Maybe you’ve seen them around, people decked out in costume in March. The clowns and princess costumes turn your head and make you wonder if someone’s got their calendar mixed up. Celebrating Halloween in March. Huh.
It’s not the Jewish Halloween, we’ll tell you that much.
You might have just witnessed the Jewish festival of Purim. Jews dress up and give each other gifts of food and donations of money to the poor, and listen to Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther, or simply, The ‘Megilla’, “scroll” or volume which denotes a lengthy story.) We make noise or ‘booo!” at the mention of the evil Haman’s name, and have a feast with wine flowing, festive music playing, and a constant stream of merry visitors popping in.
Sounds like fun? It is. But wait, there’s more.
“LaY'hudim Haytah orah v'simcha v'sason vikar”, The Jews had light and joy, and gladness and honor. Esther 8:16. We read this every year on the Jewish festival of Purim.
Light. Joy. Gladness. Honor. These are not mere titles, these are cloaks that were earned from a long hard fight.
Have you heard of the story of Purim? Let’s recount it here.
Like all good Jewish stories, it starts in the days of old, a long long time ago…
Purim takes place in Persia of old in around the 4th century BCE. King Achashveros, the ruler of 127 countries (then, most of the modern world) throws a party and invites everyone to a week-long feast of drinking and merriment. He wants to show off his beautiful wife Vashti, but she refuses to come. So the king has her killed.
At the advice of his men, he has all the young eligible maidens present themselves to him in order to choose a new Queen. Here we find Esther, a Jewish girl who is forced to attend. It is her bad luck (foreshadow) that she is chosen to be queen. She hides her Jewish identity from the king for fear of retribution.
Meanwhile, Mordechai, who is Esther’s uncle (and in some commentaries, her husband) discovers a plot by two guards, Bigsan and Seresh, who plan to poison King Achashveros. Mirdechai informs the king through Esther and stops the plans, and the two men are killed. His good deed is recorded in the court records.
Next, the evil advisor Haman, who was recently promoted as the king’s second-in-command, becomes angry when the Jewish Mordechai refuses to bow down to him, as all subjects are supposed to. He vows to kill not only Mordechai, but all the Jews. He makes a ‘Pur’ (where the name Purim derives its source), a lottery to determine the date when the Jews will be killed. It lands on the 13th day of the month of Adar.
When Mordechai hears of the plans he informs Esther and asks her to go to the king and beg for salvation on behalf of her people. Esther is fearful as no one can approach the king without an invitation. She requests that all the Jews fast and pray for three days to beg God that she should be successful.
Esther approaches the king unannounced and, stirred by his love for her, King Achashveros asks her what is her “What is your request? [Even if it be] half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled." She asks that the king and Haman attend a party she would throw. Haman is excited by his raised status at being invited to the queen’s private party.
At the party, the king asks Esther what she requests, and she answers that she wishes for the king and Haman to come to a second party she is throwing the next day. After the party, Haman encounters Mordechai who again refuses to bow to him, and, becoming enraged he vows to build a gallow and have Mordechai hanged.
Meanwhile, that night the king can’t sleep and asks his servant to read to him from the court records. When they come across the story of Mordechai saving the king’s life, he asks what Mordechai’s reward was. When the response is that Mordechai did not receive a reward, the king asks Haman, who just happened to arrive at the palace, what the reward should be for a man whom the king wishes to honor. Thinking the king is referring to himself, Haman says the man should be led through the streets on a royal horse and announce that “Thus shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to reward”.
Haman is horrified to find out that the man being honored is Mordechai and that Haman himself will have to carry out the reward. He arrives for the second party bedraggled and worn out after leading Mordechai through the streets. At the party, Esther reveals at the king’s coaxing that someone wants to kill her and her people. She reveals that she is Jewish and it is Haman who wants her people destroyed, including her.
King Achashveros is enraged and steps outside, only to return and find Haman kneeling at his wife’s feet. Thinking Haman is trying to harm his queen, though Haman was merely begging for his life, the king orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordechai. Justice is served.
And thus the story takes a turn. The Jews are allowed to take up arms and defend themselves, since the original decree could not be overturned. Come 13 Adar and the Jews put up a good fight and win, killing some 75,000 of their enemies. After that they were allowed to live peacefully in the land. Esther and Mordechai recorded the story in the Book of Esther and declared 14 Adar as a holiday, the day they were victorious.
But that isn’t the end of the story.
Throughout this fantastical story which is retold every year on Purim, we find an interesting phenomenon. God is not mentioned in the megillah, not even once. But we know that God is directing everything in His ways, and pulling the strings from behind the scenes. God is hidden. Concealed in everyday miracles. This is why we wear masks and costumes on Purim, and eat Hamantaschen (Haman’s ‘pockets’), a delicious jam-filled triangle-shaped pastry. Because we are celebrating that which is hidden.
The miracles in the Purim story come about through mere humans. And miracles that come about in a natural way rather than an extraordinary one, like God splitting the sea, are actually greater. God works within nature and above nature. But through this story we learn that it is possible to work within the ‘system’ without breaking any major rules, and still come out on top.
Not only do we get to dress up and have fun parties, we get to celebrate a beautiful and deep story of bravery, Esther risking her life to save her nation, and of light.
At the end of the megillah after Haman’s decree was annulled, it says “LaY'hudim Haytah orah v'simcha v'sason viykar”. Although the literal translation means light, happiness, rejoicing and honor, there is a deeper explanation. The Talmud says that orah refers to Torah, because Torah is light; Simcha is for ‘Yom Tov’, the holidays we celebrate; Sason for the circumcisions that all Jewish boys have; and Yakar for the tefillin (phylacteries) that Jewish men wear in prayer. The explanation is that Haman wanted not only to kill the Jews but to destroy their Judaism. He whispered in the king’s ear that there is a “certain people scattered and separate among the peoples… and they do not keep the king's laws” Esther 3:8. He hated that they did not assimilate.
The story of Purim is not just a physical one, it is not merely of people being saved in body.
But a spiritual one, of Jews being saved in soul and allowed to freely practice their religion once again without fear of retribution.
And that is the real miracle.It is not the “Jewish Halloween”, because we don’t just dress up and get candy. We celebrate something much deeper, that “For the Jews there was light…”. And may there always be light in your home.
And as we say, Happy Purim!