Purim: Laws and Customs

Shabbat Shekalim: The Shabbat before the month of Adar officially welcomes the Purim season.  This special Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim, Hebrew for the Sabbath of Shekals (an ancient form of Israelite money.)

Shabbat Shekalim is honored with the reading of an additional Torah portion dedicated to tzedakah, giving charity, a mitzvah associated with Esther.  This special Torah reading is taken from Exodus 30:11-16, which describes the giving of a half-shekel in support of the Temple’s sacrificial offerings.

A special haftorah, a selection from the prophets read immediately following the Torah portion, is also read on Shabbat Shekalim.  It is taken from Kings II 11:17-12:17, in which King Jehoash collects money for repairing the Temple.

Shabbat Zachor: The Sabbath immediately preceding Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. On this Sabbath, the Torah portion recalls the Jews’ exodus from Egypt when Amalek, son of Eliphaz, and grandson of Jacob’s brother Esau, tried to destroy the Jews at their most vulnerable moment. The Torah reading describes how Amalek and his nation attacked the Jews just as they escaped slavery, and a pursuing Egyptian army, immediately after they crossed the parted Red Sea.

It is a special mitzvah for both Jewish men and women to hear this Torah portion read.  The Torah commands:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt- how he met you on the road and with no reverence for G-d, attacked all your stragglers in the rear, those who were famished and weary. Therefore, when the Lord our G-d grants you safety from your enemies, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do Not Forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19; Exodus 17:8-16)

The Haftorah read on Shabbat Zachor is taken from Samuel I 15:1-34, which describes how King Saul had the chance to destroy all of Amalek, but instead, took pity on King Agag, and spared his life. The Prophet Samuel severely chastised King Saul for his misguided pity and killed the Amalek king himself, but not before the king had the opportunity to return home and father a child. Haman was a direct descendant of Agag.

It is fascinating to note that it was Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who helped destroy Haman the Amalekite.  Mordechai, a descendant of King Saul, carried out generations later what his ancestor failed to accomplish.

Amalek: In a history with so many enemies, why was Amalek’s crime considered so heinous that Jews are specifically commanded to literally stamp out his name?

The reason, our rabbis say, is because Amalek preyed on the weak and sought the Jews destruction. Haman, like his Amalekite ancestors, also wanted the Jew’s physical destruction.

So, the Shabbat preceding Purim, before we can let ourselves go and enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere of Purim, we, as Jews, are reminded of the kind of evil that is out there, the kind that wants nothing more than the total extermination of the Jewish people.

Fast of Esther: On the thirteenth of Adar, the day before Purim, Jews observe a fast day in memory of Esther who asked the Jews of Shushan to fast and pray for three days before she risked approaching King Ahashveurosh to rescind Haman’s evil decree.

It was in response to Mordecai’s urging that Esther asked the King for a special audience. This was done at great personal risk, since no one was allowed to enter the King’s court without being called. If they did, and the King’ scepter was not outstretched, they were put to death.

Like all Jewish fast days, eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, washing and engaging in sexual activity is prohibited.

Megillah Readings: The Book of Esther, which is one single scroll, is read out loud. It is first read on the eve of Purim, at the conclusion of the fast. The Megillah is chanted with its own melody before the entire congregations at the synagogue. If you are unable to attend Megillah reading at the synagogue, it is permissible to have the Megillah read to you at home.

As with all sacred scrolls, the Megillah reading is preceded  by three blessings:

The First Blessing: Baruch ata Adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al mikra megillah.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe, who has made us holy with your commandments and has commanded us about reading the Megillah

The Second Blessing: Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam sheh-assah nissim l’avoteynu ba-yamin ha-hem bazman hazeh

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our fathers in these days at this time of year.

The Third Blessing: Baruch ata Adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam sheh-hechianu v’ki;manu v’higianu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You Lord our G-d ruler of the universe who has given us life, lifted us up and brought us to this moment.

At the conclusion of the Megillah, a final blessing is recited:

Blessed are you Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has contended for us and defeated our cause, avenging us by bringing retribution on all our mortal enemies and delivering us from our adversaries. Blessed are You, Lord, who delivers His people from all their adversaries- G-d who saves.

