April 1, 2000
The ancient story of Purim involves all the intrigue and excitement of a modern day movie: A royal king, two queens, heroes, heroines and villains, deception, assassination plots, and good versus evil. The central theme of Purim is the celebration of the Jewish people and their existence. This year, the holiday was celebrated on March 20th and 21st. The Purim holiday is a part of biblical history that dates back over 2,500 years ago. The festive holiday represents a pivotal event wherein the fate of an entire nation of people, the Jews, was decided. Along that same vein, the root of Purim, pur, is the Hebrew word for lot or lottery. The story of Purim is recounted on the Megillah, otherwise known as the "Scroll of Esther." The cast of characters in this biblical tale include: King Ahasuerus (otherwise called Ahashuerus or Achashverosh), Queen Vashti, Queen Esther, Esther's uncle Mordechai and the king's chief advisor and villain of the story, Haman.
The story of Purim begins after King Ahasuerus consolidated his rule over the Persian Empire in the year 3,405 from creation (356 BCE). King Ahasuerus's empire stretched across a great expanse of land: Hodu ad Kush. A modern map would define Hodu ad Kush as the area from Ethiopia to India. With this great consolidation of his kingdom, during the third year of his reign as king, Ahasuerus celebrated with a great and lengthy feast. On the seventh day of this feast, the king called upon his Queen Vashti to appear before the court and his feasting guests. Summoned to demonstrate her great beauty, the proud queen refused to appear. Such a refusal against the wishes of the king demonstrated a disobedience that was unheard of among wives at that time. More than the refusal itself, the disobedience of the queen was enough to warrant punishment. There are conflicting accounts as to what that punishment actually was; some accounts paint a picture of death, while others claim the queen was simply banished from the kingdom.
With the exit of Queen Vashti, the king required a new queen for himself and his kingdom. With the intent of finding a new queen, King Ahasuerus held a contest among the women of his kingdom. A beautiful Jewish woman by the name of Esther won the contest and became queen. Esther's name in Hebrew was Hadassah. Her uncle Mordechai, an important Jewish religious leader, had raised Esther. Mordechai had instructed Esther not to reveal her Jewish roots to the King. Therefore, upon becoming queen to King Ahasuerus, Esther's Jewish heritage was untold to the king.
The plot thickens when Haman is appointed to the position of Prime Minister to King Ahasuerus. Haman, a member of the anti-Jewish sect within the kingdom, was an evil, power-hungry man. After an altercation between Haman and Mordechai, Haman devised a plan to seek revenge against his enemy Mordechai. Instead of seeking revenge against Mordechai alone, Haman decided to spread his wrath for Mordechai by targeting all the Jews. As the Prime Minister, Haman was able to convince King Ahasuerus that all Jews should be executed. Haman then cast lots, or Purim, to determine the day of Jewish destruction. A decree was drawn up and signed and sealed by King Ahasuerus for the annihilation of the Jews. As a result of the lots cast by Haman, the day decreed was the 14th of Adar, later to become the holiday of Purim.
Upon hearing word of this decree, Mordechai appealed to his niece, Queen Esther, to intervene on behalf of her people. Esther agreed, and the Jews began a three-day fast. During this time, she hoped to think up a clever plan that would persuade King Ahasuerus in her favor against Haman. By the end of her fast, Esther had indeed devised a plan. Esther's plan involved two special banquets in which she invited both King Ahasuerus and Haman. It was during the second banquet that Esther revealed Haman's evil. Further, Esther revealed her Jewish heritage to her husband and king, calling upon him to intervene in Haman's plot against her people. King Ahasuerus was enraged and ordered Haman executed for his evil doing. However, the decree against the Jews had already been sent forth throughout the kingdom. Although King Ahasuerus was able to punish Haman, he could not stop a decree with his signature and seal. Therefore, the king instructed the Jews to take arms against those within the kingdom who were planning their execution. After battling for their lives, the Jews emerged victorious. The fighting, which had taken place on the thirteenth day of Adar, was a segue into the Purim festivities and celebration. Saved from annihilation, the Jews from that day forward observed the fourteenth day of Adar as a day of rejoicing in life. The day before the festivities is a day of reverence and fasting in honor of Esther's fast for her people.
While other Jewish holidays are solemn and reverent, Purim is characterized by great festivities and rejoicing. Each Purim, Jews throughout the world remember the dangers they have faced in the past and celebrate the miracle of their very existence and resilience.
Following is a summary of the observances of Purim, still practiced today. This information was found on www.virtualpurim.com:
1) Listen to the Megillah
2) Give to the Needy (Matanot La'evyonim)
3) Send Food Portions to Friends (Mishloach Manot)
4) Eat, Drink, and be Merry
5-6) Special Prayers (Al Hanissim, Torah reading)
7) Torah Reading of Zachor
8) The Fast of Esther
9) The "Half Coins" (Machatzit Hashekel)
10-11) Purim Customs: Masquerades and Hamantashen
12) Shushan Purim
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