Tuesday, 6 March 2012


“Wherefore they called these days Purim after the name of Pur. Therefore for all the words of this letter, and [of that] which they had seen concerning this matter, and which had come unto them.” - The Old Testament: Esther 9:26

Happy Purim to all my Jewish readers! Purim is one of the most entertaining and joyous of Jewish holidays.  This festival commemorates the time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination by the courage of a young Jewish woman called Esther. The main commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther is known as the Megillah, which means scroll. Although there are five books of Jewish scripture that can be called megillahs - Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations, The Book of Esther is the one people usually mean when they speak of the Megillah.

The Megillah relates the basic story of Purim. Under the rule of King Ahashuerus (Artaxerxes), Haman, the King’s prime minister, plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. The word Pûrîm means “lots”, from the word “pur”, related to Akkadian “pūru”. The lots referred to here relate to the casting of lots by Haman to choose the date on which the massacre of the Jews would occur, and Haman decreed this to be the thirteenth of the month of Adar. Haman’s plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of the land from destruction.

The story of Esther is read both on the eve of Purim and also on Purim itself. If Purim falls on the Sabbath, the Megillah is read on the Thursday evening and Friday morning before Purim. The synagogue is crowded with men, women, and children. Some wear their best Sabbath clothes, but many dress up in colourful costumes and masks. Everyone in the synagogue boos, hisses, stamps their feet and uses noisemakers (called graggers) and cymbals whenever the name of Haman is mentioned during the service. The purpose of this custom is to blot out the name of Haman. Originally, when Haman’s name was read, the congregation would shout “Cursed be Haman” or “May the name of the wicked rot!” But nowadays any noise will do!

It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays and parodies (“Purim Shpiel”), and to hold beauty contests. Americans sometimes refer to Purim as the Jewish Mardi Gras. Children in particular, enjoy dressing up as the characters found in the Book of Esther, including King Artaxerxes, Vashti, Queen Esther, Mordecai and Haman. Purim is not subject to the restrictions on work that affect some other holidays; however, some sources indicate that Jews should not go about their ordinary business at Purim out of respect for the festival.

The day before Purim some Jews observe a minor fast day known as the Fast of Esther. It is a “minor” one as the fast lasts from sunrise to sunset. During this period both food and drink are off limits. As part of the celebration many Jews will enjoy a festive meal called the Purim se’udah (meal). There are no particular foods that must be served at this holiday meal, though dessert will usually include triangular shaped cookies called hamantaschen.  These cookies are filled with fruit marmalade or poppy seeds and are a treat people look forward to every year.  Originally called “mundtaschen,” meaning “poppyseed pocket,” the word “hamantaschen” is Yiddish for “Haman’s pockets.” In Israel they are called “oznei Haman,” meaning “Haman’s ears.”

One of the more unusual food customs associated with Purim comes in the form of a commandment that says adult Jews should drink wine until they can no longer tell the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman. This tradition stems largely from a desire to celebrate how the Jewish people survived, despite Haman’s plot. Many, though not all, Jewish adults participate in this tradition. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin puts it: “After all, how often can one do something normally regarded as wrong, and be credited with fulfilling a commandment?”

Purim is an unusual holiday in many respects. First, Esther is the only Book of the Bible in which God is not mentioned. Second, Purim, like Chanukah, is viewed traditionally as a minor festival, but elevated to a major holiday as a result of the Jewish historical experience. Over the centuries, Haman became the embodiment of every anti-Semite in every land where Jews were oppressed. The significance in Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become - a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival against all odds.

The illustration above is from a painting of “Purim Shpiel” by Boris Shapiro. He was born in 1968 in Luvov, Ukraine. He completed his studies in 1985 at the Luvov Fine Art School where he specialised in antique restoration. Upon his release from the army in 1987 he began working in his field, which greatly influenced the progress of his career. Following his immigration to Israel in 1991, he enrolled in the Graphic Department of the Visual Arts College in Beer Sheva. After experimenting with different media and style, Boris began developing his naïve style based upon the 16th - 17th century Small Dutch School of the likes of Peter Brueghel. Having come from the non-humorous, non-individualistic, former Soviet Union, Boris expresses the humour, irony, and simplicity of life. His portraits are whimsical; the colors are usually earth tones, symbolizing the down to earthiness of everyday life. Even such worldly “events” like the story of Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the Whale, etc. take upon themselves simple earthly expression, as the common people of the 17th century would have envisioned.

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