The Basics of Purim

February 25, 2014
Purim costumes are usually very informal.

Purim costumes are usually very informal.

If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, a story about the Jewish community in Persia. Here’s what you need to know:

1. WHEN? Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.  In 2014 (5774 in the Jewish calendar) Purim falls on March 15.

2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day.  The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.

3.  MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the megillah read every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by listening as someone chants the scroll or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos. The booing and noise is what may shock newcomers to synagogue: for many Jews, this is an opportunity to really let out our feelings about the people who have tried to kill Jews.

4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET. We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday. Holiday cookies and foods are a great way to use up flour and other chametz in the pantry. Remember, Passover is one month after Purim, so the baking for Purim can be the beginning of Passover prep.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal. A donation to the Food Bank in your area or to a Jewish organization such as MAZON works nicely.

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OHT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, sent to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally we send friends a little package including two or three treats.

7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities.  Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too.  Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.

8. DRINKING. There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess.  Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. Don’t give alcohol to children. Purim is supposed to be a fun holiday, and overdoing the slivovitz can take all the fun right out of it.

Immediately after Purim, we begin our Passover preparations. Passover is only a month away!

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by maxnathans


Odd Bedfellows (on Valentine’s Day, no less)

February 14, 2014

We continue with this curious Jewish year of 5774: first we had Chanukah/Thanksgiving, now we have Purim Katan/Valentine’s Day, and next month we’ll have Purim/St. Patrick’s Day. Passover will arrive without a pairing, unless you count Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, which would make for a very odd couple, he having been a slaveowner and all that.

Purim Katan (Little Purim) is the holiday that isn’t, a day when we have Purim without the observances, as the Velveteen Rabbi explains in her excellent post for the day. (If you are not acquainted with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s writing, you are in for a treat.)

Valentine’s Day was originally Lupercalia and not the least bit Jewish, but then, it wasn’t exactly about love, either: more of a combination fertility festival and bacchanal. It has become a marketing bacchanal in our day, with the media blaring nonstop about great deals on roses, candy, diamonds, and other love tokens.

My inner Zionist reminds me that i could skip all this nonsense if I’d just make aliyah already. In Israel, one celebrates only Jewish holidays. But here in Galut we will continue to tumble between two calendars.

 


A Commandment to Rejoice?

February 5, 2014
Some rejoicing is quiet and low-key, like a nap.

Some rejoicing, like a nap, is quiet and low-key.

When Adar enters, joy increases. – B. Taanit 29a

How can rejoicing be a commandment? We are commanded to rejoice on Shabbat and at “appointed times,” and to rejoice during the month of Adar – but how is such a thing possible? Isn’t joy an emotion?

The Torah has many subtle lessons about human psychology. True, when someone is sad, telling them, “Be happy!” or worse yet, “Smile!” is stupid and cruel. However, what the Torah commands is not emotion. The commandment is to engage in activities that bring delight (oneg.) On Shabbat, we are commanded to eat well, to eat three meals, to light candles, to say blessings, and to rest. These are also activities that will help to reduce the stress in our bodies. Good food in reasonable quantities can be enormously restorative. Lighting candles delights the eyes. Saying blessings encourages us to notice things outside ourselves, to wake up to tastes and smells and experiences. And most of all, rest is healing to the whole person, body and spirit.

During Adar, we are preparing for Purim, and after Purim, we are preparing for Passover. The anticipation of holidays can bring joy, true, but as we get ready to perform the specific mitzvot of Purim, our potential for joy increases.  We plan and prepare mishloach manot, small gifts of food for friends and strangers. Thinking about the enjoyment of others can carry us out of ourselves and distract us from troubles that may have occupied our minds.  Tzedakah is a mitzvah of Purim, another mitzvah that takes us outside our own troubles (and it is good to remember that while it is good to give charity, we are forbidden to give beyond our means!) The “festive meal” again involves good food, a restorer of health and energy. And finally, reading the megillah (Scroll of Esther) reminds us of a time when Jews faced a terrible fate, and it did not come to pass. It can be a reminder that our worst fears do not always come true.

Mourners are not expected to party. Rather, days of rejoicing give them a break from the activities of mourning (shiva, etc). When we see a kriah ribbon or a torn jacket, the rest of us know that this person needs to be treated gently, that they are not in a festive mood. Still they participate in the delight of the day, such as the Shabbat meal, because ultimately the purpose of the mourning period is to draw the mourner gently back into the life of community.

When you hear someone talk about oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, know that it doesn’t necessarily mean “delight” in the giggly, partying sense. Shabbat is not a magic Wonderland. It is a chance to rest, to heal, to gather our resources, to be with friends and family, to be restored. Sometimes that will look like a party and but usually it will be much quieter.

And if you have heard someone say, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but you do not feel the least bit joyful, know that you are not doing anything wrong. This is just the beginning of Adar! So you are starting a little low. Observe the mitzvot of the season: give a little tzedakah, prepare small gifts of food for friends, make plans to hear the megillah, join in the festive activities and meals at synagogue.

Or, if traditional mitzvot are not your thing, try “rejoicing” by treating yourself with love and care. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Look beyond yourself (yes, give a little tzedakah!) But either way, see what a month mitzvot and self-care will do.

