The celebration of Purim which is upon us Sunday has its roots in the historical events recorded in the Book of Esther.
In brief, what happened was this: The ruler of the Medio-Persian empire which succeeded Babylonia, Achashverosh, throws a drunken party in which he expects his wife, Vashti, to perform in the buff. Vashti refuses (the Talmud explains that this was not out of any inherent modesty, but because she was suffering from an unsightly skin condition) and, in a drunken rage, Achashverosh has her put to death.
Since he then finds himself without a wife, he holds an empire-wide beauty contest to find a successor, and the one he picks is the beautiful Esther, a Jewish orphan who had been raised by her uncle, Mordechai. Nobody bothers to mention Esther’s Jewish ethnicity.
Achashverosh is under the influence of an evil chief advisor, Haman (a lineal descendant of Agag, the last king of ‘Amaléq, the implacably inimical tribe whose power had been broken by King Sha’ul many years previously). Haman advises the king that the Jews, whom he alleges obey their own laws and not those of the king, are a threat to the cohesion and unity of his empire. Achashverosh agrees to this, and permits Haman to plot genocide.
The entire plan is overturned when Mordechai hears of it, and persuades Esther to intervene. After a three-day fast, she appears in her best finery, and tells the king that she is planning a drinking party, and requests his attendance, as well as that of Haman. They are, of course, only too glad to agree. At the party, when the king is very favorably disposed toward his beloved queen, Esther tells him that someone is plotting against her and her people, and “fingers” Haman. In a rage, the king has Haman and his twelve sons executed, and the plot is completely overturned.
Two things about the Biblical account are truly exceptional: The first is that, unique among the books of the Hebrew Bible, G-d is not mentioned even once in the account. The commentators see an allusion to this fact in the very name of the heroine, Esther (which they base upon the Hebrew root meaning “hidden, concealed.”) G-d’s presence, His actions behind the scene, as it were, are concealed from us, as the narrative rolls forth. Vashti just “happens” to have a skin condition which prevents her performance; the king just “happens” to fall into a dyspeptic rage; Esther just “happens” to be selected as her successor; and so on.
What we are invited to conclude is that there is no such thing as coincidence. All of these events were orchestrated, planned, and executed by a fine hand behind the scenes in order to come to a head in a specific time and place. Thus, the book seems to tell us, is the course of history always played out, even when we are unable to discern the Divine machinations behind the events.
The second theme in the story is the suddenness of the complete change in events from sorrow to salvation, expressed traditionally in the phrase nahafoch hu’ — “it was overturned.” The “overturning” depends on the efficacy of prayer, fasting, and tëshuva. Often rendered “repentance,” the word’s literal meaning is “return.” This return to the Torah, whose abandonment had led to the Babylonian exile in the first place, finds allusion not only in Esther’s monumental fast, but also in a telling phrase near the end of the book. We are informed that the Jews qiyyëmu vëqibbëlu — “upheld and accepted” — the practices which had brought about and resulted from Purim (Esther IX, 27). The Talmud (Shabbath 78a) picks up on the apparent reversal of the order of events — how can one “uphold” something without first “accepting” it — by informing us that it means qiyyëmu ma sheqibbëlu këvar, that they “upheld what they had already received,” i.e. the Torah at Sinai.
It is this — the enthusiastic reconnection of the Jewish people with the foundation of their being, the Torah, through the events of Purim, and not the mere occurrence of the events themselves, which has made this an enduring celebration in the Jewish calendar ever since those days. It is the efficacy of the regime of prayer and fasting — the holiday is preceded by the Fast of Esther, normally the day before Purim, but this year pushed off to the preceding Thursday, as fasting is prohibited on the sabbath – which occasions the rabbinical pun that the Day of Atonement, Yom haKippurim, is a “yom këPurim”: a “day like Purim.”
The day is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue (it is traditional to make all sorts of noises to drown out the name of Haman, every time it is pronounced), and by sending gifts of food to one’s friends and neighbors, called mishloach manoth, or “sending portions.” The halachic obligation is fulfilled by sending at least two food items occasioning different blessings to two people — but most people go far beyond that.
Also commonplace — especially for the children — are clever costumes (the theme of “concealment” is played out here) and a generally lively and boisterous celebration.
All of which combine to make Purim one of the most fun-filled celebrations in the Jewish calendar. Nahafoch hu’!