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Purim: Characters and Celebrations

Purim, one of the most festive celebrations, has a special place in the yearly cycle of Jewish religious life. The Scroll of Esther, which is read during Purim, is one of five megillot (scrolls)—along with Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Ruth and Song of Songs—that are publicly read at various Jewish festivals and observances throughout the year.

The name Purim (“Lots”) is derived from Esther 3:7, where we read that lots were cast before Haman to choose the date to destroy the Jewish people in Persia. As the story unfolds, we are introduced to some of the most intriguing and colorful characters in the Bible. We meet our heroine, the beautiful Esther (“Hadassah” in Hebrew), who is used by God to save the Jewish people from annihilation. We are introduced to her venerable cousin, Mordecai, who has the spiritual “knack” of always being in the right place at the right time. We also meet King Ahasuerus, who comes across as a bit thick between the ears, although he is evidently quite in love with Esther and turns out to be a fair-minded king. Finally, we meet Haman, the perpetrator of wickedness who seeks to destroy the Jewish people.

Who is Haman? He is identified as an Agagite (Esther 3:1), a descendent of the Amalekites, whose history of enmity toward Israel goes all the way back to the time of Moses, when the Amalekites opposed the children of Israel. From that day forward, Amalekites have been Israel’s foe “from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16).

Although the actual ethnic identity of the Amalekites has been lost to history, the spirit of Amalek is very much alive in the same blind hatred that drove Haman. Throughout the generations, tradition has identified the “Amelekite spirit” with the anti-Semitic powers that have sought to destroy the Jewish people, culminating in  the decimation of Europe’s Jewish community through Hitler’s “Final Solution.

Deuteronomy 25:17-19 tells us, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt, how he met you on the way and attacked your rear ranks, all the stragglers at your rear, when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget.”

As students of the Scripture know, Haman’s plan was thwarted by the bravery of Queen Esther, who was encouraged by her older cousin Mordecai. The celebration of Purim features special foods, such as a tasty pastry called hamantaschen (Haman’s pockets, or Haman’s ears) and hilarious skits called purimshpiel.

The rabbis have identified four main traditions to be observed on Purim by Jewish people wherever they might live. The first is the reading of Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther), which is done aloud in the synagogue service. The children in the service bring their groggers (noisemakers) into the service, and whenever the villain Haman’s name is mentioned, they make as much noise as possible to blot out his name and his memory. The other three traditions are sending food gifts to friends, giving money to the poor, and eating a special holiday meal in celebration of the deliverance of the Jewish people. Another Purim tradition is called the Fast of Esther: many Jewish people fast from dawn until the dusk of Purim eve in commemoration of the three days of fasting enjoined by Esther (Esther 4:16).

Jewish communities around the world have developed Purim traditions with a local flavor. In France, children would inscribe Haman’s name on smooth stones and strike them together repeatedly during the Megillah reading whenever his name was mentioned. By the end of the reading, Haman’s name would be worn off the stones. Elsewhere, people write the name of Haman on the soles of their shoes and stomp their feet at the sound of Haman’s name. In the 18th-century city of Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany, Jewish people would fashion wax figures of Haman and his wife Zeresh with wicks inside. As the reading of the Megillah commenced, the wicks were lit. As the congregation heard the story of Haman’s undoing, they could also watch as Haman and Zeresh melted away into nothingness.

The festivities of Purim remind us that our God is faithful. Although the Jewish people have suffered much, we live in hope. We have outlasted all the Hamans who have come against us – and through God’s promises, we always shall!


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