Special Passages:  In the synagogue the Megillah is chanted in a tune passed down through our oral tradition.  As the reader comes to the following four passages he stops and waits for the congregation to first read them out load and in unison.  Once said, the passages are chanted by the reader.

  • There was a Jew in Shushan….” (2:4)
  • And Mordechai left the King’s presence in royal robes…” (8:15)
  • For the Jews there was light and joy, gladness and honor…” (8:16) For Mordechai the Jew ranked next to Achasveurosh…” (10:3)
  • The passage beginning, “That night, sleep deserted the King…” (6:1), is chanted with a different melody, signifying a major plot change, specifically, the turning of the tide in favor of the Jews

Purim Day: On Purim morning the Megillah is again read.  It is a mitzvah for both men and women to hear every word of the Megillah. Therefore, you will find very little talking during Megillah readings in most synagogues, except, of course, when the name Haman is recited.

Costumes: It is a custom to arrive to shul in costume. This is true of adults as well as children, but mostly children. The dress up aspect of Purim adds to its carnival nature. Children and adults sometimes spend weeks planning costumes. Most people dress up as the lead characters of the Purim story, but it has also become acceptable to dress up as contemporary political and historical figures. Costumes may be purchased or home made.

Children love to dress in costume and, after the Megillah reading, many synagogues hold Purim parades or Purim shpiels, small plays will lots of silly jokes, with judges and prizes for the best costume. This also helps ensure good behavior during the lengthy reading of the Megillah.

Graggers: Gragger is Yiddish for a noisemaker. In Hebrew they are called Ra’ashanim which means to make a lot of noise. Graggers come in many shapes and sizes. Any kind of noisemaker, such as horns or party favors, will do.  What is important is that you use them every time the name Haman is read out loud. Haman’s name first appears in chapter 3.

Mishloach Manot: It is a special mitzvah to send food packages or baskets to friends and relatives on Purim. This custom finds its origins in the Megillah when Mordecai declared the holiday of Purim as a time “of feasting and gladness and of sending food to one another, as well as gifts to the poor.”

The only requirement is that the food baskets, or in Yiddish, shalach-manot, contain at least two different foods that require two separate blessings, and that you send them to at least two different people.

Baskets may be simple or elaborate. There are religious organizations that put packages together for a fee, or you can put the baskets together yourself. The  food baskets must be hand delivered through a shaliach or representative, which is usually a small child. Shalach-manot are usually delivered the day of Purim.

Matanot L’evyonim: Gifts to the poor was the second requirement Mordechai made for Purim. Today, it is customary to make donations to charitable organizations, often in lieu of sending dozens of elaborate food packages. Often, people send a couple of shalach-manot to fulfill the mitzvah, and for the rest, send out donation cards indicating that a donation was made to such and such charity in lieu of shalach-manot.

Hamantashen: Hamentashen is the traditional food eaten on Purim. These are small, three-cornered cakes filled with fruit jams or poppy seeds. Hamantashen is Yiddish for Haman’s pockets, or in Hebrew, Oznei Haman, which means Haman’s ears. The three-cornered shape is supposed to look like the hat that Haman was said to have worn. (See, Recipes)

Purim Seudah: In the late afternoon, it is customary for family and friends to gather for a festive meal, or Purim seudah. There are no specific rituals for the seudah.  Just have fun being together.

Shushan Purim: Because it took the Jews of Shushan, a walled city, an extra day to fight their enemies, they did not rest until the 15th of Adar. For this reason, the rabbis said that all walled cities should observe Purim on the 15th day of Adar instead of the 14th .  Today, this only applies to the Jews of Jerusalem, also a walled city, who observe Purim on the 15th, while friends or family members in cities like Tel Aviv, celebrate a day earlier.

Purim Katan: During the Jewish Leap Year, there is a second month of Adar, which is called Adar Sheni. When this happens, a “small Purim” is observed on the 14th of the first Adar, and the big Purim celebration takes place on the 14th of the second Adar.

Tags: ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply