Holidays Around the World: Purim

On February 25, 2021, (the Hebrew date Adar 14), Jews around the world will celebrate Purim to mark the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from planned annihilation. Purim isn’t one of the Jewish holidays I had heard of before I went to Iran for my first teaching position, in spite of having learned much about Jewish traditions from my first roommate in San Francisco.

In Tehran, my first Iranian friend, Abie Berookhim, came from a Jewish family that descended from the Jews who chose to remain in Persia after the end of the Babylonian captivity. He told me the story of Queen Esther, the Jewish woman who married the Persian king, Xerxes I, without revealing to him that she was Jewish. Xerxes did not require all his subjects to accept his religion, Zoroastrianism. But Esther chose to hide her religion from her new husband.

The story of how Esther became Queen, told in the Old Testament book of the Bible named after her, reads like a novel with all the tension and plot twists we expect in a good story. Xerxes’s first wife, Vashti, refused her husband’s request to appear before a group of his friends and advisors at a feast. Enraged, Xerxes had her executed and asked his advisor, Haman, to bring all the eligible young women to present themselves for Xerxes to choose a new wife. He chose Esther.

Not long after Esther married Xerxes, the king promoted Haman to prime minister. Haman used the power of his new office to plot the death of all Jewish people remaining in ancient Persia. To save her people, Esther had to reveal her religion to her husband, at great risk to herself.

Haman set the plot in motion by proclaiming all people must bow down before him. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, refused for religious reasons. Haman used that as the provocation to declare that all Jews must be killed. The night before the planned execution, Esther arranged a feast during which she told Xerxes that she was a Jew and that carrying out the order to kill all Jews would mean executing her, the king’s wife. That turned the tide. Xerxes ordered Haman be arrested and executed, and he made Mordecai his chief adviser.

This reversal of fortune forms the basis for the celebration of Purim. Today, Purim celebrations involve feasting, wearing costumes, reciting the book of Esther, and giving charity to those in need.

I asked a Jewish friend to help me complete this post. She explained, “Purim teaches us to find God through joy, through sharing with others, and through overcoming adversity and triumphing over evil. . . .Purim celebrates the joy of overcoming the challenge of the darkness. There is a teaching that when the Messianic Age arrives, the only Jewish festival holiday that will be celebrated is Purim, which most people consider a minor holiday.”

While Purim provides many lessons for today, the one I feel most strongly pulled toward is that hatred is always the wrong course to follow. It also serves as a reminder that the reward of revealing the truth is greater than the risk of keeping it hidden.

Image credit: Photo by Brian Nelson on Unsplash The Hamantaschen pastries represent the three-cornered hat worn by Haman, prime minister of King Xerxes I.

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