Purim is almost here, the holiday commemorating the story of Esther, Mordecai, King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), and that hatable villain, Haman.
In 2009 the commemoration begins at dawn on Monday, March 9, with a fast from dawn until dusk. In the Biblical story, Esther and Mordecai and the Jews of Persia fasted for three days as part of their prayer for survival as a people. They had been decreed for slaughter by Haman and the gullible king of Persia (just one of the most powerful emperors of history).
The second part of the festival is a gift of tzedakah or charity made before the evening celebration starts. The proper procedure is for each family to give to two other families in need.
The third part of the festival is reading the Megillah after sundown when Purim officially begins. Ever heard the expression, “the whole megillah”? That’s a piece of American idiom that comes from the Jewish experience. Megillah means scroll and is a term especially used for the scroll of the book of Esther. The story of Esther is read for the whole community gathered to celebrate and listen. We shout “yyaaayyyy” whenever Mordecai’s name is spoken and “booo” when Haman’s name is spoken. We also twirl noisemakers called groggers to help drown out Haman’s name.
The next day, the day of Purim, is set aside for preparation for a big party. We prepare a gift of food for friends. Families exchange prepared treats, often delivered in baskets. Everyone prepares costumes and food for a big party.
In the evening the party begins with wine and meat and other foods. The most important food of Purim is the hamentaschen, the triangular cookies with fruit filling (date, prune, apricot, raspberry, strawberry, peach, or whatever kind you like).
There is a verse in Esther which says, “These were to be days of banqueting, happiness, sending gifts to one another, and providing for the poor” (9:22). The word “banqueting” is actually the word drinking. The rabbis took this as a command to drink alcohol on Purim. Thus, it says in Talmud:
Rava said: It is one’s duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman’ (cursed be Haman) and ‘barukh Mordekhai’ (blessed be Mordecai)” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b).
Because of the many dangers of drinking, this Jewish tradition is the subject of controversy. This is a subject debated within Judaism as well. The Talmud has another story which is a sort of fable about the dangers of drinking on Purim:
Rabbah and R. Zeira got together for Purim Seudah (the feast on the afternoon of Purim). They got very drunk, and Rabbah got up and cut R. Zeira’s throat (literally, Rabbah butchered him). The next day, Rabbah prayed on R. Zeira’s behalf and brought him back to life. A year later, Rabbah asked, “Would you like to have Purim Seudah with me again this year?” R. Zeira replied, “One cannot count on a miracle every time.” (Megillah 7b)
I am no Talmud scholar, but my sense is to take stories like these as fables and not intended to be literally believed. One interpretation about the literal meaning behind the story is that Rabbah had encouraged Zeira to drink too much so that Zeira’s life was in danger. But Rabbah took care of his friend through the night and restored his health. The point would seem to be: drunkenness is dangerous and we can’t count on a miracle to save us from bad choices.
Therefore, the famous drinking on Purim should be handled with care to be sure no sword is put in anyone’s hand.
Why does this historical commemoration call for such wild celebration? It is the kind of celebration you would expect to occur if your people and nation were targeted for destruction but saved by a miracle.
But where is the miracle of Purim, you might ask, if you have read the story of Esther. God doesn’t do a thing. There is no parting of a sea or sign in the sun and moon. Precisely. Purim is about the hidden miracles of history. God does not usually show his hand and the book of Esther goes out of its way not to bring God directly into the story. This is to teach us that God’s hand is hidden, but always present. We must learn to have faith without sight. God is that “other quarter” from which help arises unseen (Esther 4:14).