Purim: Laws & Customs

Posted on: Tuesday February 12, 2013

By Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life

Technically a minor holiday, Purim is nevertheless one of the high points of the festival cycle for Jews all over the world. While it is formally based on events discussed in the biblical Book of Esther, the real appeal of the holiday is its ongoing relevance to the nature of Jewish life in the Diaspora, and to the ongoing saga of the Jewish presence in history in general. Purim is about the struggle to maintain identity in a world that mostly values assimilation, to value tolerance in a world that tolerates persecution, and to live proudly as Jews in the midst of an ocean of non-Jews. Countless generations of Jews embraced the story of Purim not only as a means of retelling something that once happened, but as their own story, as a version of the story they themselves were living. And embedded in the affection Jewish people have for the story of Purim is the deep and abiding hope that its happy ending would be their happy ending as well.

The Purim story is also unusual for another reason. The Book of Esther, unlike other biblical works, describes salvation as coming not from a God acting above and beyond the natural order, but from a God who appears to work through and within history. In the Book of Esther, the day is won through the clever machinations of Esther and Mordecai, representatives of a politically astute and well-connected Jewish community wholly integrated into the political and social life of their time and place. And the fact that God’s name does not appear even once in the entire Book of Esther subtly underlines the point that God, at least in our day, governs the world by acting through history, not by circumventing it. All of these things, together with the fact that the Purim story is a joyous tale about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, make Purim one of the most beloved of all the Jewish holidays and the occasion of unabashedly joyous celebrations in synagogues the world over.

Purim is preceded by the Fast of Esther, a minor fast that lasts from sunrise until the stars come out that evening. Some suggest the fast should not end prior to the reading of the m’gillah. (The Book of Esther is commonly and popularly called the m’gillah, literally “the scroll,” i.e., of Esther.) Others permit eating a modest amount of food if there is sufficient time after sunset but prior to the reading. The Fast of Esther (Ta·anit Esteir in Hebrew) is based on the fast Esther herself observed and that the people observed along with her in sympathy with her plight and in anticipation of her willingness to put her life at risk when presenting herself before the king unannounced (Esther 4:16).

Purim is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar. When a leap year occurs and an additional month of Adar is inserted in the calendar, Purim is celebrated in the second Adar. In such a year, the fourteenth day of the first month of Adar is referred to as Purim Katan (minor Purim). On that day, Tahanun is not recited, but there is otherwise no specific ritual observance of the fact that, had it not been a leap year, that day would have been Purim.

Purim itself begins with the recitation of the regular Evening Service. As on Hanukkah, a version of the Al Ha-nissim prayer is added in the penultimate blessing of the Amidah and in the Grace after Meals. The morning Torah reading (Exodus 17:8–16, divided into three aliyot) describes the attack of Amalek.

Surprisingly, Hallel is not recited on Purim. The Talmud (at BT M’gillah 14a) suggests that the salvation that came to the Jews on Purim is of a more limited nature than the salvation of Passover, where the Jews were not only saved from imminent destruction but also delivered out of Egypt and out of the hands of Pharaoh. Such is also the case on Hanukkah: the Jews were not only saved from imminent destruction but also delivered from the tyranny of Antiochus. In the Purim story, on the other hand, while the Jews were delivered from imminent danger, they were specifically not delivered from Ahasuerus’s dominion, nor were they freed from any future threats he might yet have posed to their well-being. As a result, Hallel is not recited. It is also worth noting Maimonides’ opinion, codified in the Mishneh Torah, that there actually is an obligation to recite Hallel on Purim (presumably because the Jewish people of Persia were indeed saved from destruction), but that the reading of the m’gillah serves as Purim’s version of Hallel (MT Hilkhot M’gillah Va-hanukkah 3:6).

Reading the M’gillah

The main mitzvah of Purim is the reading of the m’gillah, the parchment scroll that contains the Book of Esther. The m’gillah is read aloud in the synagogue both in the evening and on the morning of Purim. The reading must be from a kosher scroll, not from a printed book, and custom dictates that the scroll be folded in such a manner as to look like one of the “letters of decree” eld to in the Purim story (at Esther 9:26 and 29; cf. MT Hilkhot M’gillah Va-hanukkah 2:12). There is a special method of cantillation for the m’gillah, a musical variation on the normal Torah reading trope.

