Abridged from the Jewish Virtual Library: The story of Purim is told in the Biblical book of Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter. Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to become part of his harem, and he loved her more than his other women and made her queen. But the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her nationality. The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people.
Through Esther’s courage and willingness to put her life on the line when approaching the King, the Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.
The book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the bible that does not contain the name of God. In fact, it includes virtually no reference to God. Thus, one important message that can be gained from the story is that God often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which is usually in March. The 14th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews. The word “Purim” means “lots” and refers to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for the massacre.
The primary Jewish commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther. The book of Esther is commonly known as the Megillah, which means scroll. It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle gragers (noisemakers; see illustration) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to “blot out the name of Haman.” The Talmud (not the Bible) commands Jews to eat, drink and be merry.
It is customary to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. Jews also hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests.
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