At times it may seem like the dreary month of February has little to offer in the realm of holiday celebrations aside from a day where love is commercialized in nauseating shades of pink. This year, however, the best of February has yet to come: the Jewish holiday of Purim falls this Saturday night, on the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month of Adar. Purim is a day filled with merriment and frivolity, celebrating the Jewish people’s narrow escape from destruction under the ancient Persian Empire.
The elaborate story of the Jews’ salvation is chronicled in the biblical book of Esther. The story opens by introducing King Ahashverosh, an insomniac Persian monarch with alcoholic tendencies who was somehow granted dictatorial rule over 127 Persian provinces. In the midst of a continuous 180 day drinking bash, the king orders his Queen Vashti to stop by so he can show off her beauty to all his friends. When Vashti refuses to oblige, the king wrathfully removes her from the post.
Subsequently, the king holds a pageant to select a new queen. After much deliberation, he chooses Esther, a Jewish woman who was orphaned at a young age and raised by her cousin Mordechai. Just as the story begins to resemble the end of a Disney princess movie, however, there is a minor plot twist: Esther’s “happily ever after” is somewhat offset by her significant decision, at her cousin’s advice, to not disclose her Jewish identity to the king.
Enter the villain in the story — Haman, the king’s chief advisor. Haman is deeply insulted when Esther’s cousin Mordechai refuses to bow down to him at the palace gate. Haman is so insulted, in fact, that he plots to kill not only Mordechai but all the Jews in the Persian Empire. In typical villain fashion, Haman casts lots and randomly selects the thirteenth of Adar as the doomed day of destruction. Purim, the Hebrew word for “lots,” derives its name from Haman’s decision-making method.
Word of Haman’s wicked plan eventually reaches Esther, who declares a three-day fast among the Jews of the kingdom and boldly approaches the king at the end of the third day with the intent to save her people. A couple of drunken feasts later, the King finally learns of Esther’s Jewish identity, and his love for her conquers his blind approval of Haman’s schemes.
In an extraordinary reversal of fortune, the king orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows that was originally intended for Mordechai, Mordechai is appointed second-in-rank to the king, and the Jews of the Persian Empire are saved from annihilation. Despite the miraculous nature of the Purim story, the name of God is notably absent from the biblical account – emphasizing the importance of human action in achieving redemptive outcomes.
On the day of Purim, it is traditional to listen to the chanting of the Book of Esther, which is read from a ‘Megillah,’ or scroll. The Megillah reading tends to be a rowdy affair since audience participation is highly encouraged: at each mention of Haman’s name in the story, it is customary to shake ‘graggers,’ or noise makers, to blot out his name. Since the frequency of Haman’s name in the narrative at times surpasses even the frequency of Harry’s name in the ‘Harry Potter’ series, the reading is constantly interrupted and rarely coherent. Humorous or satirical re-enactments of the Purim story, known as Purim ‘spiels,’ are often performed as well.
Due to the themes of deception in the Book of Esther, it is traditional to dress up in costume on Purim. Unlike the unspoken rules surrounding Halloween, the costume tradition applies not only to young children but to all members of the community – providing a rare opportunity to witness your parents’ otherwise self-respecting friends dressed in zany superhero outfits.
For sustenance, it is customary to eat triangle-shaped pastries filled with various types of jam, or better yet, nutella. These pastries are commonly known as ‘Hamentashen,’ which is the Yiddish word for “Haman’s pockets.” The Hebrew word for the pastries, ‘Oznei Haman,’ more cannibalistically – and less appetizingly – translates as “Haman’s ears.”
Further Purim traditions include eating a festive meal, getting wildly intoxicated and giving charity to the poor. In addition, it is customary to exchange care packages of food and drink – known as ‘Mishlochei Manot’ – with friends and family.
The Jewish Student Union will be hosting a Masquerade Purim carnival and costume party this Saturday night at 8 p.m. at the UMass Hillel House. All are welcome to attend and celebrate what is probably the most joyous, frivolous and underrated holiday on the Jewish calendar. Chag Purim Sameach!
Merav Kaufman is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.