Purim

Purim a joyous day
with custom of costumes

BY RABBI AVRAHAM FISHER
Purim is known as a kids’ holiday because of the custom of wearing costumes.

There is lots of fun. Children dressed as clowns, kings, queens, cute animals and flowers are plentiful in the streets of Jewish neighbourhoods. They may be watching carnivals or carrying beautifully wrapped baskets of food. Even adults don costumes, dance in the street and generally have a good time.

They’re marking the salvation of the Jews who lived in the ancient Persian Empire (Iran). They faced annihilation in 423 BCE.

The story of Purim is a firsthand account of a turn of events that was a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Jewish people. The Book of Esther was written by Mordechai and Esther, two central figures in the story. At the time, Jews lived under the rule of the Persian Empire, which extended from India to Ethiopia, including the Middle East.

Fifty-six years earlier, the Babylonian Empire expelled the Jews from what is now Israel. The Persians later conquered the Babylonians.
 The essence of the story that is Purim is contained in the Book of Esther. It relates that Jews lived in exile under the mighty Persian Empire. Hamman, the prime minister and an evil Jew-hater, prevailed on the king to order the murder of his Jewish subjects. Mordechai, head of the Jews in the capital city of Shushan, also held an important position in the royal court.

No one knew he was also related to Queen Esther, who concealed her Jewish identity. She convinced the king to allow the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers. The Jewish population successfully defended itself, defeating its enemy.

In the end it was a combination of Mordechai’s wisdom, Esther’s courage and God’s subtle and consistent support that saved Persian Jewry.

Purim means lottery. Hamman, the Persian minister, chose the day to attack the Jews by lottery. It fell on the 13th of the month of Adar on the Jewish calendar, which is usually at the end of February or beginning of March.

The Jewish response to their enemies was not to run from their Jewish identity, but rather to realize when their lives were threatened that nothing was more precious to them than their Jewishness.  

The Book of Esther never mentions the name of God, yet the miraculous saving of the Jews could only have been brought about by divine will. It is as though God worked in disguise behind the scenes.

One important message gained from the story is that God often works in ways not apparent and that appear to be by chance, coincidence or simply good luck.

The custom of wearing costumes at this time alludes to the nature of the Purim miracle, where details of the story are hidden within natural events. Also following the story of Purim, Mordechai was honoured by the king and dressed in his royal garments. A twist in the story had Hamman ordered to lead a horse carrying Mordechai. Hamman received the death sentence.

Costumed children especially enjoy the custom of using noise makers after each mention of Hamman in the Purim service to drown out his name.
How is Purim celebrated? The Book of Esther states, ”And the month that was reversed from grief to joy. . . to make them days of eating and joy and sending food gifts to one another and gifts to the poor.”

The central feature of the day is reading the Book of Esther on Purim eve and the next morning. Food baskets are delivered to friends and relatives. It’s a vehicle to create feelings of friendship and unity among the Jews. We send the baskets with someone who delivers them on our behalf. This highlights the idea that each of us must be ready to serve as a force to bring about Jewish unity on Purim and throughout the year. In Guelph many members of Beth Isaiah Congregation volunteered to pack the baskets and deliver them.
 Since this is a joyous time, we have to make sure that every Jew is able to celebrate Purim with joy. That’s why we give money to the poor. This beautiful biblical commandment expresses the concern for the needy to be able to celebrate the holy day.
 We eat a festive meal, invite friends and relatives and show our gratitude that the Jews were saved from annihilation. 
 On Purim we declare our gratitude for the goodness that God has bestowed upon us.

Rabbi Avraham Fisher is past rabbi of Beth Isiah Synagogue. His book Lights of Judaism is available at the main branch of the Guelph Public Library. The book contains the Faith column articles, including this one, that appeared in the Guelph Mercury.