The festival of Purim finds its roots in the biblical accounts in the book of Esther. In many ways, the holiday is unusual. The holiday began as a minor celebration and over time, because of the changing culture and circumstances, developed into a major expression of joy.
The story of the holiday is found in Esther, an unusual book in the Bible because of the name of God is never mentioned. Like Hanukkah, the holiday has taken new meaning because of the experience of the Jews over the years.
Today the holiday represents the story of anti-Semitism in every land, every culture, and every century. Purim is the celebration of the story of Jewish survival throughout the centuries in the worst of circumstances.
Dates for Purim
14 Adar II
14 Adar II
(begins sundown, evening before)
Esther, one of the books of the Ketuvim or writings section of the Bible, tells the setting of the celebration of Purim. The story is set in Persia, present day Iran, during the latter part of the captivity years. The Persian king at the time was Ahashverosh who had thrown a banquet and ordered the queen, Vashti, to appear and dance before his guests. She refused and was relieved of her royal duties.
His friends and political colleagues advised Ahashverosh to hold a pageant to choose a new queen. Mordechai, a Jew living in Persia’s capital city of Shushan, convinced his cousin, Esther, to enroll in the competition. Esther’s beauty was stunning and she was declared the winner, though she did not reveal her race.
Mordechai had the habit of sitting near the main gates of the King’s palace. One day he happened to hear two men talking about a plot they were hatching. Bigthan and Teresh were scheming a plan to kill the king. Mordechai reported the news to Esther, who in turn told the king. The plot was foiled, the men put to death, and Mordechai was honored and the incident recorded in the king’s diary.
Shortly after this event, the king’s head adviser, Haman, would walk through the streets with much pomp and circumstance. He demanded all to bow down as he waked by. Mordechai refused to bow, claiming that only God was worthy of such honor and praise. Haman discovered that Mordechai was Jewish and decided that all Jews needed to be put to death. He convinced the king to go along with the plan and cast purim – lots – to determine the day when he would execute his evil. The lot fell to the 13th day of Adar.
Mordechai alerted Esther of the plot. At great personal risk, Esther received an audience to the king and told him of the plan and convinced him to save the Jews. Haman was hanged, Mordechai was given his property and elevated to a political position. The Jews celebrated the next day, the 14th of Adar, the day following their planned annihilation.
In Jerusalem Purim is celebrated the following day. The passage in Esther goes on to say that the Jews were not able to defeat their enemies in the walled city of Shushan until the fourteenth. Therefore, any city that was enclosed with walls and gates at the time of Joshua do not celebrate until the 15th of Adar. Jerusalem, then, celebrates on Shushan Purim.
Customs and Rituals
Purim is one of the most festive celebrations of the Jewish calendar year. Even the reading of the story from the book of Esther takes on a flavor of joy and excitement. When the name Haman is mentioned, the crowd will respond with chants and booing.
Everyone dresses in festive costumes, attend parties and parades, and are gracious, sending gifts of food to friends and offerings to the poor.
In the synagogue, the book of Esther is read at both the evening and morning services. At home, the holiday has become one that stresses social justice and celebrates the many obstacles that the Jewish nation has overcome.
Funerals and Mourning during Purim
Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism.
The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.
Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.
After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.
The festive nature of Purim would disrupt the mourning traditions of shiva. While it might be permissible for the family to attend congregational services during Purim, prudence might suggest that the mourning family remain at home during the feast.
Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a Rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.
Remembering Loved Ones during Purim
Even in the midst of celebration, Purim is a festival of remembering. During these moments, there is a prescribed time to honor and reflect upon life and loved ones. Special prayers, the lighting of candles, and moments of reflection serve as the perfect time to honor and commemorate deceased family members. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.
The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.