taken the afternoon (Purim seudah) after the afternnon servcie. It is customary to drink wine during the meal.
5. It is also customary to give gifts of food to friends (mishloah manot) and to give money to the poor (mattanot le-evyonim) (Esther 9:22). The mattanot le-evyonim (giving of gifts to the poor) is considered to be a mitzvah (commandment) which is over and above the regular requirement to tsedakah (charity). Mattanot le-evyonim today is generally distributed to the poor through charitable organizations.
6. Another custom, also related to the poor, is the giving of a half-shekel (mahatzit ha-shekel). This is done at the synagogue before the reading of the Megillah at night.

According to the Talmud (Megillah 13b) it was because of the merit of the machatzit hashekel (Ex. 30:11-16) that the genocidal decree Haman obtained from King Ahasuerus was overturned. The money collected for the tax being used to counter the 10,000 silver talents Haman had given the king.

“Resh Lakish said: It was well known beforehand to Him at whose word the world came into being that Haman would one day pay shekels for the destruction of Israel. Therefore He anticipated his shekels with those of Israel. And so we have learnt: ‘On the first of Adar proclamation is made regarding the shekalim’.” (Talmud, Megillah 13b)

Hamantashen - Oznei Haman [»]
7. At one time the day before Purim (13th Adar) was a minor fast day (Ta'anit Esther). Today few Jews observe the fast.
8. Special foods are eaten at Purim. Hamantashen are a triangular shaped pastry with a sweet filling. These cookies the name of which is taken from the name Haman, have come to represent the victory over Haman's evil plans. In Israel the hamantashen are called oznei haman (the ears of Haman).

Players in Megillat Esther

King Ahasuerus [Gk. Ahashuerus; Heb. Ahashverosh; Persian, Xerxes] was king of Persia c. 357 BCE2.
Haman Ha-Agagi (Haman the Agagite) was second in command to the King—he held a position similar to a vizier or prime minister. Haman's name suggests his descent from Agag, king of the Amalekites.
Queen Esther was the Jewish wife of King Ahasuerus. Her Hebrew name was Hadassah.
Mordechai was a prominent Jew and uncle and protector of Queen Esther.
Vashiti was a former wife of King Ahasuerus. She was expelled for not obeying the king's commands.
Zeresh as Haman's wife.  

At the time of the story recounted in the Book of Esther there were a large number of Jews living in Persia. When one prominent Jew, Mordechai, roused the ire of Haman by refusing to bow before him as if he were a god, the angry Haman drew lots (purim) to determine a date to destroy the whole Jewish population in Persia. He then persuaded the king to sign an irreversible decree sealed with the king's approval of his plan.
Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther
[»] Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther

While Haman built gallows to hang Mordechai, Queen Esther exposed Haman to the king. The king, incensed, had Mordechai hung on the gallows instead. Meanwhile, because the king had signed an irreversible decree the followers of Haman were preparing to carry out the decree against the Jews. Queen Esther, therefore, obtained permission from the king for the Persian Jews to arm themselves against the followers of Haman. Thus is was that, on the 13th day of Adar, war broke out between the Persian Jews and the followers of Haman. The Megillah relates that the war lasted only one day (13th Adar) in the provinces and was extended a further day (14th Adar) in the capital, Shushan (Susa).

In celebration of the victory, Jews in the provinces were granted a day of rest and celebration of the victory (14th Adar) while those in Shushan rested and celebrated on 15th Adar.

These days of rest and celebration were called Purim (lots) and Shushan Purim after the lots which were drawn by Haman.

While the story recounted in the Book of Esther is not now considered to be historical, the celebration of Purim has become part of the Jewish festival cycle. The story of exile and oppression finds resonance in the Jewish psyche and experience through the ages. Many times Jews have experienced persecution and the outcomes have not always been happy. The "miracle story" of triumph over oppression and suffering which Purim celebrates helps to fan the flame of hope.

The Story of Esther and the Story or Joseph

The Book of Esther carries resonances with the Story of Joseph. Joseph is described as being of "beautiful form, and fair to look upon" (Gen. 39:6) and Esther also is "of beautiful form and fair to look upon" (Esther 2:7). From the prison of Potifar, Joseph rises to high rank and influence in Egypt, second to Pharaoh, and from the prison of the harem Esther rises to a position of power and influence as the wife of King Ahasuerus. In their rise to power each wears the mantle of a foreign name: Esther assumes her foreign name [her Hebrew name, Hadassah, is kept secret] and Joseph is given the name Zaphenath-peneah. Both find themselves in a position to help the Jewish people.

Hamantashen sellers in costume,
Hamantashen sellers in costume,
Mahane Yehuda Market [»]

There are, however, great differences between the two characters, Esther and Joseph. Esther is a native Persian, while Joseph is an immigrant in Egypt. It is also apparent that there is a sizable resident population of Jews in Persian who are happy to remain there as citizens in a foreign land. The Hebrews who went down to Egypt, however, together with Joseph are so-journers in a foreign land. Only while Joseph is regent and Pharaoh is indulgent is their safety assured. The story of the Israelites in Egypt is not complete until the Exodus and return to the Land of Israel. The Jews in Persia, on the other hand, are citizens in a strong community who have no desire to relocate to the Land of Israel. As the Book of Esther draws to a close we see Mordechai assume the high office of vizier vacated by the wicked Haman, and the security of the Jews in Persia is assured.

God is Never mentioned in the Book of Esther

Another glaring difference in the two stories is the presence and the absence of God. The story of Joseph abounds with references to God while the religious life of the Jews in Persia remains hidden. God's name is not mentioned once in the Megillah.

Additional Reading...

Three good reasons why we should take notice of Purim ~ LINK
Author, Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance faith-educator and founder/coordinator of the Light of Torah ministry.

Purim is almost here ... And while it is not high on the agenda of most Catholics, there are good reasons to sit up and take notice of Purim, writes Teresa Pirola. Let me name three...

1. It is said that God concealed the Divine self when performimg the miracle of Purim. It is for this reason that it is customary at Purim for people to dress up, disguising themselves in commemoration of God's great act on behalf of the people.
2. or 484 BCE—scholars differ in the dates.


Image credits:
Megillat Esther. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.[source LINK]
Hamantashen. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. [author stu_spivack, source LINK]
Rembrandt. Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain. [source LINK]
Hamantashen sellers. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. [source LINK]


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