From the Archives, March 2014: Purim

This letter was written twoย years ago, a few months after Josep and I renewed our correspondence after a long time we’d been out of touch. He hadn’t recalled much of the information I’d given him on the Jewish holidays many years ago, except for this one detail about Purim: that itย involves wearing costumes. In fact, this stood out to him so much that he seemed to be under the impression thatย all Jewish holidays involved wearing costumes. My theory is that this is because of the picture you will see in a moment, which apparently seared this information into his memory for all eternity, for reasons that are fairly self-evident. ๐Ÿ˜›

I posted this letter last year, but it messed with the formatting somehow and I decided to remove it and repost it this year. (And it will appear in the book–edited to suit the medium, and sans pictures, unfortunately!)

An easy and meaningful fast to those observing the Fast of Esther, and a joyful Purim to all!

Dear Josep,

So……. ๐Ÿ™‚

I don’t know what gave you the impression that dressing up in costumes is a thing we do for every holiday. Eitan was correct, it really is only for Purim! Could be that you got that impression because I was particularly fond of that tradition and used it as an outlet for my theatrical silliness. …Hence the Hassidic Jack Sparrow when I was 17. ๐Ÿ˜€

Don't even ask, dear reader. Don't. Even. Ask.
Don’t even ask, dear reader. Don’t. Even. Ask.

I used to take the opportunity to express some personal joke from that year. But I guess my life has become more boring as I got older, because my costumes have gotten simpler and more tame, and I’m out of personal jokes to dress up as… this year H decided to dress up as Darth Vader (don’t ask me why… I think he saw someone with that costume last year), so I’m going along with the theme as Princess Leia. (I told Eitan he should be Chewbacca. He was not amused.)

Anyway, let me set you straight: the common denominator in Jewish holidays is not costumes, it is food. ๐Ÿ˜€ There’s a joke that all Jewish holidays follow the same theme: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” It’s true for almost all of the holidays, and Purim is not the exception. ๐Ÿ™‚ Much as we joke about it, it really is reflected solidly in halakha (Jewish law): every celebration is marked with at least one festive meal, including most holidays, weddings and circumcisions. On Shabbat, we are required to eat three festive meals. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s one expression of the concept of channeling the material world to bring us to greater spiritual heights. We use the worldly pleasures and enjoyment to help us connect to the spiritual.

So, Purim! ๐Ÿ™‚ The holiday commemorates the story of Queen Esther and and the Jews of Persia (which you can read about in your Bible under the Book of Esther–give it a read, it’s not long. I’d say read Wikipedia on it, but the article in Catalan has some glaring inaccuracies! Read the English one if you need a summary!) (And then go fix the Catalan one! ๐Ÿ˜› ). If you want a very brief summary… repeat after me… “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” ๐Ÿ˜›

The remarkable thing about the Book of Esther is that even though it is clearly a story of God rescuing the Jews from a terrible fate (…as per usual…), it does not mention God’s name even once. One might think that it was Esther’s actions that saved the Jews, or her uncle Mordekhai’s advice. One might even go so far as to argue that it was all just a bunch of lucky coincidences–the right people being at the right place in the right time…

But we know that there is no such thing as a coincidence. ๐Ÿ™‚ And that is the main theme of Purim: “things are not what they seem”. This is where the tradition of dressing in costumes comes from–as well as the tradition of eating foods that have some kind of “hidden” element in them, the most famous of these being hamentaschen:

Remember these?
Remember these?

(I usually make my mother’s oatmeal hamentaschen, which are way better than the standard fare. ๐Ÿ˜€ I have very fond memories of helping her bake them back in Pittsburgh in my childhood and Rehovot in my adolescence.)

Purim is a celebration of the Divine game of hide-and-seek; of God “hiding” himself in the mundane, behind science, behind history, behind strong and charismatic people, and waiting for you to recognize Him behind these disguises.

Purim is also about Jewish unity. One of the things the “bad guy”, Haman, says to King Ahashverosh (Xerxes) about the Jews is that they are “scattered and separate among all the nations” (Esther 3:8). We strive to counter that “separateness” Haman noted, by expressing our unity and love for one another, by giving charity, sending food to one another, and having a big feast (of course…) with our friends and family. These things are not just recommendations or traditions; they are mitzvot, commandments, required by Jewish law on Purim day! Most people send each other gift baskets, usually of sweets.

The other commandment of Purim is to hear Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) cantillated aloud in the synagogue both night and day. Like this.

(Geez, where was YouTube seven years ago?!) Don’t bother watching the whole thing. I’m having it start you at the beginning of chapter 3; you’ll notice something odd at about 10:27 minutes… that’s what happens every time the name of the bad guy of the story, Haman, is mentioned during the reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

Since the obligation to hear the Megillah is equal for men and women (unlike the obligation to hear the Torah, which is only for men), women can read the Megillah for themselves, and in my community we have a reading by women for women. I learned how to cantillate from the Torah and Megillah from my mother, and I usually participate in these readings. (I also read part of my Torah portion at my bat mitzvah, but just at the party, not as part of the service.) This year, like last year, I’ll be reading chapter 8. ๐Ÿ™‚

Purim being a very joyful holiday, there is a tradition to get drunk during the feast… which I am not a big fan of. ๐Ÿ˜› I never particularly liked drinking. I’ll enjoy the occasional wine or sweet liquor, but only a little. The only time I ever got drunk I was eighteen months old. Yes, I said months. But that’s a story for another time. ๐Ÿ˜›

In most of the world Purimย is celebrated on the 14thย of Adar. In cities that were walled at the time of the reign of Ahashverosh and Esther, however, such as Jerusalem and Hebron, it is celebrated on the 15th. This is called “Shushan Purim” (Shushan=Sussa, the royal city where the events took place). Why the difference? Because apparently the big war between the Jews and their enemies took place on different days depending on location; in the walled cities, it took place a day later.

A joyful Purim to you and yours!



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