Purim begins on the evening of Wednesday, March 4, and we will hold our service, spiel and carnival at that time. Absent from the list of Torah holidays (chagim) are Chanukah and Purim, and they are therefore considered “minor” holidays.
Scholars guess that Ahashueras was Xerxes I of Persia, since Megillat Esther occurs during the fifth century BCE. “Pur” is an Akkadian word that means “lot,” as in casting your dice for chance or fate. Haman cast lots to fix the date for the destruction of the Jews, and this date was the 13th of Adar. This became now the Fast of Esther in remembrance of her fast before coming to the King to plead for her people.
Purim was celebrated as early as the second century BCE and gained in importance after the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The 15th of Adar is called Purim Shushan due to the fighting between the Jews and those who backed Haman in Shushan (Susa) which was Persia’s capital. The fighting continued throughout the 14th and the Jews were granted an extra day, thus ending the fighting on the 15th. This is celebrated only in other walled cities, such as Jericho and Jerusalem.
Megillat Esther is a Talmudic tractate, and carries with it the laws for observance of Purim and its own cantillation and blessings. The most important rule for Purim is to read the Megillah both evening and morning in the synagogue. Most synagogues have a carnival spirit to their celebrations of Purim. Greggers, which is Yiddish and means “noisemaker,” are whirled whenever we hear Haman’s name. This is to “blot out the memory of Amalek” who allegedly was Haman’s ancestor. The Amalekites, who attacked us from behind in our journey through the Sinai, are mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 for Shabbat Zachor (Remembrance) just before Purim. As on
Chanukah, we insert the thanksgiving prayer Al Hanissim into the service. There is no Hallel (prayers of praise) because the events of Purim took place outside of Israel.
Another Purim rule is to exchange gifts of food with friends or give to a charity, called mishloach manot. We eat Hamentashen (“Hamen’s pockets”) and many children receive Purim gelt. A further rule is to literally drink until one cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. The obscure reason goes like this: the prayers Baruch Mordecai and Arur Haman, both taken from the “lily of Jacob” hymn sung after reading Megillat Esther, have the same numerical value of 502. Therefore, the rabbis said we drink until we don’t know any better.
Have a designated driver on hand!
Music for Purim tends to be either satirical or informational, such as long songs with many stanzas that describe the Purim story. Amnon Shiloah, the author of Jewish Musical Traditions, said: “…people felt they should forget, even if only for a short time, the drabness and afflictions of the dispersion and on happy occasions released their pent-up tensions.” He adds that “dance has a vital function in the Jewish community on two important holidays: on Purim and Simchat Torah.”
Zvi Idelsohn also discussed Purim in his book, “Historical Development of Jewish Music.” He maintained that song and rejoicing were already in place during the Talmudic era, largely consisting of vernacular songs. Purim was the exception to the ban on play-acting. In the time of the Gaonim in Babylonia, it was common to dramatize the story of Esther. The spiel as we know it today originated in the early 18th century. The first recorded one was in 1708, published in Frankfurt, Germany, and called “Ahasveros Spiel.” Idelsohn maintained that the spiel was the beginning of Jewish theater and melodrama.