Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!
Here are some of the commandments and traditions connected with the festival, which begins fully tonight.
First of all, we are instructed to listen to the reading of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, tonight and tomorrow morning. It is a gripping and contemporary tale. Behind the colourful facades and drinking parties, the protagonists conduct a politics which, though it may look casual, is cunning and ruthless. In two short sentences Haman puts before King Achashverosh every trope of Antisemitism: the Jews are everywhere; they’re rich; they have secret communications networks; they care only about themselves. Esther defeats Haman’s plans not by wiles but through astute political judgment. The Megillah is the classic tale about what minorities have to do to survive caught in the lethal interplay of the interests of more powerful others.
As if to create a different and more compassionate reality, we are instructed to give mattanot la’evyonim gifts to the poor, on Purim. Because both words are plural in Hebrew, we are required to give at least two gifts to two different people or groups of people suffering hardship. The Mishnah Berurah (late c19 commentary to the classic 16th century code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch) comments movingly that ‘it is better to give much to the poor than it is to spend greatly on one’s Purim feast or in giving gifts to one’s friends, because there is no greater happiness than causing the hearts of the poor to rejoice’. It is evident from the Shulchan Aruch that in many places it was also customary to give to the local poor, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, and to bring gifts to the neighbours among whom one was living ‘for the sake of the ways of peace’. (See below concerning two groups for whom we are collecting as a community this year.)
Equally, it is the custom to take portions of food and drink to friends and acquaintances, following the instruction in the megillah that people sent mishloach manot ish lere’ehu, ‘parcels of food to one another’. It is an enjoyable custom to prepare cheerful baskets of basic food and treats both for friends and people one doesn’t know. Within the community, it is a way of including members who may be unwell or frail, so that they too can find happiness on Purim. Some communities also do this collectively, using the money they raise for charity.
One of the central themes of the megillah is the interplay between appearance and identity. There is probably no other Biblical story in which clothing features with such prominence. Hence it is the tradition to dress up on Purim. An ‘upside-down world’ is created, in which one no longer knows who’s who. Add to this a carnival spirit and you enter the world of Purimspiels, cabaret acts, disguises, and fun. The date has long been a holiday for children, who wear fancy dress and give and receive presents of food. It’s in the spirit of Purim, for adults to dress up too.
In the afternoon of Purim day, one gathers for the Purim Se’udah or special meal. Traditional foods include pulses (less widely eaten on Purim today) because Daniel ate vegetarian when he was an exile in the court of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. More popular are Purim challah made with raisins inside and hundreds-and-thousands all over, and Hamantaschen, filled with anything from poppy-seed to chocolate.