Purim: Feast of Fools
Purim, like the medieval festival of fools, or Mardi Gras, is celebrated by excesses of food and drink, masquerades, and making fun of everything.
The Purim Story
While Purim is a carnival of silliness and joy, it actually recalls a rather dramatic story found in the Book of Esther. The book is still written on (and read from) a special scroll, in Hebrew called a Megillah. Here are the dramatis personnae:
Ahasuerus: Lots of power. Serious land mass. Not much going on upstairs.
Vashti: She fought city hall ... and lost!
The Eunuchs: A bunch of fun-loving guys who're ripe for a very dense post-modern monograph. (Heroes with no bal...., excuse me, I mean with ambiguous gender discourse.)
Haman: Cigar chompin', antisemitic, gun-totin, baddie.
Mordechai: Very first-generation. "Mordechai" is not a Jewish name, but no Persians use it anymore. Tells Esther not to tell she's Jewish, but goes to the palace every day with his thick Yiddish accent: "Vat's hepnin' mit my Esther? Nu?"
Esther: "Esther" also wasn't a Jewish name. In Sunday school, the teacher called her "Hadassah," and all the other kids would add "lady." What can I say? Very good looking, she married a gentile, and saved the Jewish people.
Here is the story: The lusty and somewhat ineffectual king, Ahasuerus, banishes his queen, Vashti, and decides he needs a new queen. Through various plot devices he chooses Esther, a lovely Jewish girl, a relation of the wise Mordechai, who is in conflict with the king's advisor, Haman. Because Mordecai will not bow down to this arrogant, plotting , villainous man, Haman decides to issue orders throughout the land to wipe out all the Jews. Esther is able to use her station to inform the king of the plot, and Haman is brought down, and hung \on the same gallows he built for the Jews. Furthermore, new orders go out throughout the land, allowing the Jews to rise up and protect themselves, and the tables are turned, and everybody lives happily ever after (at least in the book of Esther.)
As I said, the Purim story, one of near-genocide, hardly seems to be the occasion for masks and parties and rampant frivolity! Some commentators have suggested that the book itself is a farce or satire, a kind of literary cartoon in which the characters are so stereotyped that the violence hardly seems real. Others have said that partying on Purim is a kind of release from the drama of life- because who knows? Tomorrow an advisor to the king may plan our doom, so today celebrate life intensely. A third perspective points out that God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther- thus, in a roundabout way, proving that God was really the "hidden hand" behind the whole drama, and since God protected the Jews then, the Holy One will protect the Jews now- and if that's not a reason to celebrate, what is?
Have a happy and celebratory Purim, but remember one thing: if you're drinking on Purim, please, please don't drive a car- we need all the Jews safe and happy and studying at Kolel!
Other Purim customs and observances
Besides hearing the Megillah, the other customs for the holiday include:
Ta'anit Esther: a minor fast day that some people observe from dawn till dusk the day before Purim, commemorating the fast that Esther asked all the Jews to observe as she worked hard to save them. See Esther 3:12; 4:16.
Mishloach Manot: gifts of food to friends and neighbors. Traditionally, one puts together more than one kind of food (say, a bagel and an apple, or a muffin and a handful of nuts) and sends gifts to at least two different people. This can be simple or elaborate; the point is to recall the verse which says that after the Jews were saved from destruction, "They were to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, and as a time for sending gifts to one another and giving presents to the poor." (Esther 9:22.) Sending food to friends recalls the simple miracle of being alive, of the physical survival of the Jewish community, and connects our celebration with those close to us- plus, it's a lot of fun to give and get all kinds of cookies and snacks throughout the day! A traditional food for Purim is hamantashen.
Matanot L'eviyonim: presents for the poor, are based on the same verse quoted above. Traditionally, the gifts can be of money or of food, but are given on the day of Purim itself; since we are celebrating the gift of our very lives, we express our gratitude by helping others to live. It's a very Jewish thing to do: celebrate by giving and sharing, making sure that everybody around us is included in the party, as it were.
Finally, it's traditional to have a Seudah - special meal on Purim afternoon with friends and family, with skits and silliness and drinking. In fact, the Talmud says you should drink until you can't tell the difference between "Blessed is Mordecai" and "Cursed is Haman," but Maimonides and later halachic commentators say that this can be fulfilled by merely drinking and eating a bit more than usual and taking a nice nap after the festivities- after all, one certainly can't distinguish between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman" when you're fast asleep!