Meaning “lots” in ancient Persian, Purim is celebrated to commemorate the Jewish liberation from Haman, who was prime minister to the King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire. Haman planned to kill the Jewish minority in the empire after casting lots to see which day his devious plot would take place. Celebrated annually on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, Purim is a day of great feasts, gladness, and much rejoicing, for ‘our sorrow was turned to gladness.’
A Brief History Of How Purim Came To Be
Purim is based on the 4th century BCE events recorded in the Book of Esther. King Ahasuerus was displeased that his wife, Queen Vashti, refused to follow his orders at a feast and removed her from his court permanently. The King then ordered all young women to be presented to him. He favored Esther, not knowing she was Jewish, nor that she was the cousin of Mordecai, a member of the Jewish community at the time.
Shortly after Esther is named Queen and moves into the King’s castle, Mordecai discovered a plot to assassinate the King and shares the information with the recently-crowned Queen Esther. Esther told the King about the plot and, upon verifying the plot, the King decrees the assassins be hanged on the gallows. The entire case is recorded in the King’s official records and Mordecai is credited with having saved the King’s life.
At the same time, Haman, having been appointed to serve as the King’s prime minister, grows increasingly resentful of the Jewish people because, at a mutual meeting, Mordecai refused to bow to him. In an act of revenge, Haman, who realized that Mordecai is Jewish, told the King that the Jews should be destroyed because their belief and lifestyles are different. The King hands the fate of the Jews to Haman who draws lots to decide the date when he will have the Jews massacred, while he also prepares to have Mordecai hanged on the gallows.
While Haman plans to kill Mordecai and exterminate the Jews, Mordecai urges Esther to speak with the King on behalf of the Jewish people and inform him of Haman’s deadly plan to eliminate the Jewish community. Entering the King’s court without being summoned first was a dangerous task, so before going to see the King, Esther and the Jewish community fast and pray for three days after which she enters the King’s court without having been summoned. The King, delighted to receive the Queen, welcomes Esther. She tells the King of her Jewish identity, Haman’s plot to kill her people, and Mordecai’s heroism in saving the King’s life.
Realizing that Esther was about to be killed in a minor genocide, the King became infuriated at Haman and sentenced him to death in place of Mordecai. Knowing that the previous decree against the Jewish people could not be annulled, King Ahasuerus allowed Esther and Mordecai to write another decree. With the knowledge of their enemies at hand, the two decreed that the Jewish people may preemptively kill those that posed a lethal threat. Not only were Haman’s ten sons killed, but 75,000 enemies were killed throughout the empire. Mordecai was then appointed second in command to the King and instituted what is known today as Purim.
Celebrating Purim Today
The community revels with joy throughout Israel, where children adorn themselves in costumes resembling Queen Esther and Mordecai. Special customs are observed, including hearing The Book of Esther, otherwise known as Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther, read two times in synagogues or in private gatherings. Delivering sweet foods and treats to family and friends, mishloach manot, Purim baskets, like candy and fruit, and triangular-shaped pastries made of dough and filled with fruit preserves, called ‘hamentashen,’ giving charity to the poor, and having a festive meal are the most common traditions the Jewish community upholds.
Children and adults will dress up for the festivities, typically wearing colorful masks as they march the streets of their respective cities in celebration. The focus will be on the parades that are held in most cities. Starting around noon, the parades boast brass bands, jugglers, dancers, and floats filled with significant figures from the Book of Esther.
While many celebrations will be taking place, the largest will be in Holon, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. If you just so happen to be in the Holy Land on March 11th through the next day, stop by one of these cities to partake in the colorful festivities. Celebrating God’s deliverance of His people will be nothing short of special.