Purim! Is there a more festive celebration in the entire Jewish world? No indeed! Purim is a foot-stomping, shouting, eating, singing, joking Jewish carnival for all ages. The Book of Esther provides the background and Jewish tradition has taken it from there. Throughout the world, Purim is celebrated in many ways, as Jewish people from many cultures have infused their festivities with their own particular local customs.
But along with the differences, there is a continuity that is solidly based in the Scripture and the story it tells of God’s deliverance through the bravery and obedience of His chosen servants.
The Four Mitzvot (Commandments) of Purim
The rabbis have identified four main commandments to be observed on Purim by Jewish people wherever they might live. The first is the reading of Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther), which is done aloud in the synagogue service. But if you’re thinking of a solemn religious service, forget about it!
The children in the service bring groggers (noisemakers) into the service and whenever the villain Haman’s name is mentioned, they make as much noise as possible to blot out his name and his memory. Also Esther 9:7-10, which lists the names of Haman’s ten sons, is read in a single breath (you should try this!) to emphasize that they died together.
The other three commandments are sending food gifts to friends, giving money to the poor, and eating a special holiday meal in celebration of the deliverance of the Jewish people from Haman’s plot to destroy them.
Purimshpiel – Another Purim Tradition
Do you remember an “Upside Down Day” at school or camp, when students changed places with teachers and performed skits they never would have dared to do on any other day of the year? Purim is something like that, for on Purim “nothing is as it seems.”
Colorful costumes and skits have been a part of Purim for about 600 years. Beginning in 15th century Europe, the Ashkenazi (German and Eastern European) Jews celebrated Purim with funny monologues or short plays called shpiels-a Yiddish word meaning “plays” or “skits.” On Purim, these became known as Purimshpiels. One might almost trace the beginning of “stand-up comedy” to these early demonstrations of the Jewish gift of humorous gab.
As the centuries passed, these became more elaborate, and today some synagogues treat them almost like Broadway productions, complete with scenery, costumes and professional-caliber scripts. Also, subjects may include not only characters from the Book of Esther, but also popular Bible stories such as David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac and a host of others.
Purim Festivities Around the World
Jewish communities around the world have developed Purim traditions with a local flavor. Here are some examples of how various Jewish communities in different countries have celebrated Purim.
In France, children would inscribe Haman’s name on smooth stones and strike them together repeatedly during the Megillah reading whenever his name was mentioned. At the end of the reading, Haman’s name would be worn off the stones. Elsewhere, people write the name of Haman on the soles of their shoes and stomp their feet at the sound of Haman’s name.
In the 18th century city of Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany, Jewish people would fashion wax figures of Haman and his wife Zeresh with wicks inside. As the reading of the Megillah commenced, the wicks were lit. As the congregation heard the story of Haman’s undoing, they could also watch as Haman and Zeresh melted away into nothingness.
The Jewish people in the Yemenite town of Asaddeh would use rags to make a large effigy of Haman, which they would place on a donkey. Then the children would lead the donkey around the town, and families from every house they stopped at would give them good things to eat. Elsewhere in Yemen, the effigy of Haman would resemble a scarecrow, with beads for eyes, a false beard and colorful rags for clothes. “Haman” would then be placed on a wooden cart led by a horse, while the children proclaimed, “Thus shall be done to the wicked Haman.”
The Jewish community of Bukhara was often still in the throes of winter during Purim. There, the people would build an enormous “snow-Haman” near the synagogue with carrot nose and charcoal eyes. He was then adorned by an official-looking “gold chain” of watermelon peels that hung over his stomach. A cracked pot for his head completed his outfit. After the meal, a bonfire was started close by and the community gathered to sing songs as they watched snow-Haman melt away in the heat.
In Lithuania, Purim coincided with the end of the winter school term for Yeshiva students, which would of course add to the already high spirits. After the Purim meal, the Rosh haYeshiva (Head of the Yeshiva) would open his home and the Yeshiva students would perform their Purimshpiel. Then one of the students was selected to be the “Purim Rabbi.”
Wearing the clothing of the Rosh haYeshiva, the Purim Rabbi would teach the lesson of the day, while the real Rosh haYeshiva would take his place among the rest of the students. The Purim Rabbi would use Talmudic method to support the most absurd arguments, all the while giving the rabbis and the most dignified townspeople a good-natured teasing.
Purim’s Deeper Lessons
As hilarious a festival as Purim is, there is an underlying serious meaning in all the mischief. It is that all through history, the Jewish people have been a powerless and vulnerable underdog. Throughout the centuries, Jewish communities have seldom had anything more than a tenuous foothold in many societies. This is why we celebrate our triumphs so whole-heartedly-they are so few and far between. This is why we make so much of laughter, for so often, it has been the only weapon we have had to fend off the hatred of a world that has repeatedly threatened to swallow us up.
The festivities of Purim remind us that our God is faithful – even when His presence is not easy to discern. Nonetheless, although we have suffered much, we live in hope.
After all, by God’s grace, we have outlasted all the Hamans who have come against us – and through His promises, we always shall!