Purim: The Feast of Lots
In Chapter 23 of Leviticus, the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘The feasts of the Lord which you shall claim to be holy convocations, these are My feasts.’” He proceeds to explain each of the seven feasts of Israel and their “appointed times.” These feasts have been celebrated by the Jewish people from biblical times until the present, throughout their generations, just as the Lord commanded.
However, there are also other feasts that have been celebrated from that time until the present. The best known of these feasts is the “Feast of Purim,” also known as the “Feast of Lots.” The Feast of Purim has its origin in the time of Esther when King Ahasuerus was king of Persia between 484-464 BCE. Hence, it is also known as the “Feast of Esther.” The name, “Purim” is the plural form derived from the word, “Pur,” meaning “lot.”
“Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus—the people of Mordecai. . . . They cast Pur (lot) before Haman to determine the day and the month until it fell on the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar” (Esther 3:6-7). Adar corresponds to our months of February or March.
Purim is a joyful holiday. In synagogues, the entire Book of Esther is read from a parchment scroll called the megillah, which means “rolled up.” Although God’s name is not mentioned, in no Book of the Bible is His presence more manifest on every page—especially in protecting and preserving His Covenant People.
The Book of Esther opens with a feast given by King Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes. When he orders his wife, Queen Vashti, to appear, she refuses and is thus deposed. King Ahasuerus holds out his golden scepter to choose Esther as his queen because of her great natural beauty. Unbeknownst to the King, Esther is a Jewish maiden whose cousin, Mordecai, “was sitting at the king’s gate.” When Mordecai learned of a plot to slay the king, he warned Esther, who took a risk by approaching the king without being summoned. She revealed the plot to the king and the king’s life was saved.
Haman, the Prime Minister of Persia, walked through the “gates of the city” and demanded that every knee bow down to him. But Mordecai refused to “bend his knee” to anyone but the One True God—Jehovah! This infuriated Haman, so he began his attempt to annihilate God’s Chosen People by planning the extermination of all Jewish people and erecting a gallow upon which to hang Mordecai. When Esther revealed Haman’s plot to King Ahasuerus, he issued a new decree permitting the Jewish people to defend themselves against their enemies. Thousands of enemies were slaughtered as the Jewish people fought to protect themselves. Thus, Haman’s diabolical scheme was foiled, and Israel was saved. In the end, Haman and his 10 sons were hanged on the gallows that were prepared for Mordecai.
Today, when the megillah is read in the synagogues and in homes on Purim, people cheer, whistle, and clap whenever the names of Queen Esther or Mordecai are mentioned. But when Haman’s name is mentioned, people boo, bang on pots and pans, stamp their feet, and twirl their groggers (noisemakers). They rejoice in witnessing God’s faithfulness to His Chosen People. The Jewish people still exist. Israel will never cease to be.
“Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for a light by day, The ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, Who disturbs the sea, And its waves roar (the Lord of hosts is His name): If those ordinances depart From before Me, says the Lord, Then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever” (Jer. 31:35).
If the “scepter” had not been held out to Esther, she would never have become Queen, nor could she have approached her king. She and the Jewish people would have perished. Today, the “scepter” is a Person, extended to both Jew and Gentile alike. “A scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17). That “scepter” is the promised Messiah, Jesus, who became incarnate approximately 2,000 years ago. By His sacrificial death and resurrection He provides redemption for all who receive Him—and an audience with God, the Father!
THE 14th OF ADAR
Traditionally, Purim is one of the most fun and joy-filled celebrations on the Jewish calendar. Though it is generally seen as a holiday of lesser significance (compared to Passover or Yom Kippur), Purim is still an important celebration for the Jewish people.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which, on the secular calendar, usually occurs in March (but sometimes in February). Because the 13th day of Adar was the day that Haman decreed the extermination of the Jewish people, the 14th day is the day of celebrating survival and victory.
“Therefore the Jews of the villages who dwelt in the unwalled towns celebrated the fourteenth day of the month of Adar with gladness and feasting, as a holiday, and for sending presents to one another” (Esther 9:19).
The holiday of Purim is typically preceded by a minor fast (the Fast of Esther), which takes place on the 13th of Adar—the date when Haman was to have the Jews massacred. This fast relates back to the three days Esther fasted and prayed before she approached the king to make an intercession for her people. Some Jews fast for the full three days before Purim, and others only fast on the day before—both of which are acceptable.
Purim’s first and primary command is to conduct a public reading of the Book of Esther, known as the Megillah. (There are five books of Jewish scripture that are referred to as megillahs. but Esther is usually the book people reference when they say “The Megillah.”) During this reading, the audience cheers when one of the hero’s names is mentioned (i.e. Esther or Mordecai) and boos, stomps, and uses noisemakers to drown out the name of Haman, the villain. The purpose of this custom is to “blot out the name of Haman.”
Purim’s second custom is to “eat, drink, and be merry.”
“As the days on which the Jews had rest from their enemies, as the month which was turned from sorrow to joy for them, and from mourning to a holidday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, of sending presents to one to another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22).
On the day of Purim, a festive and traditional meal is held, called the Se’udat Purim. Drinking wine is featured prominently during this feast, and is required to maintain the holiday’s jovial nature. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai,” but should not become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or become ill. (Of course, recovering alcoholics are exempted from this rule.)
SENDING OF PORTIONS
The third custom of Purim is to give food, drink, and charity to the poor. According to halakha (the collective body of religious laws for the Jewish people), every adult is required to give two different foods (shalach manos ) to one person, and two charitable donations (mitzvah ) to two poor people.
The mitzvah can be fulfilled by either giving food or an amount of money equivalent to purchase the same food eaten at a regular meal. Traditionally speaking, it is better to spend more on the mitzvah than on the shalach manos.
In the synagogue, collections of charity are made during this festival celebration, and the money is later distributed among the poor and needy. Also note: anyone willing to accept charity is allowed to participate, thus somewhat blurring the definition of “poor.”
HAMENTASCHEN, FAZUELOS, and KREPLACH
A traditional treat among the Ashkenazi Jews during this celebration is a triangular, fruit-filled cookie that represents Haman’s three-cornered hat. These cookies, referred to as hamentaschen, or “Haman’s pockets,” are made by cutting sweet pastry dough into circles, and wrapping a traditional poppy seed filling into the center of its triangular shape (with the filling either hidden or showing). More recently, prunes, dates, apricots, and chocolate fillings have been introduced.
Among the Sephardic Jews, a fried pastry, called fazuelos, is traditionally eaten, as well as a range of baked or fried pastries called orejas de Haman (Haman’s ears).
Kreplach is a kind of dumpling filled with cooked meat, chicken, or liver; it’s traditionally served in soup. “Hiding” the meat inside the dumpling serves as another reminder of God’s “hiddenness” (as he seemingly works “behind the scenes”)throughout the story of Esther.
A masquerade is another Purim custom. The practice of donning a costume and/or mask originated with the Italian Jews at the end of the 15th century. Masquerading is not only a form of merry-making (a commandment on this holiday), but also originated as a way to emulate G-d, who “disguised” His presence behind the natural and seemingly coincidental events described in the Book of Esther. Since charity is also a central feature of this day, the donning of masks and costumes further preserves the anonymity of the giver and the dignity of the recipient.
Berger, V. (2011). Purim: The Feast of Lots. Messianic Perspectives, Jan.-Feb. 2011, p. 10.