The Book of Esther

Translated by Mordecai Housman

© Copyright

For this translation, I have delved into many of the Rabbinical Writings on the Book of Esther, and availed myself of the study devoted to it in the 2356 years since it was first written.

I have not translated literally, but rather conceptually. Instead of a translation, I have rendered the meaning of the verses, in clear and modern English. Each verse has been translated into an English sentence that means what the original Hebrew verse means.

I have also maintained the original chapter and paragraph divisions, as found in the original Hebrew text. To call attention to them I have added a subtitle before each. Please note that the subtitles themselves are not found in the original Hebrew, or in any other text of the Book of Esther I have encountered. They are purely my own. The idea of using such subtitles was first done, as far as I know, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (based on the Talmudic descriptions of the content of each paragraph) in his translation of the Pentateuch, and I have done my best to follow in his footsteps in this matter.

As this is to be a published text, G-d willing, I ask that no one use this, quote it in part or full, nor copy any part or all of it, without authorization from me.

Some Background History

The events detailed in the Book of Esther took place primarily in Shushan, the capital of King Ahasueraus’ empire. Shushan is the Hebrew form of the name Susa. Susa was in the area known as Eilam, in what is now Iran. Back then, it was called Bavel (Babylonia). It was, at that time, part of the empire of Persia and Media. Click here for a map of the area as it looked then. Susa is all the way at the bottom right of the map. (This map is taken, with some small modifications, from page 7 of Martin Gilbert’s Jewish History Atlas, published in London in 1969 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson.)

The events in the Book of Esther took place during the exile from Babylon. The first Holy Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Jews were taken into exile into Babylonia. (For more details, see my capsule History of the Children of Israel.)

The Jews didn’t all stay there in Babylonia during this exile period. After a while, Jews wandered all over the map and settled in many areas. We find that the Book of Esther says that the decree affected Jews in «all of the empire,» so Jews must have lived in many far-flung provinces of the empire.

Begin here, with Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

What else does the Talmud say about the events of Purim?

You may recall that at the beginning of Megillas Esther, King Ahasueraus made a great feast. He made this feast because he miscounted.

I’ll explain.

The Prophet Jeremiah said (29:10): «For thus says the L-rd, that after seventy years of Babylon exile are completed I will remember you; and I will fulfill for you my good word to return you to this place (Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple).» (See also Daniel 9:2)

So it was known to all that G-d had promised a return to Judea and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple after seventy years. The question was, when did the seventy years start?

During the third year of his reign, Ahasueraus thought that the seventy years were over, when in fact they were not. Ahasueraus counted from the exile of Jechoniah, king of Judea, but Jeremiah had counted from the destruction of the Temple, eleven years later.

Ahasueraus was overjoyed, thinking that Jeremiah was wrong, and that now he had nothing to worry about. He was sure that the Jews would never be taken out of exile, and that the Holy Temple would never be rebuilt. He thought he had vanquished G-d! (As if such a thing could be possible!) So he made a great feast, in which he desecrated the vessels of the Holy Temple.

This being the case, it was forbidden for the Jews to join this feast, or to even attend. Indeed, Mordechai Bilshan (as Mordechai was called) warned them all not to attend. He alone did not attend the feast, and all the Jews warned him he was a trouble maker. He warned them that G-d would punish them, but they said it would be more dangerous to refuse to attend.

When Haman rose to power, he ordered everyone to «bow down and prostrate themselves before him» (Esther 3:2). Such a manner of obeisance, bowing and prostration, was normally reserved for divine worship. In addition, the Yalkut (Esther 1054) teaches, Haman hung the image of an idol on his clothes, so that whenever someone would bow down to Haman, they would also be bowing down to his deity. This, of course, is forbidden by Jewish law. Everyone was afraid not to disobey. Only Mordechai Bilshan refused.

All the Jews yelled at him again. They accused him of casting them all in a bad light. He still refused to disobey the word of G-d, which forbids us to bow down towards idols. Haman grew angry, and he resolved to kill all the Jews, but in truth he was merely a tool in the hands of G-d, Who was warning us to repent.

The decree to kill all the Jews was sent forth in the twelfth year of the reign of King Ahasueraus. Everyone was upset. Mordechai reminded the people of their sin of attending the king’s banquet nine years earlier. He decreed days of repentance and prayer. Later, Esther decreed three days of fasting as well, although all the Jews were already fasting, unofficially. (See Esther 4:3)

The Jews, being good and holy people, all believed Mordechai. They could have insisted that it was Mordechai’s fault. After all, he had refused to bow down to Haman. He had refused to attend the banquet. But instead they accepted Mordechai’s admonishments, and they realized that the warning of the great tzaddik (righteous person) Mordechai was not to be taken lightly. They concluded that they should have obeyed Mordechai when he had warned them nine years earlier.

