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Purim, a joyous biblical festival

A celebration of the God who delivers, even when He is hidden

Israelis dressed up in costumes for the Jewish holiday of Purim, at a school in Katzrin, Golan Heights, Mar. 5, 2023. (Photo: Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Purim is a Jewish festival that celebrates the survival of the Jews in Ancient Persia from a genocidal plot by Haman, the king’s jealous advisor, as told in the Book of Esther. 

Esther, according to the scroll which bears her name, was a Jewish orphan named Hadassah who was raised by her cousin, Mordechai. Eventually, she was made queen by Ahasuerus and assumed the Persian name Esther. 

Shortly thereafter, Mordechai offended the king’s advisor, Haman, by refusing to bow down to him. Haman decided that it was not enough to punish Mordechai, but that all of Mordechai’s people should be punished with him. 

Haman asked the king for permission to kill a group of people in his kingdom who “do not keep the king’s laws.” When the king agreed, Haman had a royal decree issued on the 13th day of the first month (Nisan) stating that the Jews were to be attacked and destroyed on the 13th day of the last month (Adar).

When Mordechai heard the edict, he mourned, putting on sackcloth and ashes. Queen Esther, seeing her cousin mourning at the entrance to the king’s gate sent messengers to find out why he was grieved. 

When Haman’s plot against the Jews was revealed to her, Esther bravely risked her life to expose Haman’s plot to kill her people. 

Persian society at that time placed a lot of significance on the revelation of the gods’ favor through astrology and luck. Haman had lots cast to determine which day to destroy the Jews. The lot (called pur in Persian) is the basis for the name of the Purim festival. 

Esther appeared before the king and requested that he and Haman attend a banquet that she would host for them, which they did. At the second such banquet, Esther exposed Haman as plotting to have all her people killed. The king, shocked to find out that Haman had plotted against his wife’s people, had Haman killed on the gallows that Haman had prepared for hanging Mordechai. 

With it being impossible to erase the royal decree, Esther requested permission to let the Jews defend themselves and avenge themselves against their enemies, which the king granted. 

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the month Adar. In the biblical story, the Jews were given permission to defend and avenge themselves on the 13th day of Adar. Celebrating on the 14th day signifies the success of their efforts and a chance to rejoice over the reversal of their circumstances. 

According to the story recorded in the Book of Esther, the Jews needed an extra day to fight off their enemies in the capital city of Shushan. Because of this, as Shushan was a walled city, it was decided that other walled cities, including Jerusalem, should celebrate Purim one day later, on the 15th of Adar. 

Because the Hebrew calendar in use after the Babylonian exile has a “leap month” of Adar, which entails two months of Adar on leap years (not the same years as in the Julian calendar), Purim is traditionally celebrated in the second month of Adar, so that it will be closer to the Passover celebration, as both celebrate God’s deliverance of His people from wicked kings. 

Purim is distinguished from other biblical holidays in that there is no biblical command to celebrate it. 

The Torah commands the celebration of several “appointed times” (called mo’adim in Hebrew). These are:  Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of First Fruits, Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, also called Pentecost), the Day of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, Sukkot (the Feast of Booths). 

However, we know that Purim has been celebrated by Jews since the Second Temple period (the time of Jesus).

In Judaism, Purim is usually celebrated with lots of joy. While other biblical feasts often have a certain order and ceremony attached to their celebration, Purim is one big party.

Religious Jews consider it a mitzvah (a commandment) to do several things on Purim: 

  • Read the story of Purim from a scroll of Esther. The Book of Esther is small enough to fit on one parchment scroll. For that reason, it is often referred to as the scroll of Esther in Judaism.

  • Give gifts of money to at least two poor people. 

  • Give gifts of food to at least one person. 

  • Celebrate a Purim feast with friends, usually involving alcoholic beverages. 

For all Jews, religious or not, Purim is associated with sweets, costumes and a festival-like atmosphere with lots of decorations, treats and fun activities. 

Some religious Jews fast the day before Purim, commemorating the fasts of Esther and Mordechai. 

Purim is also a celebration and acknowledgement of the hidden aspect of God. God is not mentioned at all in the entire book, and yet both Jewish and Christian traditions acknowledge His decisive role in saving His people. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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