Jews will celebrate the Holiday of Purim starting the evening of March 20 through the day of March 21. Purim is a 1-day holiday that comes in late winter/early spring, in the Hebrew month of Adar, on the 14th day of Adar.
This year, 5779, is a Leap Year, which means that we have two months of Adar. Some Jews call such a year, a year with 13 months instead of the usual 12 months, a “pregnant” year.
The Jewish Calendar is a lunar-based calendar that gets “adjusted” through leap years in order to keep in sync with the secular calendar. The Jewish lunar calendar has only 354 days each year, instead of the secular calendar’s 365 days. As you know, the secular calendar has a 4-year cycle for leap years—one day added every fourth year.
The Jewish calendar has a Leap Month, called Adar II, the second month of Adar, that is added in seven times in a 19-year cycle. How this works is that a second month of Adar, between the “regular” Adar and the month of Nisan, is added in year 3, 6, 8, 11, 24, 17 and 19 of the 19-year cycle. By the way, this year, 5779, is the third leap year (so year 8) in the 19-year cycle.
The leap year cycle insures that we don’t have Rosh Hashanah in January or Passover in October. This is much more complicated than the secular calendar, where we know that leap years come every four years during an even-number year (next year, 2020!). But this year, Adar II started on March 8, so Passover will start very late on April 19.
Like many of the Jewish holidays, Purim is a celebration of deliverance of the Jewish people from a wicked person who sought to kill them. You may know the story, because it is recounted in the Biblical book of Esther.
Esther was a young, beautiful Jewish woman in Shushan, Persia, who was selected in a “beauty contest” to marry the Persian king, Ahasuerus. I must note that Ahasuerus, while drunk, had gotten rid of his wife Vashti because she refused to entertain his drunken friends; she was standing up for her rights not to be exploited. (We can only speculate on her fate).
When Esther, the replacement “wife”, married the king, he didn’t know that she was Jewish and she didn’t tell him. Besides Esther and the King, there are two other important protagonists in this story — Mordechai and Haman. Mordechai was Esther’s uncle, and a man who had at one time saved the life of the King. Haman was the “Grand Vizier,” and he hated Jews, especially Mordechai.
Haman convinced the King (who seemed to be a fool) to kill all the Jews in Shushan on the 14th day of the month of Adar. This date was chosen by the King’s magicians casting lots or “pur,” plural “purim” to choose the date. When Mordechai heard about Haman’s plot, he convinced Esther that she needed to make the King to stop Haman’s plans, no matter what it took. A
ccording to the rules of the court, Esther was not allowed to approach the King unless invited. But Esther chose to defy court rules, thus risking her own life, by approaching the King uninvited, in order to intervene for her people. She revealed to Ahasuerus that she herself was Jewish, and would be killed if Haman’s plan went forward. Ahasuerus therefore stopped the planned slaughter.
Instead of killing Mordechai and his people, he had Haman hanged for his crimes. As a result all Jews celebrate the deliverance of the Jews of Shushan on the 14th of Adar.
Purim is a jolly holiday—a day of feasting and gladness and sending gifts to the poor. Many Jews and congregations hold parties in which both children and adults get dressed up, often as Esther and Mordechai—a sort of Jewish Mardi Gras. A popular food is “Hamantaschen,” which means “Haman’s ears.” These are delicious triangular shaped cookies filled with poppyseeds or cherries or other candied fruits.
One important Purim celebration is “Shalach-manot,” which means “sending gifts” of food to friends and neighbors and to the poor in the community. Frequently these are gifts of homemade Hamantaschen.
The most important Purim celebration is the reading of the Megillah or “Megillat Esther,” the Biblical the Book of Esther, from beginning to the end, with all the congregation, adults and children, present. The normal rules of synagogue behavior are suspended during the reading of the Megillah. People yell and make lots of noise—and they are supposed to do that!
Many people use a “Grager,” which is a noisemaker, during the reading of the Megillah. Every time the name of Haman is mentioned, people swing their gragers and stamp their feet, and yell. Why? Because we want to drown out the name of Haman who was a wicked man. We want Haman’s name “erased” from memory, while the name of Mordechai is to be remembered forever with blessing.
I comment every year about having difficulty with the Esther story, because of the inherent sexism. Well, we cannot deny that historically, all over the world, in many cultures, women were selected to be concubines or wives without their agreement. But perhaps Esther and Vashti are both women that feminists can be proud of, in the era of “Me Too.” Both were women who stood up for themselves at a time when women had no rights to their own personhood.
We know that many times during history that tyrants have tried to wipe out the Jewish people. At Purim we celebrate the bravery of Esther and Mordechai, who were able to save the Jews of Shushan from one such tyrant so long ago. But we Jews have also learned from our history that we must stand in solidarity with those of all nations and all faiths who struggle today against tyranny, and for freedom to worship according to their own lights.