If you’ve ever wondered how involved God really is in the circumstances of your daily life, you need only examine the Old Testament book of Esther. Although His name is never mentioned, God’s powerful influence is clear throughout this narrative. And it is the story behind the festive Jewish holiday, Purim, celebrated this year on March 8.
Brief Biblical History
An orphaned Jewish girl raised by her cousin Mordecai, Esther grew into a beautiful woman who found love and extraordinary favor with King Ahasuerus. He crowned her queen. Unaware that Queen Esther and her cousin were Jewish, the two gained the king’s great favor when Mordecai successfully revealed a plot to assassinate him. Unfortunately, the king’s love for Esther and (by association) Mordecai fostered seething jealousy and hatred in one of the king’s advisors, a man named Haman.
When an occasion arose that would force Mordecai to bow down to Haman, Mordecai refused. An outraged Haman began to plot Mordecai’s demise. About this same time, Haman also discovered that Mordecai and Esther were Jewish. He resolved to kill both of them, along with all of the Jewish People under Persian rule!
When Esther learned of Haman’s evil plan, she fasted for three days, along with all of the Jews in the Land, in preparation for her plea to the king to spare her and the lives of her people. In an extraordinary turnaround, Ahasuerus responded positively to Esther’s impassioned supplication, and saved Esther, Mordecai, and all the Jewish People. The evil Haman and his ten sons were hanged on the gallows intended for Mordecai.
How Purim Is Celebrated Today
Purim is treated similarly to a national holiday, like Chanukah. Work is allowed in most places, but the occasion is encouraged to take priority and be celebrated with joy. Jewish mitzvot (good deeds) dictate that Jews observe these four activities during Purim:
• K’riat megillah—listening to the readings of the book of Esther in the evening and again the following morning
• Mishloach manot—giving food gifts to friends
• Matanot la’evyonim—giving charity to the poor
• Se`udah—partaking in a festive meal
Since Purim is meant to be a merry occasion, Jews are actually encouraged to be boisterous when attending readings of the book of Esther in the synagogue. Booing, hissing, stamping of feet and rattling of noisemakers called gragers is customary and welcome.
Traditional Jewish foods are prepared, including the hamentaschen, or “Haman’s pockets”—triangular cookies filled with prunes or poppy seeds said to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat.
Jewish People who celebrate Purim often wear masks and costumes, and perform in various plays, pageants, and masquerades. The colorful costumes lend an added dimension of fun to the jovial theme of the holiday.