Purim, like so many other Jewish holidays, commemorates a historical event, the victory of the Jews of Persia over the evil Haman. However, the celebration of Purim is unlike any other. The normally staid atmosphere in the synagogue becomes a festival of joy. It is loud and raucus and no group does it better or with more vigor than the Orthodox Jewish community which follows the laws of Judaism literally.
Purim in a Nutshell
During the 4th century B.C., most of the Jewish population lived under the Persian King, Ahasuerus. The Prime Minister was the anti-semitic, Haman, who vowed to annihilate all Jews in a single day. Ahasuerus had taken as his Queen, Esther, who unbeknownst to the King, was a Jewess. When Esther's uncle, Mordechai, learned of the plot, he prevailed on Esther to find a way to tell the King. Esther called on the Jews to fast for three days and pray for deliverance from God. Then, she invited the King and Haman to a feast, where she told Ahasuerus what Haman was planning. The King was outraged and ordered Haman to be hanged on the gallows Haman had constructed for the murder of Mordechai.
There are three prayers said at the beginning of the Purim celebration. Then, the Book of Esther, one of the Five Scrolls of Writings in the Tanakh, is read, Contrary to the normal decorum in the synagogue, as the story is read, all of those present cheer loudly whenever the name of Mordechai is mentioned. On the other hand, when the name of Haman is said, the crowd hisses, boos and stamps their feet to drown out the name. The participants often noisemakers are used as well.
Drink Until ...
On all Jewish holidays and on Shabbat, Jews drink wine to sanctify God. However, there are few passages in the Megillah where someone is not drinking. Therefore, on Purim, the Talmud calls Jews to drink until they can't tell the difference between arur Haman (cursed be Haman) and barukh Mordekhai (blessed be Mordecai). While the Hebrew term for this is levasumei, to get mellow, in reality, it is customary for the participants to get so drunk that the alcohol can be smelled on the breath or, in the vernacular, totally wasted.
The Talmud calls on Jews to have a huge feast before the Purim festival begins. The meal usually begins before sundown and lasts well into the evening. The table is set with a bright tablecloth and the meal consists of meat and wine. There are blessings said during the meal, but much of the time, there is singing and a fun atmosphere.
The festivities of Purim include dressing up in costumes. Both children and adults come to the festive meal and synagogue dressed as any one of the characters from the story of Esther (or any other appropriate costume). At the synagogue, everyone participates in the Purim reading of the Magillah with loud and boisterous shouting, followed by a parade around the synagague and another feast, called an oneg.
Other Purim Traditions
It is customary to eat Hamantaschen, a three-cornered pastry filled with jam or poppy seeds. It is said to represent either Haman's hat or his ears which in his humiliation were clipped. Eating a representation of Haman symbolically destroys his memory.
During the Purim celebration, individuals or groups often perform songs and parodies of life in the Jewish community or the story itself. This is called spieling. In addition, on Purim, Jews are required to give charity to anyone who asks and to send gifts of food to at least two people.
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