The reading is preceded by three blessings and followed by another. The first blessing is barukh attah adonai, eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, asher kidd’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivvanu al mikra m’gillah (“Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who, sanctifying us with divine commandments, has commanded us regarding the reading of the m’gillah”). The second blessing is the same one recited over the Hanukkah candles: barukh atah adonai, eloheinu, melekh ha-olam she-asah nissim la-avoteinu ba-yamim ha-heim ba-z’man ha-zeh (“Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who accomplished miracles for our ancestors at this time in ancient days”). The third blessing, which is also recited in the morning, is the She-heheyyanu. These three blessings are recited even in the absence of a minyan, but the blessing following the reading is only recited in the presence of a quorum. The text of the blessing that follows the reading of the m’gillah can be found in any standard edition of the prayerbook.

During the reading of the m’gillah, there are several customs that require the participation of the congregation. There are four verses, Esther 2:5, 8:15, 8:16, and 10:3, called p’sukei ge’ullah (verses of redemption), which are first declaimed by the congregation and only then repeated by the reader. Since these verses all refer to Mordecai, it has become the practice of many egalitarian synagogues to pause and allow the congregation to recite the following verses of redemption that refer to Esther as well, notably Esther 2:7, 4:16, and 9:32. There are also certain key verses that contain phrases that the reader should chant in a raised voice for emphasis: li-h’yot kol ish at Esther 1:22, v’ha-na·arah asher titav be’einei ha-melekh at Esther 2:4, va-ye·ehav ha-melekh et esteir at Esther 2:17, revah v’hatzalah ya·amod la-y’hudim at Esther 4:14, yavo ha-melekh v’haman at Esther 5:4, and especially ba-lailah ha-hu nad’dah sh’nat ha-melekh at Esther 6:1, which verse is considered the turning point of the drama (Klein, p. 235). It is also customary to chant the following verses or parts of verses in Eikhah trope which is intended to lend them an air of sadness: v’kheilim mi-keilim shonim at 1:7, all of 2:6, v’ha·ir shushan navokhah at 3:15, all of 4:1 and 4:3, v’kha·asheir avad’ti avad’ti at 4:16, and 8:6. It is also customary to read Esther 9:7–10, which recounts the hanging of Haman’s ten sons, in one breath. The Talmud (at BT M’gillah 16b) explains that, since they all died together, their names should be recited together. Others have added a moral dimension to the custom, noting that reciting their names slowly and dramatically might be perceived as an act of gloating over their demise. Others take a less charitable view and imagine that we read their names in one breath so as not to waste more than one breath on this evil bunch.

The most popular and best-known custom associated with the reading of the m’gillah is the practice of making noise whenever Haman’s name is read in an attempt to drown it out. Special noisemakers, called ra·ashanim in Hebrew or, more commonly, groggers in Yiddish, are often distributed to children in the synagogue specifically for this purpose. The use of noisemakers during the reading of the m’gillah is an old and worthy custom, but care must be taken that the noise does not drown out the actual reading of the scroll. Since most children are quite vigilant in the observance of this custom, synagogues must find a way to guarantee that the adult worshipers will hear every word of the m’gillah without ruining the children’s fun.

While the m’gillah is normally read in the synagogue in the presence of a minyan and with the appropriate cantillation, the scroll (unlike the Torah) may also be read without a minyan if one is not available. It may also be read without the proper cantillation if qualified readers are not available. And it is even considered preferable to read it in the vernacular than not to read it at all (MT Hilkhot M’gillah Va-hanukkah 2:4)!

Another popular custom is dressing up in costumes on Purim. Many congregations have Purim parades preceding or following the reading of the m’gillah encouraging all the little Queen Esthers and Mordecais to parade in front of the entire congregation. Costumes need not be limited to the little ones or just to the Purim characters—creativity and festivity are the order of the day.

Tradition dictates that Purim be observed on the fourteenth day of Adar. However, in any city that was surrounded by walls in the days of Joshua, the festival is observed a day later on the fifteenth of Adar (Esther 9:17–18, as interpreted in M M’gillah 1:1). Outside of Israel there are no cities with Jewish communities that meet this requirement. But Jerusalem, even today, is deemed to be in that category and therefore Purim is observed there on the fifteenth of Adar, called Shushan Purim. Some other cities are of ambiguous status, and thus many communities in Lod, Tiberias, and Safed read the m’gillah on both the fourteenth and the fifteenth. While the calendar is arranged so that Purim can never fall on Shabbat, it is possible for Shushan Purim to fall on Shabbat—which creates a three-day commemoration, Friday being Purim, and Shabbat being Shushan Purim with respect to some prayers but not with respect to the reading of the m’gillah, which is deferred to Sunday.

