Take A Chance on Purim!
by Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)
Like Hanukkah, Purim is considered a minor holiday because it is not mentioned in the Torah. It is also based on a historic event in which the Jews vanquish their foe. However, unlike Hanukkah, there are tracts of the Mishnah and Talmud devoted to Purim, and it is also associated with a sacred text — the Book of Esther, which is read in its entirety as part of the holiday celebration. Interestingly, while chanting in Hebrew is encouraged (there is even a special trope), it is considered permissible to read the Book of Esther privately and in one’s own language as fulfillment of the holiday celebration. Purim is also a super fun-filled holiday, often celebrated with masquerades and boozing it up — our very own Mardi Gras. The traditional food is Hamantaschen, a three-sided filled cookie (based on the supposed shape of Haman’s hat or ear), and it is also customary to give baskets of treats to one’s friends and neighbors (Mishloach Manot).
The word “Purim” is not actually based on a Hebrew root, but it is generally considered to mean “lots” — that is, the casting of lots. So Purim is all about chance and luck. The holiday is all about celebrating one of those wonderful and too rare circumstances in which, despite all odds, the Jews win in the end. Not only do the Jews of Shushan (in Persia) avoid the extermination that was planned for them, but the bad guy (Haman) gets his just desserts. It’s all about cosmic retribution and the confluence of “chance events” that went right. To name just a few: Esther gets picked from among many other women as the new queen, her cousin Mordecai saves the king by discovering a plot among his courtiers to kill him, the king grants Esther an audience and agrees to save her people and kill his wicked prime minister Haman (who had cast “lots” in order to pick the day of the Jewish extermination), and Haman is ultimately hung on the gallows he had built to hang Mordecai. It’s an interesting tale and makes for a good read.
And let’s not forget who is the heroine of the day: a beautiful, sexy, and gutsy Jewish woman! Go girl!
Purim is considered especially important because it has helped Jews over the millennia deal with their minority status and the hate that often faced them. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan emphasized that Purim exemplifies the Jewish approach to this situation — rather than resentfully submitting to the majority power, the Jews buttressed their spiritual values, evolved, and survived. In fact, the sages took literally the Book of Esther’s promise that “these days of Purim shall not disappear from among the Jews, nor the memory of them perish from their descendants” and wrote in the Midrash Mishle: “All the festivals will cease, but the days of Purim will not cease.”