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The Hidden Meaning of Purim–The Happiest, Holiest Holiday!

Purim is a celebration that is as rowdy and fun-filled with storytelling, gifts, costumes, charity, feasting, and trickery and plenty of L’chaims, as it is a serious dramatic holiday that teaches us how good overcomes evil and that things are now always what they seem to be. In other words, Purim is the happiest, holiest Jewish holiday of all.

In a nutshell, the story of Purim (which actually unfolded over nine long, difficult years) revolves around the plot, launched in the year 518 BCE by wicked Haman to kill all the Jews. Mordechai, the Jewish leader, refused to bow down to idols and obey the evil leader, the king’s right hand man, and follow the law of the land.  Mordechai’s undying dedication to his faith infuriated Haman, and as punishment he wanted to destroy all Jewish people, women, children, young and old.  In Hebrew, Purim, means “Feast of Lots” and the name comes from the Perisan word pur, for “lot,” the game of chance that Haman used to decide on which day to kill the Jews. Turns out many games and twists in the plot were played out on Purim, which makes this celebration so full of meaning and fun. Haman was granted permission by powerful King Ahasuerus to issue a decree calling for the death of all the Jews, but little did Haman know that Ahasuerus’s beautiful new wife, Queen Esther, was actually Jewish and Mordechai was her cousin–one of many hidden secrets we animatedly read aloud in the Book of Esther, also called the Megillah, in synagogues around the world on the eve of Purim. Using her beauty, brains, bravery (and tremendous faith in God), Esther revealed Haman’s wicked plot to the king  and through a well-orchestrated scheme and (plenty of fruit of the vine) she saved her people, the Jewish nation. Many miracles take place in the Purim story, and all the while the name of God is never mentioned. It is up to us, to peel pack the many layers, and learn how God plays a hand in everything in our lives, even in darkest times.  Just as in life when we don’t always understand why pain and hardship and difficulties happen to us, the Purim story reminds us to remain faithful, diligent and seek for the true meaning.

Purim turns everything upside down, nothing is what it appears to be. And even today as people around the world panic about Caronavirus and isolate themselves, this health and economic crisis actually gives us an opportunity to be united as we share a common goal, take better care of ourselves and each other. There are no coincidences in the Purim story, just as there are no coincidences in life. The more we recognize our blessings and are grateful for what we have, the more blessings we are granted. In the Purim story, we read about many “God winks,” times when God’s presence is hidden: Esther is chosen among all the other women to be Ahasuerus’s wife, and she happens to be Jewish.  Mordechai happens to be at the right place at the right time to overhear the plot to kill the king. And in the end, Haman happens to be hung on the same gallows that he erected to kill the Jews.

In celebration of their salvation, the Jews feasted, gave charity and exchanged gift baskets with each other to share their happiness. They celebrated being alive and rejoiced at being part of a wonderful nation—even today, more than 2,500 years later, this joy is accelerated during the entire month of Adar. Purim is a time to feel good and have fun, and to pretend to be someone other than yourself—that’s why we wear costumes and masquerade. According to Jewish tradition, each person on Purim should be so joyful as “not to know” ( so ad lo yada in Hebrew) the difference between “blessed Mordecai” and “cursed Haman.”

Purim is sometimes compared to Halloween because revelers dress in costumes, parade through the neighborhood and outstretch their goody bags and ask for treats, but on Purim we don’t take, we give…and give a lot of charity. On Halloween, we hide behind our masks, but on Purim our mask is meant to reveal our real identity.

The four mitzvot of Purim:

We read the Book of Esther (Megillah) aloud in synagogues all over the world, and every time we hear the name of the villain Haman, we shake our groggers (Yiddish for “noisemakers”) and boo and hiss, the noisier the better. Some communities perform funny skits, called purimspiels (Yiddish for “plays”), imagine a Rabbi dressed like a candy bar or a cartoon character.

We give gifts of food to friends and colleagues to spread our cheer and be happy, further foiling the evil plans of Haman. These gifts are called mishloach manot which is Hebrew for Purim gift baskets, and we often send them by messenger.

We eat, drink, and be merry!  We enjoy a Purim feast, called the seudah, that includes many delicious foods with hidden ingredients inside, from stuffed cabbage and kreplach to everyone’s favorite triangular shaped cookie hamantaschen. The Purim treat is referenced in the Book of Esther as  “mahn,” which sounds like Haman, and thus hamantaschen. Still, there are plenty of other theories about the symbolism of this triangular pastry, from Haman’s three cornered hat, to the shape of an ear that Haman chopped off his enemy, or even thoughts on the cookie represents female genitalia  for the queen of fertility and feminity, your guess is as good as any, I just want to enjoy the poppyseed cookie in peace.

We give gifts to the poor, matanot l’evyonim. Giving to others, especially on Purim, ensures that everyone has the means to celebrate during the holiday and honors Esther and Mordechai’s legacy of saving the Jewish people. Fulfilling this mitzvah; can also be as simple as dropping coins in a tzedakah box or making donations of food or clothing to a local pantry or shelter.

Learn more about Purim here!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach Purim!