Celebrating Purim, the ‘Jewish Mardi Gras’

One of the most joyous and fun-filled holidays of the Jewish year, Purim commemorates the rescue of ancient Persia’s Jews from an evil plot to kill them all.

But it’s a whole lot more fun than that. First, the story:

There once was a beautiful, generous, and smart young Jewish woman named Esther, living in in Persia in the home of her relative and guardian, Mordechai. The King of Persia fell madly in love with Esther and made her his queen.

The king’s right-hand man and advisor, his prime minister Haman, was arrogant and egotistical. Haman hated Esther’s guardian Mordechai, who was also the leader of the Persian Jewish community. So bitter was Haman’s malice, he plotted to destroy all the Jews in the land.

Haman told the king that there were “certain people” in his kingdom that didn’t observe his laws, and that these people should not be tolerated. The king, not knowing that Esther and her family were Jewish, gave Haman leave to “handle” the situation as he pleased.

Upon realizing the grave danger facing her people, Queen Esther fasted, prayed, and bravely went to the king. Not knowing whether she would find a sympathetic audience in the king, Esther revealed her faith and told him of Haman’s plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the very gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.

Seems like an awfully heavy tale, but a story of triumph over such an evil villain makes for great storytelling — and storytelling is at the heart of celebrating Purim.

The main commandment regarding Purim is to hear the reading of the Megillah, or Book of Esther. People gather to hear the story read aloud, and each of the fifty-four times Haman’s name is uttered, the audience will heartily boo, hiss, stomp and shake special noise-makers, so as to “blot out the name” of the bad guy.

The next Purim commandment is to literally eat, drink and be merry.

  • Drink. The Talmud actually exhorts adults to drink wine until they can’t make out the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai, or “arur Haman” and “baruch Mordecai.”  [Talmudic scholars differ as to *just how much* drink that requires. Your mileage may vary.]
  • Eat. The Feast of Esther [which is, btw, also an amazing painting by Rembrandt] today consists of an array of mostly vegetarian dishes: because the meats and prepared foods at the palace were not made according to kosher dietary laws, Esther subsisted on nuts, seeds, grains and legumes.
  • Merry, merry. Purim is also a festive time of pageants and plays, and carnivals. Derived from Italian Renaissance customs, there is even a widespread Purim tradition of masquerading in costumes. [Look at the Purim pictures on Flickr and see that this tradition often includes men dressing [rather outrageously!] as women.] Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

The Book of Esther also commands people to follow her example of kindness and generosity, and acts of charity are made, and baskets of delicacies prepared to give away.  Traditional favorites include the sesame-based candy halvah [Arabic for “sweet”], and fruit-filled Hamentaschen cookies [named for bad guy Hamen’s distinctive hat]. Traditional Hamentaschen are filled with poppy seeds, or with prune preserves, but there are lots of modern twists on the cookie, including my friend’s special Hamentaschen stuffed with orange marmalade and a chocolate kiss.

The costumes and masquerades, and the making of delicacies, all happening soon before the start of the penitential Passover holiday, may remind you a little of more familiar revelry and feasting of Mardi Gras [or Shrovetide] — right before the Christian Lenten season… Or are Mardi Gras and Shrovetide evocative of Purim?

Either way, Purim is another great holiday of late winter, with some fun and delicious traditions.

Photo Credit: Coffee and Hamentaschen
Center for Jewish History