A friend, Dr Bob, asked me what Purim was, and it gave me a pause. Living here in Jerusalem, I had never had to explain it before. But Purim, though it goes back to the time of the second temple, 2500 years ago, is the most unusual of Jewish holidays.
The holiday celebrates the invisibility of God, or the fact that God’s presence in this world is not always obvious or reasonable. It is preceded by a fast of one day. Following that, Jews go to the synagogue and read an old story from the time of the Persian exile, written on parchment in the same way that our Old Testament is written with ink on parchment. The story of Esther is written on a scroll, and it is a rather long story and takes a while to read. But it is read in one sitting. Because of that, it is customary to refer to a long drawn out story as a ‘long megilla’, for a megilla is a scroll. The story tells of a grave danger to the Jewish community living in the Persian empire (called Iran in the present time), and how things worked out. The name of God is not mentioned once throughout the book. And one might think that the events described were of a random nature But this series of coincidences is thought of as revealing the hidden hand of God in the affairs of men.
Presents and gifts of food are brought to friends and to the poor. Little cookies are prepared with a filling inside of either poppy seeds or fig jam. Friends and family are invited to great banquets in the middle of the day, and it is considered a religious exercise to drink until your drunk. It is customary for both adults and children to appear in costume. Sometimes men dress like women, and women like men.
There are those who feel uncomfortable with some of the characteristics of the holiday, and try to avoid this discomfort. And so, some religious folk simply drink a good bit, and then go to sleep, considering this a drunken stupor. But it is common to see serious and upstanding citizens dressed in ridiculous costumes. One of the explanations I have heard for the costumes, is that since we are instructed to give gifts, and it is considered most charitable when the recipient does not know who has given the gift, the fact that both the recipient and the giver are in costume helps avoid any possible embarrassment. But beyond any such rational explanation, it is clear that the costumes remind us that there is a reality that exists beyond the apparent reality.
On the subject of drunkenness, there are also some explanations. One is certainly not encouraged to act in a vulgar or crude manner. And the instruction is to drink until one can’t tell the difference between Mordechai (the male hero of the story… the real hero is Queen Esther, a woman) and Haman (the villain). One of the explanations I have come across in my studies, is this: There are two ways to relate to the world. One is to look at those examples of righteousness and to emulate their behavior; to strive constantly for good in the world. The other, is to find those things that are wrong with the world, and to denounce them, and work against them. To protest against injustice. Each of us chooses the path that is closest to his or her heart, in order to make this world a better place. But on this day, we drink until we can’t tell the difference.
The holiday falls on the 14th day of the month of Adar, according to our calendar. But in any city that was a walled city at the time of the original event, the holiday is celebrated the next day, on the 15th of the month. When I am in Jerusalem, which was a walled city in those times, we celebrate a day later than all the rest of Israel. But this year, I am visiting an old and dear friend who is in poor health. I am in the Galilee, and so this is one time that I will be celebrating the holiday at the same time with Jewish people all over Israel, and all over the world.