Hearing the m’gillah read aloud is considered of such paramount importance that it is customary even for mourners in the middle of the shivah week to come to synagogue to hear the reading (Rema to SA Orah Hayyim 696:4).  If, however, it seems possible to arrange for the m’gillah to be read in the house of mourning itself, that would be optimal (ibid.).

Additional Mitzvot

The reading of the m’gillah is not the only mitzvah connected with Purim, however. There are a number of others, each of which has its origins in Esther 9:20–22:

Mordecai recorded these events and sent dispatches to all the Jews … charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year … as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and gifts for the poor.

The “feasting and merrymaking” which Mordecai commanded the Jews to observe developed into the mitzvah of holding a feast on the afternoon of Purim, a meal commonly called the Purim se’udah. This meal is one of the rare occasions in Judaism when almost anything goes. Funny skits, humorous stories, and even making fun of rabbis and teachers are all part of the spirit of merrymaking that prevails at this unique time. The Talmud goes so far as to suggest that one should carry on with one’s merrymaking until one can no longer distinguish between the words “blessed be Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman” (BT M’gillah 7b). How exactly one accomplishes this is left to later interpretation, however. In Israel, there are national adloyada parades (after that same lesson in the Talmud that one should go on with one’s fun until “one does not know” Mordecai from Haman) with costumes, floats, and even marching bands. When Purim falls on a Friday, the custom is to have the Purim feast following the m’gillah reading in the morning (gloss of the Rema to SA Orah Hayyim 695:2).

Traditionally, the consumption of alcohol was considered the simplest and best way to arrive at the state of no longer being able to distinguish between “blessed be Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman.” In recent years, especially on college campuses, this time-honored custom has led to excess and many rabbis now discourage the consumption of alcohol, especially by young people, as part of Purim observance. How central drinking is to the celebration of Purim remains an issue that contemporary scholars continue to debate.

In the above-cited verse, Mordecai also charges that Purim be “an occasion of sending gifts (mishlo·ah manot) one to another.” The rabbis of ancient times, all of them scholars who studied each word of Scripture with the greatest care, noticed that the word for gifts, manot, was in the plural but the words in the phrase “one to another” were in the singular. They therefore determined that the minimum way to fulfill this requirement is to send at least two separate foods to at least one person. Anything qualifies as food as long as it is ready to eat—so fruit, packaged candy, cakes, and cookies are all appropriate. Today, the custom is to take gifts of food to friends as an expression of the sense of communal warmth and friendship that prevails on Purim (SA Orah Hayyim 695:4). Many synagogue communities today facilitate the performance of the mitzvah of mishlo·ah manot by taking “orders” for such gifts and then delivering them on Purim or just before the holiday.

The m’gillah also speaks of sending “presents to the poor” (mattanot la-evyonim; Esther 9:22). Because the word for poor people is in the plural here, the rabbis of ancient times decreed that the minimum requirement is to send gifts to at least two people (SA Orah Hayyim 694:1). Many synagogues aid in the fulfillment of this mitzvah by creating opportunities on Purim for congregants to make donations to the poor and to various organizations that aid the poor. Sometimes as one enters the synagogue on Purim, one will notice two plates with a sign that reads mattanot la-evyonim. By putting a donation in each of these plates, congregants fulfill their obligation to aid the needy on Purim with gifts that ideally are actually delivered on Purim. Taken together, the mitzvot of Purim create a holiday that is more about giving than getting, and more about being concerned for the less fortunate than about spending money on oneself.

The food that everyone associates with Purim are three-cornered pastries filled with jam, poppy seeds, or even chocolate that, according to some, are intended to recall the three-cornered hat that Haman is said to have worn. In Hebrew they are called oznei haman (Haman’s ears), but they are more commonly called hamentaschen (Yiddish for “Haman’s pockets”) by Jews of Ashkenazic origin. Whatever their origin, they are a holiday favorite of generations of Jewish children.

To refer to Purim as a minor holiday is to focus more on its halakhic status than on its overall importance. The people who celebrated it with joy, year after year, understood its importance, as did the ancient rabbis who proclaimed that “all the other holidays will cease in the days of the messiah, but Purim will never end” (Midrash Mishlei 9:2; Klein, p. 240). What could these rabbis have meant when they insisted that Purim would survive longer than Yom Kippur or Passover? Maybe they understood that, of all the holidays, Purim speaks to the hearts and minds of a people scattered across the face of the earth, a people obliged to survive in fragile accommodation with a dominant society that has only occasionally treated them with generosity and tolerance. The spirit of optimism and faith in God’s ultimate deliverance inherent in Purim rendered it the most relevant of holidays for the ancients and, in some sense, so has it remained.