What’s Shushan Purim?

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!

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Never Forget – But Do More Than Remember!

Ester och Ahasverus i Vänge kyrka
Scroll of Esther (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Esther 3:1  After these things, Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and elevated him, and set his seat above all the nobels that were with him.

The Book of Esther doesn’t say why Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the bad guy of the story. What the book does say is that he was the son of an Agagite, which provides a link back to Israel’s Biblical enemy, Amalek.

Agag, the king of Amalek, appears first in the blessing of Balaam (Numbers 24:7) but he comes up again and again, finally to war again with Israel and be killed off by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15.  Amalek was an enemy we first encountered in the wilderness, where that nation preyed upon the stragglers on the margins of the camp (Exodus 17: 8-10). At the end of that chapter, God says to Moses:

Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.

This verse makes a puzzle:  how can we memorialize Amalek, rehearse the story of Amalek, but utterly blot out remembrance of Amalek?

First, and simplest, this is why we boo and make the groggers roar at the name of Haman. We are “blotting out” his name.

But more importantly, this is a warning about all the enemies to come in Jewish history as it unfolds, whether it is Rome, or Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, or Hitler.  On the one hand: don’t forget. And on the other hand: don’t give these guys too much attention. Don’t reduce Judaism to ONLY remembering.

Purim reminds us that as long as we are here to celebrate it, Amalek has not prevailed.  So yes, we remember all the stories from the bad old days, but also we live vital lives of Torah in the here and now.  The Holocaust is important to remember, but it is also important not to make it the sum total of our identity as Jews. We are more than what has been done to us.

I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

 

 

For Your Enjoyment: Purim Videos!

Purim Car
Purim Car (Photo credit: Sharon G.)

Adar is the month of fun – warm up for Purim by watching some of the great videos available on the Net:

The Book of Purim: Official Parody of The Book of Mormon – Hebrew Union College Year in Israel Class 2011-12.

Move Like Graggers Remix – Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, MI

Purim Song – The Maccabeats

Raise Your Mask Purim – Ein Prat Fountainheads, students at Midreshet Ein Prat, Israel

Purim Story – Shalom Sesame

Haman Song: Purim Rap – hypersemitic

Have fun!  If you know of other good ones, post them in the comments!

Purim for Beginners

English: Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest No...
Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand, c. 1915 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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, which is such a wild, farcical document that it very nearly didn’t get included in the Bible. 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.

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 story every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by hearing the scroll chanted 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.

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.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal – hence, gifts of food to the poor. (A donation to the Food Bank in your area works nicely.)

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OAT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, given to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally they are a little package of more than one goodie.

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. No matter what anyone tells you, getting drunk is never a mitzvah.