Purim: Basic Concepts And Laws
The Talmud (Ta'anis 29a) tells us that "Just as from when the month of Av enters, we minimize our happiness, so too from when the month of Adar enters, we increase our happiness." In Adar, the nation of Israel was saved from annihilation. The Jewish people, who lived throughout the empire of Achashverosh, were faced with certain death. Through a miraculous turn of events, this threat was removed and the Jews were saved. There was celebration everywhere. The Jews renewed their commitment to Torah. It was a time of overwhelming happiness. Our souls experienced a redemption: the Jews were threatened with death as a punishment for their sins, and because they repented, they were saved. The Jews raised their commitment to G-d and the Torah to new levels. It is for this spiritual redemption that we celebrate throughout the entire month of Adar.
The minor holiday of Purim occurs on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar.
Purim is celebrated by poking fun at ourselves and our Jewish institutions, throwing synagogue decorum out the window, dressing in costume, reading the Book of Esther, exchanging gifts of food, giving charity to the poor, and general silliness. The entire month of Adar, and not just Purim itself, is a time for silliness and humor. Purim is the holiday that proves Judaism has a sense of humor.
The story of the events Purim celebrates can be found in the Book of Esther in the Bible. This story relates the downfall of the vicious anti-semite Haman, prime minister of ancient Persia, who sought to murder all the Jews of that land. Most non-Orthodox Judaica scholars are of the opinion that Esther is fictional. Purim perhaps started as a Babylonean holiday that eventually became integrated into Judaism. When and how this occurred is not exactly known. There is decent evidence suggesting that the Maccabees of the (true) Hannukah story (circa 265 B.C.E.) didn't celebrate Purim.
Purim evolved into an important holiday. Jews surrounded by anti-semitism took great joy in a holiday that reminded them that the anti-semites didn't always win.
Does it make sense to celebrate the anniversary of events we believe are fictional? Even though the "Haman" of the story is likely fictional, there have been too many real-life "Hamans" during the course of Jewish history. History has made the story relevant and compelling, even if it is not true.
The service for Purim is most unusual. Dressing in silly costumes is encouraged. Interrupting the service with noise-making devices is encouraged. Decorum is out, inanity is in. During the service, an abridged version of the Book of Esther is read. (At Conservative or Orthodox shuls, the entire book is read.)
The tradition of exchanging gifts of food on Purim is called mishloach manot. The food should be ready-to-eat; baked goods are a popular choice. This practice is prescribed in the Book of Esther 9:22.
If Purim did indeed originate as a Babylonean holiday, the tradition of giving charity to the poor is indubitably a Jewish twist added to the Babylonean original. One nice way people coming to
Beth El's Purim service can implement this tradition
is to bring a donation of canned goods for the shul's Food Pantry Box. Giving
charity on Purim is prescribed in the Book of Esther 9:22. (Of course, Judaism
demands doing tzedakkah [charity] year-round, but we make a particular point of
doing some on Purim.)
Purim is a wild and crazy holiday. The rabbis of the Talmud, usually a quite sober group, say to drink so much on Purim that one can't tell the difference between blessing Mordechai (the Jewish hero of the story) and cursing Haman. We Reform Jews believe the rabbis didn't intend anyone to take them seriously about this, but were trying to suggest a high level of inane behavior on Purim. Cross-dressing, prohibited in the Torah, is widely practiced on Purim. Many rabbis will be borrowing their spouse's clothes this Purim.
No discourse on Purim could be considered complete without mentioning THE Purim delicacy, the hamantashen. The hamantashen is a triangular cookie, with a poppy seed or fruit filling. At some point, someone got the idea of altering the German name of these cookies, "mohn taschen" ["poppy-seed pockets"], to "haman taschen," and invented the story that it represents Haman's hat. (Of course, three-pointed hats were all the rage in ancient Persia.)
