Temple Beth Shalom is the center for Jewish religious life in the West Valley, so our members are used to getting asked a wide range of questions about different aspects of Judaism.
These inquiries come from a broad spectrum of individuals, many of whom are not Jewish and want to know about specific books of the Bible or a holiday they may have heard about. As rabbi of the temple, I have received several calls recently from people living in different parts of the area about Purim — the Jewish equivalent of Mardi Gras — which is celebrated this year on Feb. 26.
The Jewish holiday of Purim centers on the reading of the Scroll of Esther, which tells the story of how a young Jewish girl wins a beauty contest, becomes the wife of King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), and saves the Jewish people of Persia.
According to the scroll, the Day of Deliverance should be celebrated with gladness and celebration. There should be feasting (what religious holiday is complete without a good meal?) and there should be as much partying as possible. Jews who celebrate Purim dress up in costumes, which may be based on one of the characters from Esther’s story or something more modern like superheroes or princesses. We read the scroll out loud and cheer every time one of the “good guys” is mentioned, and boo or twirl our noisemakers vigorously every time Haman — the “bad guy” — is spoken from the text.
In this story, Haman wore a distinctive three-point hat, which has been transformed into an iconic three-cornered pastry called a hamantaschen(literally translated “Haman’s ear”).
Our religious schoolchildren at the temple have been busy recently baking these triangular, pocket-filled cookies in a variety of flavors. I asked the students in my bar mitzvah class to tell me which flavor they liked best, and most of them chose chocolate. Personally, I prefer the raspberry ones.
In these difficult times in which so many have been forced to seek assistance, it is important to note that one of the central practices of Purim is to donate to those in need.
On the day of Purim, a person is obligated to give one gift each to at least two people who are less fortunate. At minimum, the gifts should be either the food eaten at a regular meal or the amount of money required to buy that meal. However, it is preferable to give more than this. In the rabbinic writings, the sages say that there is no greater joy than gladdening the hearts of orphans, widows and needy people. One who does this is compared to God, who, according to the Book of Isaiah, “revives the spirit of the humble and revives the heart of the downtrodden” (57:15).
What makes Purim so well known and so beloved is the custom of masquerading in costumes. Although the holiday itself goes back at least 2,000 years, the practice of dressing up probably originated among Italian Jews at the end of the 15th century. The Jews of Rome observed the practice of Carnival, which was part of the Christian festive season before Lent.
This celebration was observed in February or early March, exactly at the same time that Purim was celebrated. Carnival included parades just like you would see during Mardi Gras today in New Orleans and numerous other cities around the world. Costumes and even masks allow us revelers to exchange our normal, personal identities for those of religious, historical or popular figures.
While we each may dress up as vastly different characters, the impact of everyone being dressed up altogether paradoxically heightens our sense of communal unity. At this time when we feel that our society is at risk of fracturing, anything that can create more social cohesion is of potentially great value to all of us. Purim is one of the most joyous of holidays in the Jewish calendar, and yet it also includes some important lessons about familial loyalty, communal cohesion and how good people can band together to stop evil in its tracks.