Think Fast: The mitzvot and customs of Purim

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

By Samantha Hulkower

Purim is this Sunday! (Monday for those living in Jerusalem) While there is a lot to look forward to, there are also a few important customs to know about before hand, to make the holiday more meaningful.

Jerusalem on Shushan Purim. photo by B.W.
While Purim is often associated with a festive meal and lots of alcohol, we first observe a fast day beforehand, one of the four sunrise to sunset fasts spread out over the year. It's known as Ta'anit Esther, or the Fast of Esther, as Queen Esther had instructed Mordechi to "Go and gather all the Jews  in Shushan and fast on my behalf," so that her plan to convince Achashverosh to nullify the decree to kill all the Jews would be successful. In that time, the Jews did sincere teshuva, repentance, regretting that they attended the meal at Achashverosh's palace and not returning to Israel when they had the chance. Fasting is helpful for teshuva (although not always required) because when we abstain from food and drink, we're not so focused on our bodies, and therefore have more time and a greater capacity to contemplate our actions. At the time of the Purim story, for three days they went without food and water, so today we are lucky we only have to do it for 14 or so hours.  

Additionally, the Jews fasted on the 13th of Adar, the day before they went to war to destroy those who were looking forward to carrying out the King's now rescinded decree. Even though Queen Esther's plan worked and Achashverosh rescinded the decree put out by Haman, the rest of the kingdom wasn't quite ready to put down their swords and let the Jews live happily ever after. As was often the case in those days, the Jews fasted before going to war, again to give themselves the opportunity to reflect on their behavior and repent what they needed to before going into a dangerous situation of battle. In commemoration of this fast, the fast day is usually the day before Purim (which is the 14th of Adar).

As many people are aware, there is also a custom to dress up on Purim and to wear masks. There are many explanations why, but most literally we can say it is to reenact that G-d's actions were 'hidden' throughout the Purim story, and likewise we hide our faces now. Also, Esther in Hebrew means 'hidden'

Aside from this, there are four mitzvot associated with Purim:
1) to hear the megillah reading at night and in the day
2) to send gifts of food (mishloach manot)
3) giving charity to the poor
4) having a festive meal
These are mitzvot anyone can get behind! Let's look at them in greater detail.

The mitzvah to hear the megillah, Megillat Esther, is understandable. The story of Purim is one of the greatest miracles and especially valuable to us today. Over a period of about nine years a series of events took place, which on their own don't seem to be anything special, but when we take a step back and look at them all together, we can very clearly see the Hand of G-d working to protect the Jewish people. In today's world, it's unfortunately easy to feel disconnected from G-d, at least compared to life in the days of the prophets, so hearing the megillah is an important reminder that even though things seem random or scary, everything is part of a bigger plan. Unlike other holidays, we don't say Hallel, because Hallel is intended to praise G-d and we accomplish that through reading or hearing the megillah.

The festive meal is celebrated with meat and wine, like on Yomim Tovim (holidays). It's eaten later in the afternoon and often lasts until after nightfall, extending the holiday (which isn't considered over until one says Grace After Meals). Part of the reason we drink wine on Purim is to do a tikkun, or rectification of the Jews who went and drank wine from the stolen vessels from the Beit Hamikdash in Achashverosh's party at the beginning of the Purim story. It says in the Gemara that one should drink wine until he can't differentiate between 'blessed Mordechai' and 'cursed Haman'. For most people they need to get pretty drunk in order to not be able to tell good from evil. We'll talk more about this in our post on the story of Purim. It's also customary to eat vegetables at the seuda, as a remembrance of Esther, who only ate vegetables the whole time she lived in the King's Palace (which was most of her life) in order to keep kosher.

The obligation to give gifts to the poor is pretty clear - it allows them to also partake in the festive meal and sending food to friends once they have the funds to do so. There is a custom to give to everyone who asks without questioning them -  in an effort to stimulate divine mercy so that G-d also gives us without judging whether or not we merit it. Everyone is required to give money, even the very poor themselves.

Lastly is the mitzvah to give gifts of food, known as shaloach manot (literally sending gifts). They don't have to be fancy, in order to fulfill the mitzvah the package has to contain two different types of food. While with most mitzvot, it is preferable to do the act yourself, in this case, it's actually preferable to have them sent by a third party. This is surely a relief for people busy preparing lunch for many guests and who wouldn't otherwise have the time to first start sending out the treats themselves! 

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