Between Marc and my entry last week, this is the 3rd Purim post from SixDegrees. And as well as those posts expressed the spirit of Purim, I wanted to lay out all the customs and mitzvahs of this joyous and drunken holiday. Purim may seem like Jewish Halloween mixed with St. Patricks Day, but if you take a closer look you’ll see there’s more to it. So here is a quick guide for the ins and outs of the holiday.
Hearing the Megillah
First and foremost, one should read (or hear) the Book of Esther (known as Megallas Esther, see right) in its entirety. Both the first night and then again the following morning. The reading covers everything from the crazy party which lead to Esther becoming queen to the hanging of Haman. The reading can take anywhere between 20-45 minutes and every time the name Haman is read cries of “Boo!” and festive noise makers (known as graggars) are rattled off. Other important parts of the service include the brachos (blessings) over the Megillah itself, responsive readings of the “verses of redemption,” and the holding of ones breath over a particular passage.
The Festive Meal
As with most Jewish celebrations, there is a mitzvah associated with a meal. And for Purim the feast is known as a Seudah. Meat and wine are particularly appropriate. It starts during the day time but is common to go well into the night. And you’re encouraged to get drunk. It’s in the Talmud:
A person should drink on Purim until the point where he can’t tell the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman. Talmud – Megillah 7b; Code of Jewish Law 695:2.
However if one needs to sleep before reaching that point of inebriation, it is as if they’ve fulfilled the mitzvah. Because if you’re sleeping, you definitely can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman.
Gifts to Friends
Better known as Mishloach Manot, (literally sending of portions). To ensure everyone has enough to eat at their feast and also to spread good will among the fellow Jews, one is obligated to gift two items of food to at least one person. Food that is ready to eat is preferable. A common pastry given is the popular hamentashen, which resembles the wicked Haman’s hat. I’m just glad fedoras hadn’t been invented yet because those are much harder to make pastries out of. In the spirit of unity and simcha (happiness), this particular mitzvah is good for repairing damaged relationships by sending these gifts to one who harbors ill feelings.
Gifts to the Poor
Matanot l’Evyonim are by far the most important mitzvah of Purim. The act is a remembrance that the Jews were saved by the decree of Haman. And to honor that, we try to relate that miracle to those who need it most. Interesting to point out that in one secular costumed holiday, children are taught to beg for candy until they’ve amassed a hoard. While in Judaism the spirit is to give, not just to your friends, but to the poor as well. Two recipients are the minimum, but one should really go above and beyond. The Mantanot l’Evyonim should be the size of a meal (or money equivalent). Ideally the gifts should be given by messenger as the highest level of giving is to do so anonymously. And even the poor themselves should engage in this mitzvah, even if that means exchanging what they have received with another person.
So the above are mitzvahs (commandments) required to fulfill the holiday. However, customs or minhagim have given it bigger scope.
The Fast of Esther
On the day before Purim, Jews have a minor fast day (only half day opposed to a full 25 hour fast). No food or water until after the Meglliah reading to remember Esther’s fast of 3 days before she went to see king. Some do consider the fast a Rabbinical mitzvah (Rosh Megillah Chap.1 sub chap.8) while others argue that it is custom (Rambam Tannis chap. 5 law 5).
Likely the most famous custom in the holiday, there are many reasons for dressing up. As pointed out in the previous Purim posts, God is hidden in the story of Esther. So we mask ourselves to remember to look beneath the surface and see the daily miracles hidden in natural events. But dressing up is also done to remember that when the Jews were threatened with extermination, many had to “pretend” to be something they were not by bowing down to idols. Another reasons is that when King Ahasuerus remembered Mordechai had stopped his assassination, he dressed him in fine royal garments and so we commemorate that. Lastly, it is a reminder that we put on masks everyday, often times different masks for different people. And by drawing attention to that we realize our outward appearance is almost always a facade. So we should make the effort to “look behind the mask” and see the ourselves and the people we know for what we really are.
Half A Shekel
To round off the giving, everyone is to donate 3 half shekels (or 3 halves or your nation’s currency) as was done in the times of the Temple.
Other than Succos, there really isn’t a Jewish holiday so tied to the spirit of happiness. With any custom or tradition, it’s easy to get caught up in it all and forget the original intentions of the holiday. So, whether this will be your first Purim or you’ve been celebrating since preschool, remember to be safe, enjoy the festivities, give to others, and above all embrace the simcha of the day.