We begin Adar in the depth of winter, and we emerge to spring. Let me know how it goes.

Image: LicenseAttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by mhofstrand


Does Two Adars mean Two Purims?

February 4, 2014
Adar Alef and Adar Bet?

Adar Alef and Adar Bet?

5774 is a leap year. The good news is that we have two months of Adar, two months of rejoicing! But does that mean that we also celebrate Purim twice?

The simple answer: no. If you look closely at your Jewish calendar, the first month of Adar (Adar Alef or Adar Rishon) lists the 14th of Adar I as “Purim Katan” or “Little Purim.” This acknowledges the date, 14 Adar, but we do not celebrate Purim on that date: no megillah reading, no mishloach manot, and no festive meal.

You may wonder why the first month of Adar gets such a shabby treatment. Purim is fun! Why put it off? First, tradition: we know from the Mishnah (Megilah 6b) that we’ve been reading the megillah in the second month of Adar since at least 200 CE. Secondly, the Gemara tells us that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught that we read the megillah in the second month of Adar so that we are celebrating the redemption of Purim closer to the redemption of Passover.

This reminds us that Purim is not just about costumes and skits and merriment: it is also a festival of redemption, “warming us up” for the great redemption of Passover.

And as for Purim Katan: we are still forbidden to mourn or to fast on 14 Adar I. In a leap year, then, we have  a warm up to the warm up, a double opportunity to be extremely well prepared for the spiritual growth of Passover.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Alaskan Dude


Why Two Months of Adar?

February 1, 2014
Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

If you have a Jewish calendar, you may have noticed that yesterday and today we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Adar Aleph, the first day of the month of Adar Aleph (Adar One). Next month is Adar Bet (Adar Two).  Why two months of Adar? Last year we had only one.

The Jewish calendar is both a lunar and a solar calendar. That means that it is aligned with both the moon and the sun. Our months are aligned with the moon – every Rosh Chodesh (new month) falls on a New Moon. The average lunar month is equal to 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes. The average solar year is equal to 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45.51 seconds. If we stayed on a strictly lunar calendar, our holidays would slowly rotate around the seasons, as they do in the Islamic calendar. However, our holidays align to the seasons: Passover to springtime, for instance.

To keep the holidays in their proper seasons, the calendar adjusts periodically. One of the ways it does this is by adding a month of Adar whenever Passover strays too far from springtime. In ancient times, this was done by observations and adjustments announced by the Temple. Since the 4th century, we use a mathematic formula to determine when to add a month of Adar. If you are interested in the math, there are articles online that go into detail, but most Jews simply use a calendar.

But… why Adar? Why not Cheshvan or Av? Adar is the last month of the year (when you use the Biblical calendar, which counts Nisan as the first month.) So we are doubling the month at the end of the year.

However, it’s an interesting choice. Av and Adar have special associations, with Av as the “saddest/unluckiest month of the year” and Adar as the “happiest/luckiest month of the year,” drawing from the sacred days in them. In Av we remember the destruction of the Temple. Who wants to do that twice? But Purim falls during Adar, when we remember our deliverance from the evil plans of Haman. That’s worth remembering twice! (So you might well ask, do we celebrate Purim twice? See tomorrow’s post.)

The calendar is teaching us a subtle message: when we have the opportunity to dwell on something, choose joyful memories. It’s an extension of the commandment to “choose life” [Deuteronomy 30:19.]

I wish you joyful months of Adar in 5774!

Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


What’s Shushan Purim?

February 24, 2013
Purim street scene in Jerusalem

Purim street scene in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may have noticed “Shushan Purim” on your Jewish calendar on the 15th of Adar. How is it different from regular Purim?

If you read the Book of Esther closely, you’ll see in Chapter 9:

However, the Jews of Shushan assembled on both the thirteenth and fourteenth days of Adar, so it was on the fifteenth that they rested and made it a holiday for celebrating and rejoicing. This is why the Jews of the villages, those who live in unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month of Adar a day for celebrating and rejoicing, a holiday and a time for sending each other portions [of food].

So to this day, Jews in unwalled towns celebrate on the 14th of Adar, and Jews in walled cities celebrate on the 15th.

What cities are walled? Well, for these purposes only Jerusalem counts as a walled city, because a ruling in the Jerusalem Talmud, repeated in MaimonidesMishneh Torah (Hilchot Megillah 1.5) says that we only count as walled cities those which were walled at the time that Joshua led us into the Land of Israel.  This is done out of respect for the Land (which would have been in ruins during the period in which the Book of Esther is set). The mystic and sage Josef Caro added that this was also so that those of us in the Diaspora would never forget the Land of Israel.

So we wish a “Purim Sameach!” (“Happy Purim!”) to the Jerusalemites who are enjoying that holiday today.  For the rest of us, Purim is done and now it’s time to get ready for Passover!


Happy Purim from Rabbi Adar

February 23, 2013

RavAdar

 

It’s Purim – and everything is hafuch – upside down. This guy will only be around for the holiday!

Rabbi Ruth Adar will return on the 15th of Adar.


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