17 This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. 18 But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. 19 Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the rural towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, as a holiday, and as a day on which they send gifts of food to one another. Esther 9:17-20, ESV
The book of Esther ends with the establishing of the Jewish festival Purim, two days of feasting and gladness that take place on the same day Haman was originally going to carry out his genocide against the Jews.
Today in Israel, Purim is a raucous, joyous, festive bachanal, celebrated by both religious and non-religious Jews. From the outside, it looks like a combination Halloween, Carnaval, and Comic-Con, with lots of dress-up, lots of street parties, and lots and lots of alcohol.
To be honest, reading up on modern Purim celebrations and seeing the pictures left this buttoned-up, conservative Southern Baptist a little scandalized.
There are four mitzvot (commands) religious Jews are supposed to observe:
- Listening to two public readings of the Book of Esther (the Megillah, in Hebrew).
- Sending gift baskets of food, candy, etc. to your friends and family, called “mishloach manot” in Hebrew.
- Giving to the poor.
- Eating a “festive meal.”
The “festive meal” seems to be the one that gets the most attention. And believe it or not (cover your ears and clutch your pearls, my fellow Baptists), drinking is not only encouraged in Orthodox communities, drinking to excess is actually required by the Talmud. According to one article I read, getting sloshed on Purim reminds the Jews that many of the miracles of Purim occurred when wine — excessive wine — was being consumed. For what it’s worth, one could also make a case that the miraculous reversal of fortune in Esther was necessary precisely because excessive wine was being consumed.
As for the costumes and dress-up? Well, the simplest explanation is that lots of adults will look for any excuse to put on a costume. However, another article I found gave some fascinating explanations:
Since Jewish people were hiding their religion during the events of Purim and God was hiding his intentions, the Jewish people still mask their true identities in Purim; because part of Purim is handing out charity, people dress up in different clothes so that poorer people don’t feel embarrassed; or because part of the Purim story was the king dressing up Mordecai in his clothes to honor him, Jews now dress up to celebrate that.“What is Purim and How to Celebrate It” from Jewishinsider.com
One rabbi explained the costumes to a reporter for The Washington Post, saying, “The real lesson of Purim is that appearances are not everything and that God oftentimes operates behind the scenes and we can’t always directly perceive the intervention in our lives,”
So, for all of us goyim, what are our takeaways, both from the celebration of Purim and the biblical events? For me, it’s that once again, God shows that He is all about turning mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11) . The events of Esther were a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the year of the Lord’s favor in Isaiah 61:
61 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
(Side note: I never really caught the line in Isaiah’s prophecy about “the day of vengeance of our God” until I considered it in the light of King Ahaseurus’ decree that the Jews could use Haman’s day of genocide to defend themselves).
God is all about great reversals. Our sin for His righteousness. Our mourning for His dancing. Our ashes for His beauty. Graves into gardens. Funerals into festivals. And while I still can’t quite wrap my head around the command in the Talmud that on Purim the Jews are to drink themselves silly, it does suggest to me that our celebrations in heaven may not be quite so buttoned-up as we Baptists have always assumed. But that’s ok. Just tell us its grape juice, and we’ll be fine.