Purim

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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34 responses to “Purim

  1. A good and valuable lesson on history. Thank you for sharing it. 🙂

  2. I am always fascinated when you share these stories that reflect your culture, and especially appreciative that you take the time to translate their meanings in a way that is simple and direct, and yet also quite profound.

    Everything is not always as it seems.
    To drink until you cannot tell the difference.
    To emulate righteousness, or to oppose injustice.
    To celebrate and honor the invisibility of God.

    You share so many riches, and open our eyes. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Shimon. Well told!

  4. Thank you dear Shimon, you expressed so nicely, it is always so nice to read your cultural stories… I loved these mentioned words.. So wisely weaved. Hit me again… Photographs, especially the young girl, I loved it so much.Blessing and Happiness, with my love, nia

    • You’re very welcome, Nia. I know that sometimes people have mistaken impressions of other cultures, and don’t really understand why they do some of the things they do. That’s why I try to share some of our culture on the blog. Thank you for your good wishes. I’m so glad you liked it.

      • I love to learn something about different cultures… As my favurite writer St.Exupéry says, the differences make us rich… not seperate us… (it was something like that) So I feel rich myself when I read something about diffeerent cultures… and also it is so nice to read you, your writing style through the beautiful photographs… Feeds my soul in positive way. Thanks and Love, nia

    • You bring me happiness, Nia

  5. Thank you, Shimon. I really enjoyed learning about Purim.

  6. I have read the story of Queen Esther (in English) and it is fascinating to hear how the Jews celebrate this holiday now. Thank you, Shimon!

    • I know there are a lot of other people who have masquerades, and dress up in costumes… and I suppose from the outside, it all looks very much the same… glad you enjoyed the post, Ruth.

  7. I am so moved by your writings, Sir, feel like I belong … Feel like I am you and you are me … I can feel it my bones … Tears of joy … I’m “only” a quarter Jew … Bear with me, please, Sir, but could it be that I belong after all? Love, cat.

    • Our face is just a small part of our body, maybe a 20th of it… maybe even less, but we can see the soul of another human being just looking into his face. I don’t know how much importance we should give to these ‘parts’. On the other hand, I’ve always thought I was half cat. But if you feel a sense of belonging, I am sure it’s true, and send you my best heartfelt wishes, and love to you too, cat.

  8. Mahalo, Shukriya and Thank you for this inspiring post. Today I learned a great deal about Purim. And feel “chicken-skin” when you mention the hidden hand of God in “coincidences”. Over the years, I have come to understand that every coincidence is God shaking me to attention because He has something to share. Even your beautiful account is a coincidence, since “coincidences” were a topic at lunch today.

    And another coincidence. Today is “Holi” … a Hindu celebration which has much of the same elements of sacred revelry attached to it, including drinking bhang ( hashish) and wild tossing of colored powders around … all
    things we do NOT do in daily life. The date of Holi and Purim overlap by a few hours.

    So tomorrow I will have a glass of wine ( I’m almost a teetotaler, but will bend to tradition ) in honor of Purim and will sit for a while praising God for all these coincidences. Thanks so very much.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Nikkity. I am sure that there are many parallels between religions and our understanding of god. And I’m sure that many of the ceremony of the Hindu celebrations would speak to me too, though I know next to nothing about them. A pleasure to read your comment.

  9. Thank you for explaining both the history and the way Purim is now celebrated.

  10. How very interesting. You reminded me of my mother. She was Queen Esther in the Order of The Eastern Star. I recall hearing her recite whatever it was that she had to say in that role. She was Worthy Matron and every other station in the Order over the years. People believe The Masonic Order and The Order of The Eastern Star are secret kinds of “evil” groups. Of course, they are not. What I overheard my mother and father saying sounded very much like scripture to me. Thank you for the memory. I have to ask my sister if she recalls what our mother said.

    I like the pictures very much. I especially like the nose guy and the family. Who are these people?

    • I know nothing of the Order of The Eastern Star, and have only heard a very little about the Masonic Order. But being part of a people that have often been slandered, I don’t jump to conclusions when I hear about so called ‘evil’ people. Glad to hear that I reminded you of your mother. That is an honor. The guy with his nose in the camera lens, is me, purposely distorted in the purim spirit. The family are friends of mine who came to celebrate, and the woman in a lion’s mask is the widow of an old and dear friend. Thank you so much for your comment.

      • As soon as I posted, I KNEW the Nose Man was you! Ha Ha. How clever you are. I liked the little family on sight. You are fortunate to have young friends with children. I think I would like to see that celebration. Is there a resource for the Esther story?

    • I don’t know about resources… but it does appear in the old testament of the bible.

  11. Pingback: Invisible, unreasonable God | Cloud and Mountain

  12. I have always loved the story of Esther and Mordechai. A very neat holiday. Very interesting point about the two types of people in the world. You see each one in Esther and Mordechai.

  13. Chag Purim sameach, Shimon. In a former existence I was married to a Jew and I was myself Christian Clergy, so at Purim we made apricot-filled hamentaschen, twirled graggars, dressed up like Mordecai and Haman and Esther, and read the whole Megilla (though somewhat abbreviated for our young daugher’s sake)–and it was better than Hannukah in my opinion (in terms of all-out celebrating). However, the getting drunk part was never told to me, and so I missed out! I am so pleased to hear of Israeli observances and the evolution of this holiday.

    • Amazing to hear of your former existence, Lance. And even more amazing to learn that you didn’t find out about the getting drunk. That is very traditional! I don’t know about the evolution of the holiday… in my lifetime, the only changes that I have noticed was what was put in the hamentaschen.

      • Of course, I only have my goy perspective of a few Canadian Reformed traditions. I said ‘evolution’ only because I’d only ever seen people dress up as the characters in the Esther story–and only in little drama enactments–and none of the drinking–so I mistook that as an ‘evolution’. I now realise I was just never a part of an adult celebration and only involved in events meant for little children. So I love seeing all these photos and being brought up to speed.

    • I understand, Lance. I am not too familiar with the Reformed practices of our traditions, and I imagine they are different from what is done here, when they are practiced in the diaspora. Here, the celebrations are for the most part integrated, with the children taking great delight in the carrying on of the adults. I can imagine that when the celebration is meant just for children, it is somewhat different. Thank you for explaining.

  14. A very unusual set of photos – but my favourite is certainly the two parents and their child – really lovely illumination and the whole thing beautifully done. FATman

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