This weekend, the Jewish community celebrates the holiday of Purim. The story comes from the Book of Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a young Jewish girl and her uncle and guardian, Mordecai. They interact with King Ahashueros of Persia and his chief minister, Haman.
Briefly, the story goes as follows: The King disposes of his current Queen, Vashti. Vashti’s crime is that she refuses to attend a drunken banquet at which the King wants to show her off. A contest is held to find an appropriate replacement for Vashti. Mordecai encourages Esther to participate and Esther wins the King’s affections and the crown. In the process, she doesn’t mention that she is Jewish. Meanwhile, Mordecai overhears a plot to murder the king and duly reports it to the authorities. Haman, at the same time, plots against the Jews of Persia, planning to kill them all.
He determines the date of the operation by casting lots (in Hebrew “purim”), hence the name of the holiday. He gains the Kings assent for his plan. The King then discovers that Mordecai was never rewarded for his loyalty to the King and orders that Haman parade Mordecai through the town as a hero. To say the least Haman is not happy with the task.
Mordecai, who has learned of Haman’s plot, implores Esther to go to the king and tell him about it. Esther, fearful for her life, approaches the King and invites him and Haman to a banquet in their honor. At the banquet, Esther reveals herself as a Jew and potential victim of Haman’s plot. An angry King turns on Haman, has him arrested and “done away with” and issues an edict permitting the Jews to defend themselves against the mob. This they do successfully and Mordecai enjoins the community to observe this as a perpetual holiday.
Purim is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar and became popular as an antidote or escape from the danger of Jewish life. It is traditional to dress in costume for the holiday and to read the Megillah or “scroll” of Esther. A common food associated with Purim is the hamentasch, which is a three-sided cookie filled with nuts, fruit or chocolate. The shape, depending upon one’s tradition, is either a reminder of Haman’s hat or his ears!
The problem with Purim is that nowhere in the Book of Esther is God mentioned. The main characters do not ask for God’s intercession nor do they thank or praise God for the positive result at the end. Some traditionalists posit that God acted behind the scenes or in disguise (hence the costumes) but was nevertheless present.
All that being said, Purim is a happy holiday, celebrated with levity, fun, carnivals and merrymaking!