Religion is often thought of as a formal, solemn affair. Purim, the Jewish festival that begins at sunset on Wednesday night and ends Thursday evening, turns that entire notion on its head. Revelers dress in elaborate, silly costumes, interrupt the Jewish rituals with explosive cheers and boos and are religiously encouraged (some say mandated) to have a bit too much to drink. It’s the biggest party of the Jewish year—a day of complete celebration, joy and even chaos.
Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish community from near destruction at the hands of a power-crazed Persian vizier named Haman. As recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther, Haman nearly secured the King’s permission to wipe out the Jewish community, only to be foiled at the last moment by Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai.
The wicked plot is turned upside-down and Haman winds up hung on the gallows that he had constructed for the Jews. On Purim, we rejoice in this example of good triumphing over evil and pray for the kind of world where hatred and violence will forever be uprooted.
On Purim, Jews chant the Book of Esther, known as the Megillah, interspersing the reading with funny skits, loud songs and a chorus of boos and noisemakers whenever the villainous Haman is mentioned. Many communities host big carnivals for kids and adults and everyone is encouraged to come in costume.
In the afternoon, we invite our friends and family for lavish, rich meals. It is a day of complete and raucous celebration. In fact, Purim’s tone is so joyful that it overflows. On this one day we have a religious obligation to seek to be especially happy for the entire Hebrew month!
Purim is also a day of gift-giving, but of two very specific kinds. The first is Mishloah Manot, gifts of food and other goodies to friends and family. The second is Matanot L’evyonim, particularly generous gifts to the poor. On this day, it is forbidden for a Jew to turn down any beggar who asks for help. We mark our good fortune by reaching out not only to those whom we love but also to those who are currently facing their own struggle to survive.
The Talmud teaches that after the coming of the Messiah, all of the holidays will fade away except for Purim. It seems that in the messianic era, when peace and justice have been established for all people and all the ills of the world have been overcome, we will still need a reason to set aside time for a party.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Revson Rabbinic Fellow of IKAR, a Jewish community in West Los Angeles, dedicated to the intersection of spirituality and social justice. For more information, please visit: www.ikar-la.org