Purim: The Story of Esther

By Julie Stahl

“Mordecai recorded these events and sent letters to all the Jews in all of King Ahasuerus’s provinces, both near and far. He ordered them to celebrate the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month Adar every year because during those days the Jews got rid of their enemies. That was the month when their sorrow was turned into rejoicing and their mourning into a holiday. … For Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them. He cast the Pur (that is, the lot) to crush and destroy them. But when the matter was brought before the king, he commanded by letter that the evil plan Haman had devised against the Jews return on his own head and that he should be hanged with his sons on the gallows. For this reason these days are called Purim, from the word Pur” (Esther 9:20-22, 24-26 HCSB).

Purim celebrates the Jewish people’s rescue from and victory over a wicked government minister who wanted to destroy them thousands of years ago as recorded in the book of Esther in the Bible. And although it’s the only book in the Bible where the name of God is not mentioned at all, His fingerprints are all over it!

“The book of Esther is kind of about the end of the world—Jerusalem’s destroyed, there are no more prophets, God has stopped speaking to people, and you can’t see Him anywhere. The kingdom is gone, the armies are gone, the glory that was Jerusalem and Israel is gone, and the Jews are scattered throughout the Persian Empire,” says Yoram Hazony, author of God and Politics in Esther.

Haman—an evil advisor to King Ahasueres (Xerxes) with a desire to wipe out the Jewish people—conspired to kill the entire Jewish population throughout the ancient Kingdom of Persia (modern-day Iran) on a single day. Since the King trusted Haman, he agreed.

But, unknown to the King, his beloved Queen Esther was Jewish. She and her cousin Mordechai exposed the plot and turned the tables. So the Jews were rescued and instead became victorious over their enemies. This is what we celebrate at Purim.

Hazony says there’s a deep lesson here.

“We all like favor, we all like political favor; we love it when people love us and Esther does, too. She loves being queen,” says Hazony. “But the question is when it comes down to it and you need to do something to throw away that favor, throw away political favor in order to do the right thing, do you have it in you?”

At the Western Wall and in synagogues in Israel and around the world, Megillat Esther, or the scroll of the Book of Esther, is read on Purim. But this reading is unlike any other. Parents and children dress up in costumes. At one time, this ritual was to imitate the biblical characters, but now it includes popular costumes, too. They cheer when the names of heroes Mordechai and Esther are read—and boo and use noise makers when the name of Haman, the villain of the story, is mentioned.

According to Rabbi Welton, there are two possible reasons for the costumes: to symbolize how Esther concealed her identity until the last moment or how God was a “concealed force behind the salvation of the Jews.”

Sending financial gifts to the poor and food gifts to others are traditions. Some Jews have a Purim feast. A special treat called hamentaschen (“Haman’s hat” in Yiddish) or oznei Haman (“Haman’s ears” in Hebrew) is a triangular cookie filled with dates, chocolate or nuts eaten at the holiday.

In most Jewish communities, the holiday is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, but in walled cities or those that were at one time like Jerusalem, the holiday is celebrated a day later and known as Shushan Purim.

Hazony summed up Purim like this: “The Persian Empire. One Jewish Woman. Guess Who Wins?”

Holiday Greeting: Hag Purim Sameach! (“Happy Purim!”)

Julie Stahl is a correspondent for CBN News in the Middle East. A Hebrew speaker, she has been covering news in Israel for more than 20 years. Julie’s life as a journalist has been intertwined with CBN—first as a graduate student in Journalism; then as a journalist with Middle East Television (METV) when it was owned by CBN from 1989-91; and now with CBN News’ Middle East Bureau in Jerusalem since 2009. She also plays an integral role in the weekly CBN News program, Jerusalem Dateline.

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