“So they called these days Purim, after the name Pur (lot). Therefore, because of all the words of this letter, what they had seen concerning this matter, and what had happened to them, the Jews established and imposed it upon themselves and their descendants and all who would join them, that without fail they should celebrate these two days every year, according to the written instructions and according to the prescribed time, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city, that these days of Purim should not fail to be observed among the Jews, and that the memory of them should not perish among their descendants.” (Esther 9:26-28)
Purim is considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. Yet, it is also one of the most festive. In Jewish tradition, it is celebrated as a masquerade, with people coming to services dressed in full costumes. Unlike Halloween, however, the costumes are always of characters from the book of Esther: Mordechai, Esther, Ahasuerus, and Haman are the main ones. But I suppose that a review of the book of Esther would be helpful.
Esther relates a story that took place during the Persian captivity. The king of Persia was a man named Xerxes, also known as Ahasuerus. At a party, he was publically refused by the queen, Queen Vashti, so he had her thrown out of the kingdom. So he conducted a search for a queen to replace her. He found such a queen in Esther.
Esther was really a young Jewish girl by the name of Hadassah. Her parents having died when she was young, she was raised by her cousin, Mordechai. When they heard about the young virgins all being taken to be reviewed by the king, Mordechai instructed Hadassah not to tell them that she was Jewish, as that would destroy any chance she might have. And so she obeyed her cousin, and when she was taken, she didn’t tell them about her heritage.
In the meantime, a power-hungry politician by the name of Haman was being promoted by the king to second-in-command. All the people were then required to bow down to him, and they did. All except for Mordechai the Jew, who wouldn’t bow before anyone but God Himself. Furious that he would not bow, Haman plotted to destroy not just Mordechai, but ALL the Jews. Reporting to the king that there was a group of people who wouldn’t obey the kings rules, Ahasuerus gave Haman his signet ring to order a decree for the destruction of these people. Casting purim, lots, he determined that the day of destruction would fall on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. Letters were sent out with the king’s seal telling everyone of the news.
When Mordechai heard about it, he went to see his cousin. He asked her to go and talk to the king about this problem. Now, the law stated that no person could go before the king unless they were summoned specifically, under pain of death. The only thing that would save them would be if the king extended his scepter to them. Knowing this, Esther told Mordechai that she had not been summoned in a month.
Mordechai then says to Esther, “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)
Esther replies, “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise, and so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” So she goes before the king, and he extends his scepter to her, sparing her life. She invites both the king and Haman to a dinner. And they accept.
During the dinner, she tells the king that all of her people were going to be killed. “For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. Had we been sold as male and female slaves, I would have held my tongue, although the enemy could never compensate for the king’s loss.” (Esther 7:4) The king asks who this enemy is, and Esther tells him, “The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman!” The king ends up sentencing Haman to die on the gallows that he had built for Mordechai, and allows a letter to be drafted with his seal on it, allowing the Jews to protect themselves.
“By these letters the king permitted the Jews who were in every city to gather together and protect their lives—to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the forces of any people or province that would assault them, both little children and women, and to plunder their possessions, on one day in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.” (Esther 8:11-12)
And so the Jewish people were saved from certain destruction by the actions of Mordechai and Esther. Purim celebrates this victory over the evil Haman and his family. “The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16)
The photos are from the movie, “One Night With the King.” If you have never seen it, it tells this remarkable story. The video below is the first eight minutes or so of the film, and provides and excellent introduction to the background of Purim.
The Torah tells us that God “will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” (Ex 18:14b) Haman was the son of Hammedatha, who was an Agagite. (Es. 3:1, 9:24) 1 Samuel tells us that Agag was king of the Amalekites. (1 Sa. 15:8) So Haman was, in fact, a descendant of Amalek, whose remembrance, we are told, will be utterly blotted out. Therefore, whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, the tradition is to boo really loud, or use groggers or noisemakers, so that the name of a descendant of Amalek is not heard.
As with all Jewish festivals, there is a special food involved. In this case, it is a special cookie that is eaten at Purim called hamentaschen (hah’-mehn-tah-shen). This is a German word meaning “Haman’s pockets.” They are triangular cookies filled usually with some fruit compote, or poppy seeds. Some diners carry these pastries all year round in their dessert cases. Click here for a recipe!
However, the most interesting fact about this holiday is that we bring out the point that God is not mentioned once in the entire book of Esther. However, regardless of whether He is named, or mentioned, or visible, or evident, or whatever, God is clearly in control. And that is really what this festival is all about.