The History and Importance of Purim
Technically a minor holiday, Purim is nevertheless one of the high points of the festival cycle for Jews all over the world.
While it is formally based on events discussed in the biblical Book of Esther, the real appeal of the holiday is its ongoing relevance to the nature of Jewish life in the Diaspora, and to the ongoing saga of the Jewish presence in history in general.
Purim is about the struggle to maintain identity in a world that mostly values assimilation, to value tolerance in a world that tolerates persecution, and to live proudly as Jews in the midst of an ocean of non-Jews.
Countless generations of Jews embraced the story of Purim not only as a means of retelling something that once happened, but as their own story, as a version of the story they themselves were living. And embedded in the affection Jewish people have for the story of Purim is the deep and abiding hope that its happy ending would be their happy ending as well.
The Purim story is also unusual for another reason.
The Book of Esther, unlike other biblical works, describes salvation as coming not from a God acting above and beyond the natural order, but from a God who appears to work through and within history.
In the Book of Esther, the day is won through the clever machinations of Esther and Mordecai, representatives of a politically astute and well-connected Jewish community wholly integrated into the political and social life of their time and place.
And the fact that God’s name does not appear even once in the entire Book of Esther subtly underlines the point that God, at least in our day, governs the world by acting through history, not by circumventing it.
All of these things, together with the fact that the Purim story is a joyous tale about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, make Purim one of the most beloved of all the Jewish holidays and the occasion of unabashedly joyous celebrations in synagogues the world over.
To refer to Purim as a minor holiday is to focus more on its halakhic status than on its overall importance. The people who celebrated it with joy, year after year, understood its importance, as did the ancient rabbis who proclaimed that “all the other holidays will cease in the days of the messiah, but Purim will never end” (Midrash Mishlei 9:2; Klein, p. 240).
What could these rabbis have meant when they insisted that Purim would survive longer than Yom Kippur or Passover?
Maybe they understood that, of all the holidays, Purim speaks to the hearts and minds of a people scattered across the face of the earth, a people obliged to survive in fragile accommodation with a dominant society that has only occasionally treated them with generosity and tolerance.
The spirit of optimism and faith in God’s ultimate deliverance inherent in Purim rendered it the most relevant of holidays for the ancients and, in some sense, so has it remained.
The Fast of Esther
Purim is preceded by the Fast of Esther, a minor fast that lasts from sunrise until the stars come out that evening. Some suggest the fast should not end prior to the reading of the megillah. (The Book of Esther is commonly and popularly called the megillah, literally “the scroll,” i.e., of Esther.)
Others permit eating a modest amount of food if there is sufficient time after sunset but prior to the reading.
The Fast of Esther (Ta’anit Esther in Hebrew) is based on the fast Esther herself observed and that the people observed along with her in sympathy with her plight and in anticipation of her willingness to put her life at risk when presenting herself before the king unannounced (Esther 4:16).
When is Purim celebrated?
Purim is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar. When a leap year occurs and an additional month of Adar is inserted in the calendar, Purim is celebrated in the second Adar. In such a year, the fourteenth day of the first month of Adar is referred to as Purim Katan (minor Purim).
On that day, Taḥanun is not recited, but there is otherwise no specific ritual observance of the fact that, had it not been a leap year, that day would have been Purim.
Tradition dictates that Purim be observed on the fourteenth day of Adar. However, in any city that was surrounded by walls in the days of Joshua, the festival is observed a day later on the fifteenth of Adar (Esther 9:17–18, as interpreted in Mishnah Megillah 1:1).
Outside of Israel, there are no cities with Jewish communities that meet this requirement. But Jerusalem, even today, is deemed to be in that category and therefore Purim is observed there on the fifteenth of Adar, called Shushan Purim. Some other cities are of ambiguous status, and thus many communities in Lod, Tiberias, and Safed (Tzphat) read the megillah on both the fourteenth and the fifteenth.
Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.