You might be familiar with Esther, the Hebrew Bible heroine who saved the Jewish people from slaughter through her courageous act of faith. But did you know that Esther and the miraculous rescue of her people inspired a Jewish holiday? It’s called Purim, and Jews celebrate it in the early spring each year (the 14th day of Adar on the Jewish calendar) by doing acts of charity, performing plays and parodies, wearing costumes, attending parties, and participating in a lively reading of the book of Esther.
The biblical book of Esther tells the story of Purim. Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia, was taken to the house of Xerxes, King of Persia, to become part of his harem.
Thankfully her Jewish cousin Mordecai, who was like a father to her, was one of the king’ s advisors. He helped Esther find favor in the eyes of the king. Though King Xerxes loved Esther more than the rest of his wives and made her his queen, he had no idea she was a Jew.
Haman, one of the king’ s top advisors, was an evil man and a descendant of the Amalekites, ancient enemies of the Israelites. While the other king’ s officials bowed to Haman in respect, Mordecai refused to do so because he bowed only before God.
That infuriated Haman, so he plotted to destroy all the Jewish people in revenge. He told the king, “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from those of all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). The king handed over the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, who planned to kill them all.
When Mordecai found out about Haman’s intentions, he persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for her to do, because anyone who came into the king’s presence without being summoned could be put to death.
Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself before meeting the king. Thankfully, he welcomed her, and she told him of Haman’s plot against her people and begged for their salvation. Because of her bravery, and her faith that God put her in that place “for such a time as this” the Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai.
Jews focus on this dramatic time in their history by reading aloud the Megillah, a scroll containing the Book of Esther, twice once on Purim eve and again on Purim day.
During this reading at the synagogue, Jews boo, hiss, stomp their feet, and rattle groggers (noisemakers) whenever Haman’s name is mentioned, as a way to blot out his name.
The ninth chapter of Esther establishes the celebration of Purim and spells out the main mitzvoth, or religious duties, specific to this holiday the first being the public reading of the book of Esther.
The next mitzvah (the singular form of mitzvoth) is festivity and rejoicing. In fact, Jews are required to be happy on Purim. They accomplish this by dressing in costume, holding carnival-like celebrations, gathering with family and friends, and eating the traditional hamantaschen treats, triangular fruit-filled cookies, that represent the villain Haman’s three-cornered hat.
The third mitzvah is sending food to friends. Typically on Purim morning, Jews bustle about town visiting loved ones and delivering specially prepared food baskets. This gift is to symbolize the spirit of kinship and love that will help prevent the appearance of any future Hamans.
The final mitzvah of Purim is giving gifts to the poor. Tradition holds that observant Jews are to give charity to at least two needy people. The intent is to ensure that all Jews are able to experience the joy of Purim.
Many Jews also observe a fast prior to Purim commemorating Esther’s three days of fasting in preparation for meeting with the king. Called the “Fast of Esther,” it is usually observed the day before Purim. Unlike some other Jewish fasts, it is not a time of sadness, but rather of elevation and inspiration.