What is Purim Really All About?
Purim is a holiday notorious for garish costume wearing, giving and receiving candy baskets, eating triangular shaped pastries (Hamentashen) and hearing a reading of Megilat Esther. But how many mitzvot does the holiday actually contain? What are they? What exactly are we celebrating anyways?
Well, first and foremost, the holiday of Purim is not to be overlooked or deemed as a ‘minor holiday’. In fact, we learn in Mishlei that in the days of the Messiah, all holidays as well as books of Nevi'im and Ketuvim will be erased, except for Purim and Megilat Esther. Hence, it’s more than just an excuse to walk out of the house in our favorite costume (or pajamas…).
The History of Purim
Now for a quick historical background - there were Jews living in Shushan (modern day Iran), in the early years of the Second Temple. They lived under the rule of King Achashverosh (say that five times fast!), who was the ruler over 127 nations. Unfortunately, not for the first or last time in Jewish history, these Jews began assimilating and drifting away from Jewish tradition. In Megilat Esther, we stumble across several lines such as: ( אִ֣ישׁ יְהוּדִ֔י הָיָ֖ה בְּשׁוּשַׁ֣ן הַבִּירָ֑ה (ב:ה - “There was A JEW in the capital of Shushan”, which hint at the fact that the Jewish people had lost their identity and stopped practicing Judaism altogether.
Tragically, the highest ranked minister below the king known as Haman, developed a plot to ‘destroy, massacre, and exterminate’ all of the Jewish people. At first, the King approved of this plan, without realizing that his new, beloved beautiful queen is herself a Jew, Queen Esther. Later, Esther is successful in convincing King Achashverosh to reverse the decree and ultimately change the fate of the Jews, saving them from imminent death.
The Jewish people were dangerously close to being annihilated. To acknowledge the incredible miracles that Hashem performed in preventing that, Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar (15th of Adar in Jerusalem and other walled cities).
The 4 Mitzvot of Purim
There are four mitzvot associated with Purim:
Giving mishloach manot: food packages to friends or family
Matanot l'evyonim: donating food or meals to the needy,
Purim seudah: partaking in a festive meal
Hearing Megilat Esther twice: once at night and once in the morning the following day.
The entire month of Adar is supposed to be enjoyed and especially happy: משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה.
Why Do We Dress Up?
As to why we dress up and wear costumes on Purim, well there isn’t a single clear answer, let’s explore several possible reasons.
There are those who say it is symbolic to the fact that regardless of how much we assimilate and stray from Judaism (our truest selves) we will always remain Jewish in our core and assimilation is just like dressing up like others around us, which is temporary and not our reality.
Another explanation is the fact that the story of Queen Esther is filled with miracles and a shocking turn of events, such as the fact that the gallows originally intended for killing Mordechai ended up hanging none other than Haman himself, thus to commemorate this craziness, we dress up.
The core Mitzvah of the holiday is giving to the poor and there are some who say to eliminate their embarrassment while receiving handouts, we wear silly costumes.
A final idea is that Queen Esther hid her true identity of being Jewish from King Achashverosh until she needed to rescue her people, only then unmasking the fact she too was Jewish. Just like how she masked her identity, we walk around wearing the best masks (insert Covid-19 jokes here) and funniest costumes we can find.
Purim is a fun holiday, where people of all ages receive the perfect excuse to dress up, act silly, be happy, and fulfill multiple mitzvot along the way. Chag Sameach!!
Jake Kostman is an alumnus of Thrive Study Abroad from fall 2016, he is currently living and learning in Israel.