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Celebrating Purim In Israel

Purim has to be experienced in Israel. It’s like a Jewish Halloween, April Fool’s and St. Patrick’s Day rolled into one. Celebrated by religious and secular Jews alike, it is a day where companies and people play good-natured pranks (fake headlines, upside-down logos, silly expressions on buses) and kids – and adults – dress up. It is a day of incredible feasts (and a fair amount of drinking). It is a day where we exchange gifts with friends, creating goodwill. And it is a day where we give to the poor.

What is Purim All About?

Let’s understand the basic story first:

G-d saves the Jewish people from the barbaric Persian King Ahasuerus and his henchman, Haman. But G-d’s name is not mentioned once in the Megillah, or scroll, that tells the detailed story of the Jews in Persia and is read twice on Purim to commemorate the miraculous salvation. What is that all about? Why would G-d hide Himself in this story?

A Deeper Dive Into The Meaning Of Purim

Introducing the bad guys:

The Purim story happened during the reign of King Ahasuerus, in the 4th century BCE. Ahasuerus ruled the Persian Empire, including all the Jews, with an iron fist. His empire extended from India to Ethiopia. Although not of royal descent, he was able to marry Vashti, the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, because of the riches and power he amassed through successful war campaigns and pillaging, including the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jewish prophets had predicted that the Temple would be rebuilt within 70 years of its destruction, and the former King Cyrus of Persia had even issued a decree allowing the Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. But King Ahasuerus mistrusted the Jews and – when those 70 years expired – he gave a six-month-long party to celebrate, feeling secure that the Jews - and their G-d - were no longer a threat to his empire.

Ahasuerus and his advisors got the date wrong, which meant the second Temple would indeed be rebuilt, and the rest, as they say, is history!

The Story of Purim: A Hidden Miracle

Let’s get to the good guys:

G-d saved the Jews through the unlikely role of a courageous, kind, and modest woman named Esther. Her name is very similar to the Hebrew word, hester, which means hidden, and so much of the story of Purim is about the hidden miracles we celebrate:

  • Esther hides her identity (e.g. her Jewishness) from King Ahasuerus

  • Esther, a shy, unadorned girl “happens” to be chosen Queen of half the world by King Ahasuerus

  • Esther suggests King Ahasuerus appoint a Jewish advisor as other previous Persian Kings had done, and it just so happens to be Mordechai, Esther’s cousin

  • Mordechai “happens” to overhear the plot to kill King Ahasuerus, which is then written down in the Royal Chronicles

Once all these seeming coincidences are in place, the salvation of the Jews is set in motion at the same time that Haman, the evil advisor to the King who hates the Jews, thinks he is planning their annihilation.

  • Mordechai won’t bow down to Haman which increases Haman’s hatred for the Jews

  • Haman, under the auspices of King Ahasuerus, decrees the 13th of Adar (a Jewish month) as the day all Jews will be exterminated (!!)

  • Haman builds a gallows to hang Mordechai, thinking he is going to end up second to the King.

But then, more hidden miracles:

  • Esther goes to King Ahasuerus on Mordechai’s counsel and the King miraculously allows her to approach, despite him not having called her to his rooms

  • King Ahasuerus has his attendants read from the Royal Chronicles one night when he “can’t sleep” and they “happen” to tell him about Mordechai saving the King

  • Every Jew throughout Persia fasts and repents to be spared from annihilation

  • Esther reveals to King Ahasuerus, her husband, that she is Jewish and that Haman plans to kill her and all the Jews. Ahasuerus, who loves her, supports her request to be saved and for her people, the Jews, to be spared as well

  • Haman gets hung on the gallows instead of Mordechai

This illusion of total destruction in the face of complete salvation is the overarching theme of everything we do to celebrate Purim.

  • We wear costumes and masks to emphasize that what we can see isn’t always the reality.

  • The drinking adds to our merriment but also makes us inured to the idea of our annihilation so we can be grateful for the salvation.

  • We celebrate our good fortune by helping others, giving money to the poor, and gifts of food to our friends to increase goodwill and happiness

  • We have a big meal with family and friends to emphasize that our future is always secure.

How To Celebrate Purim

Purim is an everlasting holiday for the Jewish people, never to be abolished. Although G-d is not mentioned once in the Megillah, we come to understand the divine and hidden Hand of G-d that orchestrates the salvation and ultimate destiny of the Jewish people.

On Purim, we gather to celebrate how G-d is involved in each of our lives; how He is always taking care of us and setting events into motion in a way that will set us up for the ultimate salvation.

Everyone in Israel celebrates Purim. Schools and offices are closed for this national holiday, and streets are filled with costumed and festooned people. Every city has special street parties and events.

Shops are filled with baskets called Mishloach Manot, ready to be purchased and given to friends and family. Synagogues are overflowing with parents and their children ready to spin their groggers at the mention of Haman’s name as the Megillah, the story of Purim is read.

People are tipsy and merry. They gather throughout Purim day to give each other Mishloach Manot, to celebrate G-d’s love for us with a sumptuous feast, and to give money and food to the poor to ensure everyone can celebrate, from young to old, from rich to poor. It’s a great time to be in Israel.

Make the most of Purim this year in Israel by checking out these celebrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Have a Chag Purim Sameach, and a Happy Purim!

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