Hag Purim, Hag Purim, Hag gadol shel yeladim.” “The Feast of Purim, the Feast of Purim, a great holiday for the children,” proclaims this little song. It resounds throughout the streets of Israel during the Purim celebration which is also called the Feast of Esther. At this holiday time, which falls in late February or early March (in the Hebrew month Adar), children run around costumed as beautiful Queen Esther, righteous Mordecai or regal King Ahasuerus. A festive mood prevails, creating infectious smiles on everyone’s face.
Most other Jewish holidays carry a sense of solemnity and deep reverence, and any expressed joy is usually in the form of psalms and hymns. Purim, however, is different. In fact Purim is a time when the rabbis permit—even encourage—people to demonstrate their joy with such fervor that young and old alike may at times seem almost beside themselves with emotion.
Purim time is party time. Along with the costumes and gaiety, the more fortunate traditionally give charity and donations of food to the needy. As always at holiday times, special foods abound. Most popular are the little pastries called ozneh Haman, Haman’s ears, or Hamantaschen which are supposed to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. The latter are triangular-shaped pastries that usually contain prune or poppy seed and honey fillings. These sweets are designed to remind us of the story of Purim as we recall how God turned the evil designs of wicked Haman into something good for the Jewish people.
The Hebrew word Purim means “lots,” referring to Haman’s casting of lots to determine the best time for murdering the Jews. During the Feast of Purim particular attention is paid to the events surrounding the holiday as recorded in the book of Esther. Traditionally the scroll must be read through at least once; but in many circles multiple readings are common. One Hasidic tradition teaches that the book of Esther should be read repeatedly throughout the entire night, or at least until the participants become so tired that they can no longer tell the difference between the name of Mordecai the hero and the name of Haman the villain.
The casual manner in which the book of Esther is read at Purim time is not characteristic of the way that the Jewish people treat the Scriptures. The rabbis allow frivolity and even silliness to accompany the reading of this story, and they also condone casual dramatic portrayals of the events. The reason for this is that the name of God is never mentioned in the book of Esther. Were the name of God contained in the book, frivolity would be considered irreverent. However since it is not mentioned, celebration and unbridled merriment can proceed unabated.
Indeed, some have made a special point of the fact that the name of God is not mentioned in the book of Esther. In this they see a special message to the Purim story: God is always watching over Israel, although at times his hand may seem hidden.
There’s a lesson in this for us all. Too often people expect God to intervene in their life situations in some mighty and miraculous manner. While God has often responded in just such a manner in Bible history, this is not always the case. The story of Purim reminds us that God also works in quiet and hidden ways in the circumstances and problems of human life.
Furthermore, sometimes he uses ordinary people to perform extraordinary tasks. Neither Esther nor Mordecai was seeking fame or glory. By God’s plan, Esther became queen so that she might be at the right place at the right time to be used by him to bring deliverance to her people. Before she became queen, Esther was quite an ordinary person, and even in her regal position she became a heroine by doing what could be done within the routine context of her life. So, too, Purim ought to remind us that God is at work in our own lives in the normal and routine circumstances. The important lesson must be our assurance that God is always at work—seen or unseen—in his concern over the wellbeing of his people.