As you are reading this, if you were to look at the Jewish (Lunar) calendar, you would see that today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Adar. Jews follow the rabbinic order, "Mi Shenichnas Adar, marbim b'simcha: When the month of Adar begins, one should increase joy." Adar is the month that contains the Feast of Lots, or Purim. This festival is a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period (539-330 BCE). The story of Purim is recounted in the Book of Esther, whose eponymous heroine plays the leading role in saving her people. The holiday is traditionally celebrated with wild abandon and with the giving of gifts to friends and the poor.
The obligation to "bring joy" presents somewhat of a quandary in these difficult times. In a world where daily we confront the problems of the pandemic, economic uncertainty and a vast political divide, how is it even possible that we can respond to the above rabbinic charge?
In distinction to various other holidays, such as Pesach (Passover), Purim is the quintessential community holiday. Nonetheless, there are a number of activities that are centered in the home. One of the favorite activities in preparation for the holiday is the baking of hamantaschen, the triangular filled pastries that are the traditional food at Purim time. In addition, following the commandment to give gifts to friends and the poor, the preparation of so-called mishloah manot baskets is a fun activity to engage in, as is their distribution on the holiday. Communally, Jews gather to hear the reading of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. Gatherings are also often accompanied by great spiels, or plays, reenacting the story or using the themes to spoof contemporary situations. Masks and costumes are worn. In synagogues, the decorum that usually accompanies Jewish worship is all but abandoned. One of the customs during the reading of Esther is to make loud noise whenever the name of Haman, the villain of the story, is mentioned.
In the Talmudic tractate devoted to Purim observances, Rabbi Akiva declares the Book of Esther to be divinely inspired. Some commentators believe this eventually led to the inclusion of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, despite the omission of God from the book. The Greek versions of Esther contain a number of additions -- including God's name -- not found in the Hebrew story.
The overriding theme of Purim is the saving of the Jews from a mortal threat. The holiday of Purim has become one of the best-loved holidays of the Jewish year. The reasons for this are easy to see. It is a joyous holiday on which everyone just lets go.
This year, let us understand that in the face of multiple adversities, there is hope. Just as back in ancient Persia, things will turn out well in the end, not just for the Jewish community, but for all people everywhere.
-- Samuel Radwine is the cantor for Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville and cantor emeritus of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Email him at [email protected]