A long time ago when the empire of Persia and Medea ruled the world, all citizens of the capital city of Shushan were called to a feast at the king’s palace. Though the leader of the Jewish community, a very wise man named Mordechai, advised against it, the Jews of Shushan felt they had no choice but to obey the king’s decree. This feast was the beginning of a series of events that would lead King Achashverosh (Ahasuerus or Xerxes in English), to stamp and seal a terrible decree on the suggestion of his wicked advisor, Haman (a direct descendent of the ancient Jewish enemy Amalek): all Jews in the kingdom were to be slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the upcoming Hebrew month of Adar. Men, women, and children would be destroyed, no survivors. The Jews of the kingdom gathered in prayer under the guidance of their leader Mordechai. They donned sackcloth and ashes in mourning. But the Jewish people had a secret weapon, one that had been put in place some time earlier: Mordechai’s niece, Esther, had been chosen out of all the beauties in the kingdom to marry King Achashverosh. Queen Esther lived modestly in the palace, keeping her Jewish identity and faith secret, but in this she had no choice but to act. When she heard of the decree, she fasted and prayed for three days. Then Queen Esther went before the king without being summoned. This was a selfless, extraordinarily brave act that would lead to her death unless Achashverosh stretched out his scepter in welcome. Miraculously, he did.
Esther had devised a plan: all Jews would fast and pray with her as she invited the King and the wicked Haman to a party. During the party, King Achashverosh was so struck by Esther’s beauty that he offered her anything, “up to half the kingdom.” She asked that he and Haman attend the party she would make tomorrow-then she would make her true request. That notorious night, the King could not sleep. Wondering why, he asked for the royal chronicles to be read, thinking that perhaps he owed someone a favor and that was subconsciously bothering him. He discovered that he did: part of the series of events leading to the terrible decree included Mordechai saving King Achashverosh’s life from an assassination plot. The King realized he had never rewarded the righteous Jew for saving his life.
Coincidentally, on the way home from the party Haman passed Mordechai and was incensed that Mordechai refused to bow in respect to him like everyone else. Haman was so angry he decided he could not wait for Adar: he would build a gallows and hang Mordechai on it, first thing in the morning. He began construction immediately on said gallows and ran to the king in the middle of the night to ask permission for a public execution. Before Haman could make his request, however, the king asked his top advisor what Haman thought should be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor. Thinking that man was naturally himself, Haman suggested he don the royal robes and crown, riding the king’s own horse through the capital city of Shushan, with an attendant declaring before him, “Thus shall be done to the man whom the king wishes to honor!” (Haman had a certain enemy of his in mind when he came up with that last bit) To his shock and horror, the king declared Mordechai was to be honored in this manner, with Haman leading the way and doing the proclaiming. This act gave the Jews of Shushan hope. When Haman finally arrived home after this humiliating experience, he was immediately called back to the palace for Esther’s party. During the party, Esther revealed her identity and her request: her own life and the lives of her people. King Achashverosh raged and demanded to know who would kill his own queen (perhaps the wine he drank at the party gave him selective memory). Esther pointed straight at Haman. The plot was foiled. The Jews were saved.
In a miraculous twist of events, Haman and his ten sons were hanged on the gallows prepared for Mordechai. All Haman’s estates were given to Queen Esther. Mordechai was made second to the King and the decree was reversed: on the fourteenth of Adar, the day we now celebrate the holiday of Purim, named for the pur, or lots (as in gambling) that Haman threw to determine the month the destruction would take place, the Jews now had permission to turn the tables and wipe out all their enemies.
To commemorate the story of this miracle, Esther’s parties, and the idea that all became topsy-turvy that day, we hear the Megillas Esther (the book of Esther) read aloud twice, give each other gifts of food, dress in costumes and have a celebratory seudah, a meal with bread, meat, and wine. Among other traditions, we give matanos l’evyonim, gifts to the poor. The whole month of Adar is considered a time of joy.
So when you see a whole bunch of people in costume carrying baskets of food and singing and dancing in the streets come Sunday, March 12th, you now know why. Wish them a freilichen Purim and remember to put Haman’s name on the bottom of your shoe so we can symbolically stamp out unfounded hatred for all generations to come.
All information in this post came from my own knowledge of the story of Purim. For more information, visit Encyclopaedia Judaica’s entry on Purim.
Or take a look at some of the books in our collection about this holiday:
Contributed by Toby Krausz, Judaica Librarian.
A version of the post was originally published on March 4, 2015.