There are two other days of note before and after Purim. The "Fast of Esther" precedes Purim. This is the anniversary of the day the fighting against the anti-semitic forces occurred; Purim is the day the victorious Jews rested and celebrated. There is no explicit record in the Book of Esther that Esther actually fasted on this day. But the rabbis felt that any self-respecting Jewish leader would have fasted on the day when the Jews were struggling to defend themselves against those attempting to carry out the edict to exterminate them. Therefore, Esther MUST have fasted, and the Jewish community should fast in commemoration of her fast. This fast is not exactly widely observed by Reform (or Conservative) Jews. The day after Purim is "Shushan Purim." According to the Book of Esther, the fight against the anti-semites in the capital city of Shushan took a day longer than in the rural areas. The Jews in Shushan didn't get to rest and celebrate until the day after those in rural areas. In commemoration of this, the Book of Esther says that Purim is celebrated a day later in cities, on the day now known as "Shushan Purim." The rabbis decided that a "city" in this case means a city that had walls (if they are still standing or not) at the time of Joshua (Moses's successor). Jerusalem celebrates on Shushan Purim.
Recipe for Hamentaschen
- 2/3 cup butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup orange juice (the smooth kind, not the pulpy)
- 1 cup white flour
- 1 cup wheat flour (DO NOT substitute white flour! The wheat flour is necessary to achieve the right texture!)
- Various preserves, fruit butters and/or pie fillings.
Blend butter and sugar thoroughly. Add the egg and blend thoroughly. Add OJ and blend thoroughly. Add flour, 1/2 cup at a time, alternating white and wheat, blending thoroughly between each. Refrigerate batter overnight or at least a few hours. Roll as thin as you can without getting holes in the batter (roll it between two sheets of wax paper lightly dusted with flour for best results). Cut out 3 or 4 inch circles. Put a tablespoon of filling in the middle of each circle. Fold up the sides to make a triangle, overlapping the sides as much as possible so only a little filling shows through the middle. Squeeze the corners firmly, so they don't come undone while baking. Bake at 375 degrees for about 10-15 minutes, until golden brown but before the filling boils over!
Traditional fillings are poppy seed and prune, but apricot is my favorite. Apple butter, pineapple preserves, and cherry pie filling all work quite well.
The Observance of the Day
There are four mitzvot which on Purim: the reading of the Megilah, festivity and rejoicing, the sending of gifts and gifts to the poor.
- Reading of the Megilah: One is required to read the Megilah both by day and night. One may read the Megilah all night until dawn and from sunrise til sunset. If one has read the megilah even before sunrise, but at least after dawn, he has fulfilled his obligation to read the Megilah. Both men and women are obligated to hear the Megilah.
- Feasting and Rejoicing: It is a mitzvah to have a sumptuous meal on Purim, including meat dishes and wine. This feast must be held during the day. When Purim is in on Erev Shabbos (the day preceding Shabbos) (as it is in Jerusalem in 5758) one must begin his meal early in the afternoon before Mincha (afternoon prayers) in order that one finish early enough so as to have a good appetite for the Shabbos meal.
The miracle of Purim came through wine. Vashti's downfall and Haman's downfall came through a wine feast! There is also a custom to drinking til intoxication as our Sages tell us, "A person is obligated to drink on Purim til he no longer knows the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Modechai." If one fears that he may be harmed by excessive drinking of wine or come to levity thereby or even forget the required brachot one is required to make, drinking excessively is forbidden.
- Gifts for the Poor: One is required to give at least two gifts to two poor people on Purim, in other words, one gift to each. Even a poor person who subsists on charity is required to perform this mitzvah. This obligation can be fulfilled through food or drink or even clothing. The gift should be a sufficient gift to buy bread. The gifts to the poor are given during the day, usually after the reading of the Megilah.
- Gifts to one another: One must give a gift which consists of two portions to another person. Men and women are included in this mitzvah. The food must consist of something edible or drinkable without further cooking or preparation. One may send meat, fish. cooked pastry, wine and other beverages. These gifts should be sent to as many people as one chooses but they should be sufficient to convey regard for the recipient. If at all possible, these gifts should be sent by messengers, rather than delivered personally because the Megilah uses the word mishloach (sending).