Purim: Rejoicing in Reversals of Fortune
Purim is based on the Book of Esther, the famous story of how the Jewish Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai defeated the evil scheming of Haman, saving the Jews of the Persian Kingdom from extermination. Haman had decided on the date of extermination through a pur, a lottery—and that date became the date the Jews rejoiced in their salvation instead. Thus the day that was supposed to be the end of world Jewry instead became the joyful holiday of Purim.
This stunning reversal of fortune is a theme at the root of the Purim story; the idea that destruction can become celebration, all through the grace of God.
It is also an intensely dramatic story, juxtaposing the grandeur of the king’s court in ancient Persia with political intrigues and suspense.
In Jerusalem, Purim is celebrated on Shushan Purim, which is the day after Purim is celebrated in most other places. This is because Purim is celebrated on Shushan Purim in all walled cities, like the Persian city of Shushan where the Purim story takes place.
Jews are required by Torah law to hear the Book of Esther read twice: once in the evening and once the next day. When the name of “Haman” is spoken, children traditionally shake noisemakers or yell in contempt. This device keeps children listening throughout the reading.
Another practice of Purim is mishloach manot, giving gifts to friends. These gifts are usually food, and must be given to a minimum of one person. Giving to the poor is another important practice of Purim.
But what people look forward to most about Purim is dressing up in costumes, the more outrageous the better. Even the most Orthodox Jews let loose this one night and day of the year, though of course adhering at all times to the laws of modesty. The custom of masquerading comes from the idea of reversals, how nothing is as it appears to be. The Jews were to be exterminated, and instead they were redeemed.
For the same reason, drinking alcohol is another custom of Purim: the traditional adage is that one should drink until he cannot tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman.
There is a legend in Jerusalem about a rabbi who prayed to God that it should always rain in Jerusalem on Purim, so that the revelry in the Holy City should not cross the line into inappropriateness. So far, even as rain becomes ever more scarce, Purim is often accompanied by at least a drizzle of rain.
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