Purim Observances - The Serious and the Silly
As the day that celebrates the salvation of the physical existence of the Jewish people, Purim is the most physical of the festivals. Its observances include giving gifts of money to the poor, sending food portions to friends, and eating a sumptuous meal accompanied by drink in the closing hours of the festival.
- To relive the miraculous events of Purim, listen to the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther) twice: once on Purim eve, and again on Purim day.
It is crucial to hear every single word of the Megillah! At certain points in the reading where Haman's name is mentioned, it is customary to twirl graggers and stamp one's feet to "drown out" his evil name. Tell the children Purim is the only time when it's a mitzvahto make noise! This is one of the four Rabbinical commandments fulfilled twice during the holiday. Interestingly, we call it "reading" the Megillah when what we really do is "hear" the Megillah from the mouth of the one person reading it. Hearing isn't really enough and it's imperative to read the text along with the chanter of the Megillah. Many people customarily read along personally from a "kosher" Megillah flawlessly written on parchment.
There is the standard chant that differs from the regular cantillation for reading the Torah or Haftorah. Because there is an element of entertainment in the reading, there are some congregations in which the cantor uses a different "voice" or intonation for the various main characters in the Megillah: the narrator, King Ahasverus, Haman, Mordechai, and Esther. In the Jewish communities in Italy, it was a custom for people to break clay pots and shout, "And He shall break it as a potter's vessel is broken" (Isaiah 30:14). In Ismir, Turkey, they would write the name of Haman on the head of a hammer and pound with it. I guess that by now you get the point of this Haman thing. If not, you certainly can't miss it when you go to the synagogue. In some services, it is customary to hiss also when Zeresh, Haman's wife, is mentioned. On a side note, there is a tradition that holds that every beat of every hammer, foot, and noisemaker in response to Haman's name is felt by him over in Hell. Who knows, but it sounds good!
- Give tzedaka to at least two (but preferably more) needy individuals on Purim day. The mitzvahis best fulfilled by giving directly to the needy. If, however, you cannot find poor people, place at least several coins into a tzedaka box. As in the other mitzvot of Purim, even children should fulfill this mitzvah.
The solution in many synagogues is the central collection idea: everyone gives on Purim and it is redistributed to those in need. This way, the givers and the receivers remain anonymous to each other, which is one of the highest forms of charitable distribution (according to Maimonides). Maimonides also said in relation to Purim: "It is better for a man to increase gifts to the poor than to enlarge his feast and to increase gifts to his friends. For there is no greater and more wonderful joy than to make happy the hearts of the poor..."
- Send food portions to friends (mishloach manot). On Purim we emphasize the importance of Jewish unity and friendship by sending gifts of food to friends. This is the second of four Purim-related commandments; this custom could be literally translated as the delivery of a portion (of food). It entails sending 2 types of food to one person. Anything beyond that is extra-credit (or extra expense). Of course, one can be creative with this and not be limited to sending the standard hamentashen, fruit and wine. Sometimes a community member would be paid to deliver the mishloach manot among the various families. Today, many people have so many friends and people to whom to send gifts. As a solution, many small communities (including Israeli kibbutzim or local synagogues) host a lottery the week before Purim in which each family randomly selects another family to which they deliver their package on Purim. This saves not only on money but also on potentially insulting someone. In many congregations, both to fulfill the mitzvahand as a fundraiser, the synagogue will deliver mishloach manot to any member on your pre-determined list at a set price.
- Eat, drink and be merry. It is a mitzvahto drink wine or other inebriating drinks at the Purim meal.
The fourth Rabbinic decree that must be fulfilled on Purim is the seudah. Sometime during the day of Purim, families and friends gather for a sumptuous meal with drinks. This repast tends to last into the night. If you think that's enough, you should have attended the seudah in the Jewish communities of the Arab countries. There they started the partying on the eve of Purim right after the reading of the Megillah, and continued until after daybreak. Then, after the morning prayers and Megillah reading, it started again and lasted until nightfall. In Yemen, there was special emphasis on the superiority of the food. The goal was to make a feast fit for kings with the best delicacies available. They would also sing the songs of ALL of the Jewish holidays to liven up the scene. In some communities, during the seudah, actors would visit the homes of the wealthy and put on Purim plays that included jokes and parodies. In return they were paid in money and holiday goodies.
- The Fast of Esther. To commemorate the day of prayer and fasting that the Jewish people held at Esther's request, we fast on the day before Purim -- this year from approximately an hour before sunrise until nightfall (approximately 40 minutes after sunset).
- The "Half Coins" (Machatzit HaShekel). It is a tradition to give three half-dollar coins to charity to commemorate the half-shekel that each Jew contributed as his share in the communal offerings in the time of the Holy Temple. This custom, usually performed in the synagogue, is done on the afternoon of the "Fast of Esther," or before the reading of the Megillah.
- Purim Customs: Masquerades and Hamantashen. Masking it up! This is by no means a commandment, but it's fun! Because the main theme of Purim is that things didn't turn out as they seemed they would, it became the custom to dress up and mask one's own identity. A time-honored Purim custom is to dress up and disguise oneself - an allusion to the fact that the miracle of Purim was disguised in natural garments. This is also the significance behind a traditional Purim food, the hamantashen - a pastry whose filling is hidden within a three-cornered crust. Hamantashen and kreplach, both with their fillings hidden inside, allude to the hidden nature of the Purim miracle. On a lighter note, the three-pointed hamantashen are said to evoke Haman's three-pointed hat or his triangular ears.
- Shushan Purim. The specific day on which Purim is celebrated depends on the location. Why were different days established as Purim in different cities? Why wasn't one day chosen as Purim in all cities, just as other festivals are celebrated on the same day in every city? In Shushan, the battle took place on the thirteenth and fourteenth of Adar and the people rested and celebrated only on the fifteenth. It was therefore proper that only the city of Shushan should celebrate on the fifteenth of Adar, for it was only there that Purim was celebrated on that day. Today only Jerusalem celebrates Purim on the 15th, Shushan Purim.
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