The festival commemorates God saving the Jewish people from a Persian official named Haman.
The story is recorded in the book of Esther, named after the Jewish heroine of the story. In the Biblical account, Haman, the royal vizier to the Persian King Ahasuerus, plans to kill all the Jews in the empire. However his plans are thwarted by two Jews – Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai is the cousin and adoptive father of Esther, who has become Queen of Persia.
Haman's desire to destroy the Jewish people begins when he is insulted by Mordecai refusing to bow to him. He declares that all Jews should be killed, and the King agrees. Meanwhile, Esther – who is married to the King – asks all the Jews to fast for three days.
Esther then arranges a feast to celebrate the end of the fast, inviting both the King and Haman, finally revealing her identity as a Jew. The King – realizing that Haman now wants to kill his wife – says he should be hanged, and the Jews are saved.
God used Esther to thwart Haman's conspiracy. She was a simple, orphaned Jewish girl, but was raised up by God to rescue his people from death.
Isn't Esther the book in the Bible that doesn't mention God's name?
Well yes, if you're reading in English. The answer is not so simple when the book is read in its original Hebrew, however.
Though the name of God is not explicitly mentioned, it can be found in the book of Esther five times through the use of acrostics.
There are two potential reasons – one practical, and one more thematic.
1. God's name might not have been overtly mentioned because of the context in which in which Esther was written. Tradition holds that Mordecai wrote the book in Persia, where his direct mention of God would have meant he were persecuted. Instead, he disguised his references to the Lord in acrostics.
2. There are no miracles or obvious examples of God's intervention in the narrative of Esther, yet he is by no means absent from these events. The entire story points to God's sovereignty. The Lord redeems his people through the faith and courage of one strategically placed woman. The lack of direct reference to God or the miraculous teaches that God is present in the seemingly natural, sovereign over all.
Why is Purim celebrated?
To commemorate the Jews' victory over Hamman. It is written in Esther "that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."
There are three main ways that Jews celebrate Purim.
Shouting in the Synagogue. During the festival the story of Esther is read out twice. During the reading, when Haman's name appears – 54 times – the congregation starts shouting and using special wooden ratchets to drown out his name. This is practiced around the world, apart from by Spanish and Portuguese Jews (the Western Sephardim), who consider it a breach of decorum.
Giving food and money away. One of Purim’s primary themes is Jewish unity. Haman tried to kill all Jews, all were all in danger together, so they celebrate together too. Hence, on Purim day they place special emphasis on caring for the less fortunate.
Give money or food to at least two needy people during the daylight hours of Purim. In case you can’t find any needy people, your synagogue/church will likely be collecting money for this purpose. At least, place two coins in a charity box earmarked for the poor. On Purim, we give a donation to whoever asks; we don’t verify his or her bank balance first.
As with the other mitzvahs of Purim, even small children should fulfill this mitzvah.
Obligatory eating and drinking. Unless you have a good medical reason, every Jew is obliged to eat and drink on Purim. A rabbi named Rava said in the Talmud that one should drink until you can "no longer distinguish between arur Haman (cursed is Haman) and baruch Mordechai (blessed is Mordecai)". The drinking has been taken to different extremes throughout history, some saying it best to drink just a little more than usual and then go to bed, while others say there's no limit.
|Hamantaschen Cookies w/Various Fillings|
Thus, “hamantaschen” means “poppy-seed-filled pockets.”
This is in line with the classic explanation given in the Code of Jewish Lawfor eating hamantaschen on Purim:
Some say that one should eat a food made out of seeds on Purim in memory of the seeds that Daniel and his friends ate in the house of the king of Babylon, as the verse states, “And he gave them seeds.”
But what in the world does Daniel eating seeds have to do with Purim?
The Talmud explains that Hatach, Queen Esther’s faithful messenger and one of the lesser-known heroes of the Purim story, is a pseudonym for none other than Daniel.
Furthermore, as we read in the Purim story, when Esther was in the king’s palace, she kept her identity secret. The Talmud explains that since the food was non-kosher, she survived on various beans and seeds.
It is in commemoration of both Daniel and Esther that there is a custom to eat beans and seeds on Purim. The way this custom is traditionally observed is by eating pastry pockets, a.k.a. taschen filled with mohn, poppy seeds.
|Esther exposing Haman to the King|
Based on this reason for eating hamantaschen, whenever the classic halachic sources discuss this custom, specific mention is made of the hamantash being filled with poppy seeds.
In addition to the classic reason for hamantaschen, many other explanations have been offered to explain this custom. Indeed, just about every aspect of this treat is laden with symbolism. Here are some explanations given.
The Weakening of Haman
“Tash” in Hebrew means “weaken.” Thus, the hamantash celebrates the weakening of Haman and our wish that God always save by weakening our enemies.
During the Purim story, many Jews did not believe they were going be completely wiped out. Mordechai convinced them of the seriousness of the threat by sending them numerous letters warning them of the impending doom. Afraid to send the letters by conventional routes lest their enemies intercept them, he sent the letters hidden inside pastries. In commemoration of this, pastries are eaten with a filling.
A well-known insight into the hamantash points to the fact that the filling is hidden inside the dough. In earlier times, Jewish ancestors were accustomed to experiencing open miracles. In a time of exile, openly revealed miracles aren't commonly experienced anymore. Nevertheless, the Purim story shows that this does not mean that we’ve been abandoned. On the contrary, God is ever present. He’s just operating in a behind-the-scenes fashion, just as the filling of the hamantash is hidden within the dough.
While there is an old legend that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, and to commemorate his downfall, a three-cornered pastry is eaten, there is a deeper significance as well.
The Midrash says that when Haman recognized (the merit of) three forefathers, his strength immediately weakened. Because of this, three-cornered pastries are eaten and called “Haman weakeners (tashen).”
Another reason for corners: The Hebrew word for “corner” in Hebrew is“keren,” which literally means “horn,” and can also denote “ray,” “fortune,” or “pride.” Thus, the sages understand the verse, “And all the kerens of the wicked I shall cut down” as referring to Haman, and “Exalted will be thekeren of the righteous” as referring to Mordechai.
If you're interested in the Esther story in more detail by an amazing pastor and storyteller. Then please follow this link to Fresh Life Church and watch the series. Trust me, it is well worth it!
Here is the first video in the series: Velvet and Steel
My next blog post will be of Hamantaschen cookie recipe (for link, click here).. I wanted to get this post out before Purim, but was simply too busy, so now, I hope my readers will be interested in celebrating this amazing story next year by making Hamantaschen cookies and perhaps considering some of the other traditions of Purim.