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Middle East Team Dispatch

Purim: An Ancient Story Not Soon Forgotten
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 Bravery of a Queen
Queen Vashti is a controversial and complex character in biblical history. Many accounts describe Queen Vashti as a cruel, vain queen. However, others claim she was a dignified woman of great strength who stood up for her rights and beliefs. During the great festivities of King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti was summoned to show her beauty before the court and guests. Although conflicting accounts exist, many indicate that Vashti was called upon to dance naked before all those partaking in the festivities. A proud queen, Vashti refused to yield to the King's demands. If this is in fact the case, Vashti's refusal was both brave and dignified. Although she is in many ways a lesser figure in biblical history, it is important to pay tribute to Queen Vashti, a woman from long ago who made her beliefs known, even at the cost of her life and status as queen. Though her ultimate fate may have been grave, her bravery must be applauded!

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.


banish - to force to leave a country or place by official decree; exile
annihilation - complete and utter destruction
assassination - murder (of a prominent person) by surprise attack, as for political reasons
segue (pronounced "say-gway") - smooth, unhesitating movement from one state, condition, situation, or element to another
mitzvah - a worthy deed

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.

Celebration of Purim

The actual days of Purim differ based on the location of the celebration. Most Purim celebrations are held on the fourteenth of Adar; however, in some locations the fifteenth is the day of rejoicing. The reason for this disparity is rooted in the actual events of this biblical story. Purim was observed on the fifteenth in the city of Shushan, while most other cities observed it on the fourteenth. In all other cities, the battle for Jewish existence took place on the thirteenth, hence the celebrations on the fourteenth. However, in the city of Shushan, the fighting lasted for two days, on the thirteenth and fourteenth. As a result, the day of celebration in the city of Shushan was the fifteenth. Today, the only cities in which Purim is celebrated on the fifteenth, instead of the fourteenth, are Shushan and Jerusalem.

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

1) Listen to the Megillah
To relive the miraculous events of Purim, listen to the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther) twice, once on Purim eve and again on Purim day. At certain points in the reading where Haman's name is mentioned, it is customary to twirl graggers (Purim noisemakers) and stamp one's feet to "drown out" his evil name.

2) Give to the Needy (Matanot La'evyonim)
Concern for the needy is a year-round responsibility; but on Purim it is a special mitzvah to remember the poor. Give charity to at least two, (but preferably more) needy individuals on Purim day.

3) Send Food Portions to Friends (Mishloach Manot)
On Purim we emphasize the importance of Jewish unity and friendship by sending gifts of food to friends.

4) Eat, Drink, and be Merry
Purim should be celebrated with a special festive meal on Purim Day, at which family and friends gather together to rejoice in the Purim spirit. It is a mitzvah to drink wine or other inebriating drinks at this meal.

5-6) Special Prayers (Al Hanissim, Torah reading)
On Purim we recite the Al HaNissim prayer in the evening, morning and afternoon prayers, as well as in the Grace After Meals. In the morning service there is a special reading from the Torah Scroll in the synagogue.

7) Torah Reading of Zachor
On the Shabbat before Purim, a special reading is held in the synagogue of the Torah section called Zachor ("Remember"), in which we are enjoined to remember the deeds of (the nation of) Amalek (Haman's ancestor) who sought to destroy the Jewish people.

8) The Fast of Esther
To commemorate the day of prayer and fasting that the Jewish people held at Esther's request, we fast on the day before Purim, from approximately an hour before sunrise until nightfall (approximately 40 minutes after sunset).

9) The "Half Coins" (Machatzit Hashekel)
It is a tradition to give three half-dollar coins to charity to commemorate the half-shekel that each Jew contributed as his share in the communal offerings in the time of the Holy Temple. This custom, usually performed in the synagogue, is done on the afternoon of the "Fast of Esther," or before the reading of the Megillah.

10-11) Purim Customs: Masquerades and Hamantashen
A time-honored Purim custom is for children to dress up and disguise themselves -- an allusion to the fact that the miracle of Purim was disguised in natural garments. This is also the significance behind a traditional Purim food, the hamantash --a pastry whose filling is hidden within a three-cornered crust.

12) Shushan Purim
The fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar are celebrated as Purim. The specific day on which Purim is celebrated depends on the location; in places where Purim is celebrated on the fourteenth, it is not celebrated on the fifteenth and vice versa.

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