The Purim Story
Is Purim just a fun-filled dress up holiday? Or is it something more? Perhaps it's a flip-flop, upside-down, full of surprises kind of day...not at all what you'd expect.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The Jewish people were sent away from the Land of Israel and were forced to live in Babylonia.
Fifty years later, Babylonia was defeated by Persia. Achashverosh (that's pronounced: Ah-chash-VEY-rosh) was the second Persian king. He ruled 127 provinces from Hodu (India) to Kush (Africa) the largest, strongest kingdom in the world.
A new king needs a new capital, so Achashverosh chose the city of Shushan. To celebrate, he made a tremendous feast for all the important people in the kingdom. It lasted for 180 days. Then he made a second feast just for Shushan. Everyone in the city was invited, even the Jews.
Mordechai, the leader of the Jews, warned his people not to go to the feast, but they were afraid to disobey the king. And to tell the truth, they were honored and pleased to have been invited. For seven days they ate and drank to their heart's content. Only one thing troubled them. Achashverosh brought the gold and silver vessels from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and used them for his wild celebration...
The drunken king began to brag that his queen Vashti was the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. On the last day of the feast, he commanded her to come and dance before the crowd. But Vashti was the proud granddaughter of the cruel Nebuchadnezzar and she refused to appear. "Am I a servant to the king?" she asked. In a fit of anger, the king had her killed.
Achashverosh now needed a new queen and he wanted someone even more beautiful than Vashti. His men went from house to house in all of Persia, taking the young girls away to Shushan where they were kept as hostages until they were brought before the king.
In Shushan, a Jewish orphan by the name of Hadassah lived with her cousin Mordechai. When the king's men came to her house, Mordechai said, "Don't be afraid. Go with them. Do not tell them you are a Jewess. Tell them your Persian name -- Esther. God will watch over you!"
Esther was kind and gentle and very beautiful. As soon as the king saw her, he chose her as his new queen. Esther appointed seven maidservants, one for each day of the week, so that she would always remember which day was the Sabbath. Her meals were cooked with kosher foods. And all the while, she kept her secret. No one knew she was a Jew. Everyday, Mordechai sat outside the palace gate to wait for news from Esther.
One day outside the palace, Mordechai happened to hear two men plotting to kill the king. He warned Esther and the two men were caught and killed. Although it was recorded in the Royal Book that Mordechai the Jew had saved the king, the matter was soon forgotten.
Soon after, Achashverosh appointed Haman -- the richest man in the kingdom -- as his new prime minister. All the king's subjects were ordered to honor Haman and bow down to him. Everyone did, except Mordechai. It was permissible to honor Haman and bow to him as the prime minister, but Haman wore a large medallion, engraved with the picture of an idol, on his chest. Mordechai said people might think he was bowing to the idol too, and a Jew is forbidden to worship or honor idols.
Haman was furious. He went straight to the king to complain. "There is one nation," he said, "scattered throughout your kingdom, which is different from all other nations. They don't eat our food, drink our wine, or marry our daughters! They don't keep the king's laws and they don't work! Every seventh day they rest and they are always celebrating holidays. If you give me permission, I will destroy them for you. I will even pay for any expenses from my own money!"
Achashverosh gave Haman his royal ring, to seal the orders and decrees. Anxious to do a perfect job, Haman wanted to execute his plan on the right day, a lucky day blessed by his gods and the stars. He cast lots -- purim in Hebrew -- to choose the day. Then he sent out letters, sealed with the king's royal ring, to each of the 127 provinces in the kingdom.
"On the 13th day of the month of Adar," the decree said "you are to destroy, kill and slaughter all Jews, young and old, women and children, all in one day. Their money and property will then belong to you."
When Mordechai heard of the decree, he ripped his clothing and put ashes on his head as a sign of mourning. He told Esther she must go to the king to try and save the Jews. Esther was afraid, for it was forbidden to come before the king without being invited. But Mordechai said, "Who knows if you have not been put in the palace for this very purpose? If you are silent now, help will come to the Jews from some other place -- and you will perish!"
Esther asked that the Jews in Shushan fast and pray for her for three days. Mordechai gathered all the Jewish children in Shushan and told them to pray, too. (In the end, it was the prayers of the children which were answered.)
The Jews finally realized they should not have gone to the king's feast; they should not have eaten at the royal banquet nor drunk the wine, nor used the vessels from the Holy Temple. They understood that this was their punishment for fearing the king more than they feared God.
When the three days of prayers and fasting were over, Esther went to the king. "What is your request, my queen?" he asked. "Half of my kingdom is yours for the asking!"
But Esther asked only that the king and Haman come to a private banquet she was making. At the banquet, Achashverosh asked again, "What is your wish? Whatever you want is yours!" But Esther only invited the king and Haman to a second party. "How strange," thought the king. But Haman was delighted. On his way out of the palace, he passed Mordechai at the gate. His delight turned to hate. "I am important enough to be invited to the queen's private banquets together with the king -- and that Jew refuses to bow down to me?!" He wanted to kill Mordechai then and there, without waiting for the 13th of Adar!
