Jews around the world will be celebrating Purim on Thursday. The celebration includes a reading of the Book of Esther, one of the wonderful stories enshrined in the Jewish and Christian bibles.
Quite a story it is, worthy of any Shakespeare drama, "House of Cards" or a daytime soap opera.
• There is a Persian king, Ahasuerus, who likes his wine and showing off the women in his harem.
• There is a queen, Vashti, who refuses the king’s order to show her beauty to the whole court, and suffers banishment for her refusal.
• There is a Jewish man, Mordecai, who has raised his orphaned cousin, Hadassah. Mordecai promotes her beauty as worthy of succeeding Vashti as queen, which she does, taking the royal name of Esther. Mordecai advises Hadassah not to reveal her Jewishness, lest it hold her back in winning the king’s favor.
• Then there is an evil government official, Haman, who is vain and hungry for wealth and power. Mordecai overhears a plot against the king. He tells Esther, who tells Ahasuerus. The plotters hang, but there is no reward for Mordecai the Jew. Mordecai later offends Haman by not bowing during one of his processions through the capital.
From here, the plot thickens, as Haman vows revenge.
Haman convinces Ahasuerus that Mordecai and all the Jews of the kingdom should be punished by death for refusing to pay homage to their rulers.
To date for punishing the Jews of the kingdom was determined by tossing objects, possibly rocks. These are now translated as "lots," which in Hebrew is "purim," thus the name of the festival.
The date chosen by casting lots was the middle of the last month of the year, Adar. The order went out to the 127 provinces of the kingdom, from India to Ethiopia.
Mordecai and the Jews of the kingdom went into mourning, as did Esther when she heard of the decree.
At Mordecai’s urging, Esther ignored court protocol and entered the king’s chambers. Her husband, being pleased with her, offers her anything — up to half the kingdom. Esther simply asked that Ahasuerus and Haman attend a banquet the next day.
Haman was delighted and bragged to his family that he had not only found favor with the king, but also the queen. Little did he know the trap Esther had laid for him.
Esther arranged another banquet, and asked Haman what honor should be bestowed upon a man who had specially distinguished himself on behalf of the kingdom. Haman, believing the man were he, recommended a lavish ceremony.
Esther them reminded Ahasuerus that it was Mordecai who had revealed the plot against the king, and he should be honored. Esther also revealed that if Haman’s decree were to be fulfilled, it would be her people who would suffer.
Ahasuerus not only cancels the decree, but also orders Haman hanged on the very gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai. The previously rather obscure Jew takes the place of Haman in the government.
Now you have the whole "megillah," Jewish for the "whole story." This will be told on Purim, a joyous holiday.
Children are encouraged to be raucous and unruly while the story is told. Each one has a holiday noisemaker, a "gragger," that is sounded each time Haman’s name is mentioned.
In some congregations, Haman’s name is written on the soles of everyone’s shoes, which are stomped loudly each time the evil name is read.
A time for gift-giving
Purim is also a time for giving gifts to family and friends, and also to the poor of the community. This follows the custom started in the days of Esther and Mordecai to make this a time of rejoicing and giving of "shalach monos," or gifts, to each other and to the poor.
American Jews have chosen Hanukkah for giving gifts, because this holiday comes close to Christmas. It would not be surprising for Jewish children to remind their parents of this tradition for Purim, as well.
A special treat during Purim is a pastry called "hamantashen." These are little cakes filled with fruits and nuts, maybe another sweet, and shaped in a triangle.
Some say the shape comes from Haman’s tri-corner hat (no offense to the tea party), while others believe it is the shape of Haman’s ears (Mr. Spock might protest the latter).
Some congregations conduct plays in which children take on the roles of Esther, Ahasuerus, Mordecai and Haman. If there are enough Jewish people in a neighborhood, children will dress up as Purim figures and knock on doors for gifts, much like Halloween.
Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on Jewish history and the Middle East.