As winter becomes spring, Jews celebrate Purim, originally one of several spring-welcoming festivals. First and foremost, Purim is fun, joyous, and boisterous. But even hilarity must fit within a framework.
The Megilla lists four ways to celebrate Purim: reading the Megilla, giving charity, giving gifts of food, and eating the festive meal. The hamantashen, the three-cornered filled cookie, remains the food of choice for Purim.
In The Beginning . . .
On one level, the Purim story represents the annual struggle to end the harsh reign of winter. The original characters appear to have been Babylonian gods: Ishtar, the goddess of fertility; Marduk, the chief guardian of the heavens; and Haman, the underworld devil. Ishtar and Haman, life and death, vie with each other for supremacy. Ishtar triumphs; spring returns; and life is renewed. Yahveh, the Hebrew God, played no part in the celebration, which was filled with theatrical renditions of the contest. Noisemaking and masquerading were necessary to trick the evil gods and to aid the good ones. Sexual orgies promoted fertility. Merriment was the order of the day.
The Megilla, or biblical Book of Esther, replaced Ishtar and Marduk with Jewish mortals (Esther and Mordecai); Haman became a Persian “devil.” The holiday’s name, “Purim,” meaning “lots” or “dice,” is meant to remind us of how the evil character Haman drew lots to determine the fate of the Jews of Persia. According to the Book of Esther, were it not for the goodness and intervention of Esther and her uncle Mordecai in the court of King Ahasuerus, the Jews certainly would have been exterminated by the king’s vizier Haman. Purim became the joyous celebration of an epic Jewish victory over anti-Semitism and threatened annihilation – an enactment of the hopes of persecuted Jews throughout the centuries.
At first, because of the Book of Esther’s secular nature – it is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God – it was excluded from the sacred canon. It is likely that political conflict between the rabbis and the Maccabees brought the Book of Esther into the Bible and Purim into the official Jewish calendar. Uncomfortable with Purim but faced with a festival that the people would not abandon, the rabbinic leaders found a way to suit it to their purposes. On the thirteenth of Adar, the day before Purim, Jews celebrated Nicanor’s Day, commemorating a major Maccabean victory over a Greek general named Nicanor. The rabbis, to minimize the influence of their rivals, the Maccabees, turned Nicanor’s Day into the Fast of Esther, immediately preceding Purim, and gave the playful folk holiday their grudging blessing. Nicanor’s Day disappeared and Purim grew more popular. Purim shpiels (plays) and satires allowed ordinary people to “sass” their “betters” and voice grievances that remained unuttered throughout the year. Purim balls and carnivals encouraged revelry and drunkenness.
Rabbinic Judaism continues to celebrate Purim with great festivity. In addition to reading the scroll of Esther aloud in the synagogue to a unique or original trop (cantillation), people dress in costumes depicting the major characters of the story. During the telling of the story, the heroes are cheered and the villain, Haman, is booed and his name is drowned out by the sound of noise-makers or gragers.
A Celebration Of The Heroic
For Humanistic Jews, Purim is a celebration of the heroic in Jewish history, a tribute to human ethical role models. Human courage and ingenuity are at the center of a story about the triumph of good over evil. Humanistic Jews celebrate the heroes and chastise the villains of the world through modern Purim shpiels. Reading the Megilla – accompanied by gragers, cheers, and boos – provides a starting point from which to move beyond the framework of the biblical story. The masks of Purim become the faces of Jewish men and women worthy of emulation, from Mordecai to Theodore Herzl and Albert Einstein, and from Esther to Henrietta Szold and Golda Meir. Humanistic Purim celebrations often feature children’s costume parades and carnivals. These lighthearted activities have a serious side, recalling the heroism of individuals and the organized resistance to oppression of the Jewish people.
Choosing A Hero
Having a hero or role model is important for young people. They like to see how adults (who used to be kids themselves) can be influential and powerful and do great things for the world. During Purim, it is fun to pay tribute to heroes of the past and present by dressing up like them or by role-playing with others who are impersonating their heroes. You could even write funny skits where the heroes interact with each other. When you choose a hero, do a little research to find out how they looked, what they wore, how they acted, and what they might say.
In choosing a hero, you will want to consider six points:
- FAMOUS: someone who is well-known and distinguished in some field
- JEWISH: someone who is not only Jewish but proud
- ACTIVE: someone who uses human skills to solve problems
- BOLD: someone who boldly challenges old ideas
- CARING: someone who is concerned about the welfare of the community
- UNIVERSAL: someone who values both their human and their Jewish identity
Mishloakh manot, sending gifts to the poor, is a tradition that Humanistic Jews incorporate into their Purim celebrations. Giving gifts of food to friends encourages a sense of community. Preparing food baskets for the hungry fulfills humanistic ideals. Inviting new immigrants to home or communal celebrations is an extension of that concept, which embodies humanistic values. By contributing to local food banks or international famine relief organizations, working on home reclamation projects, or assisting the homeless, Humanistic Jews can cultivate the “hero” within themselves.