"Do it!" advised his evil wife Zeresh. So Haman built a gallows, 50 cubits high, in his own courtyard. He would hang Mordechai at the first opportunity!
That night, the king could not fall asleep. He tossed and turned and finally called for his servant to bring out the Royal Book and read him to sleep. The heavy book fell open to the story of how Mordechai the Jew had warned of the plot against the king and saved the king's life.
"What reward did the Jew receive?" asked the king.
"None, sir," was the reply.
"He saved my life and received no reward?!" stormed the king.
Just then, someone knocked. It was Haman, coming for permission to hang Mordechai the Jew. He was in such a hurry he couldn't even wait for the morning!
"Haman!" thundered the king. "Tell me, what shall be done for a man the king wishes to honor?"
"He must be referring to me," thought Haman gleefully. "I know just the thing," he said. "Let him wear the king's royal robes. Place the king's royal crown upon his head. Let him ride the king's royal horse. And let a servant walk before the horse and cry out: Thus shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!"
"Wonderful idea!" cried the Achashverosh. "I shall leave it all to you. Find Mordechai the Jew and do exactly as you described, down to the last detail!"
Haman did as he was commanded, and Mordechai was led with royal honor through the streets of Shushan.
Haman returned home, a bitter, broken man. But he had no time to brood. He had to be at the royal palace in time for the Queen's second banquet. Once again, the king asked, "What is it you desire, Esther? Why have you invited us here? Speak and it shall be done!"
This time, Esther spoke. "Spare my life," she cried, "and the lives of my people. We have been sentenced to death!"
"Death? Your people? By whom?" asked the surprised king.
"By an evil and wicked man -- by your minister Haman!"
The king was so astounded that he marched out of the room to regain his composure.
Trembling and fearful, Haman threw himself on the queen to beg for mercy. At that very moment, Achashverosh returned.
"What?" he cried. "Do you dare to attack the Queen in my palace? Take him away and hang him!" he shouted.
In the end, Haman was hung on the gallows he himself had built for Mordechai. And Mordechai became the king's new prime minister in place of Haman!
According to Persian law, it was impossible to change a decree stamped with the royal seal, so the king could not cancel the decree against the Jews. But Mordechai was given the royal signet ring to issue whatever new decrees he could think of to help save the Jews.
Now it was Mordechai's turn to send out a royal letter. It said: On the 13th of Adar, all the Jews in the kingdom would organize to defend themselves. The Persians were more than happy to listen to Haman and kill Jews, but if the Jews were going to arm themselves and fight back under royal protection, well then, that was another story!
On the 13th of Adar, Jews across the kingdom assembled and defended themselves. Thousands of their enemies were killed, including Haman's 10 evil sons who were hanged from a tree. Unlike the Persians who planned to take money and property, the Jews took no loot at all. On the 14th of Adar, they gave thanks to God and celebrated.
But in the walled capital city of Shushan, the Jews continued to fight an additional day. On the 15th of Adar the Jews of Shushan celebrated their victory. Therefore we celebrate:
The Fast of Esther on the 13th of Adar
Purim Day on the 14th of Adar
And in the walled city of Jerusalem, the main celebration is:
Shushan Purim on the 15th of Adar.
Esther asked the rabbis to write the story of Purim and include it in the Bible. Scrolls - megillot – were written and sent to the Jews throughout the kingdom. The rabbis commanded the people to keep the holiday of Purim forever as a day of thanksgiving and feasting and joy; of sending gifts to friends and money to the poor. And that is just what the Jewish people have been doing for the past 2,400 years!
THE FOUR MAIN MITZVOT OF PURIM
1. MEGILLAT ESTHER -- we read the story of Purim in the evening and the next day. And whenever Haman is mentioned, we make as much noise as possible to blot out his name and his memory!
2. SENDING GIFTS OF FOOD to at least one friend or relative, because Purim is a time of love and friendship between Jews.
3. GIVING GIFTS OF MONEY TO THE POOR because Purim is a time of sharing and caring and helping.
4. EATING A FESTIVE PURIM MEAL – the special holiday meal eaten on Purim afternoon.
AND DON'T FORGET, PURIM IS COSTUME-TIME! We celebrate how everything can turn upside-down and into something else, and nothing is exactly what it seems to be. So start thinking about who you want to be on Purim!
A joyous Purim to all of you! May Purim – and all other days in the year!-- be full of light and gladness, honor and joy, just as it was for the Jewish people in the time of Esther and Mordechai so many years ago.
Put on your Purim cap and see how much of the Purim story you remember.
Name the country; name the king.
Who made the threats? Who got the ring?
Name the wise counsellor; name the two queens.
Which remained silent and which ranted and preened?
Who looked for honor but soon fell from power?
Who set up gallows as high as a tower?
Who sat and watched at the palace gate?
Who came to the king filled with evil and hate?
Where did it happen – which country and city?
What was the date? Who was filled with self-pity?
Who made a party to save the Jews?
Who sent out letters to tell the good news?
Where can you read the entire story?
When do you hear it with joy, noise and glory?
Name Four Purim things we do to remember
This dreadful-turned-happy Jewish adventure!
Yaffa Ganz © 2000