The people all repented, as evidenced by their fasting, mentioned in 4:3. (In Judaism, a fast must be accompanied by repentance, or the fast is meaningless.)

Since the people repented, it became possible for them to be saved. God had already prepared the salvation, in that Esther had been made queen, and that Mordechai had once saved the king’s life.

And so, all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place. When the Jews sinned by attending the banquet, Heaven slated them for the decree later signed by Haman and Ahasueraus. But G-d always prepares the salvation before the trouble, says the Talmud. And at that very banquet, Queen Vashti was killed, paving the way for the ascension of Esther.

Suddenly the king’s memory of Mordechai saving him shifted the balance of favor against Haman, and Haman was hanged on the very tree he had prepared for Mordechai. What irony!

Indeed, the irony of it all cannot be ignored. The Jews sinned with a feast, Haman and Ahasueraus made a feast when they decided to kill the Jews (see 3:15), and Esther wrought Haman’s downfall with a feast (see 7:2).

Through it all, G-d manipulated events to reach the conclusion. But we had to take the hard way, to learn that lesson, to learn that it is the obedience to G-d’s Laws that brings
salvation. That it happened through the hand of Mordechai and Esther. Mordechai, who had refused to attend the banquet, and refused to bow before an idol. And Esther, who had obeyed the command of Mordechai the Righteous (see 2:10 and 2:20), and who had repeated the name of her source when she told the king about the plot to kill him (see 2:22). (It is a mitzvah to obey the words of the righteous.)

And we learned another lesson. That through it all, be it ever so invisible, the Hand of G-d controls all. That G-d still controls the universe, even if all the miracles are hidden miracles, and not always in defiance of nature. And that is another reason G-d’s name is never mentioned overtly in the Megillah, only in hidden ways. And that is why it was prophetic that they renamed Hadassah «Esther,» «hide». To fulfill the verse in Deuteronomy 31:18, «And I will utterly hide My face…» (Anochi hastair =ASTIR= panai) True, G-d «hides» his face, in that there were no overt miracles, as there were at the time of Chanukah. But G-d was still there, controlling things behind the scenes.

This was because we had sinned. We had hidden ourselves from G-d’s words, so G-d hid himself from us. But G-d never forsakes us. And that is why it is called a «megillah». The word «megillah» means «scroll,» but here it alludes to another concept. The word «megaleh» means to reveal. And that is the lesson of Purim: Megillas Esther, the disclosure of the hidden «face» of G-d.

Why was it bad for the Gentiles to want to kill the Jews but OK for the Jews to kill 75,000 of them?

Well, that is a fair question, and actually a fairly common one, but it is based on a misunderstanding. (These misunderstandings have been common ever since the Christians have mass produced their completely inaccurate and selfserving rendering of what they have renamed the “Bible”. It’s sad, and it has been responsible for more distortions of G-d’s truth than anything else that has ever existed.)

In the Book of Esther 8:11, the nature of the king’s second decree is described: “. . . to the effect that the king permitted the Jews of every single city to organize and DEFEND themselves; to destroy, slay and exterminate every armed force of any people or province that THREATEN them…”

And in 9:2, we find: “The Jews organized themselves in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasueraus to attack THOSE WHO SOUGHT THEIR HURT…”

The original decree sentenced us all to death, with no recourse, no defense, no place to run and hide. The king refused to rescind that decree, but agreed to allow us to defend ourselves. We did not seek to kill anyone, nevertheless we enjoyed a victory. Killing is a bad thing, but being victorious over those who wanted to harm you is a victory and a joyous thing.

The fact is, we did not simply indiscriminately kill people, and not even all of Haman’s family was killed. As a matter of fact, our history records that the grandsons of Haman converted and studied Torah in the prestigious academy at Bnai Brak in Israel. (And you had to be pretty advanced to be allowed into that academy. That was the academy where the famous Rabbi Akiva studied and taught, centuries later.)

The enemies wanted to kill the Jews, but the Jews killed them. Therein lies a significant difference. They wanted to kill us, but we killed them only out of necessity (self-defense).

How come nobody prays in the book of Esther? In fact, where is G-d in this Book?

Answer: Well, actually, there is praying in the Book of Esther. When Esther told the Jews to fast for three days (Esther 4:15), they fasted and prayed. That’s the only possible reason. Why else does a Jew fast? If it were not for religious reasons, what could it possibly accomplish? Of course the Jews prayed. When Mordechai and all the Jews fasted and cried, they were repenting and praying.

The strong faith in Hashem that Mordechai had is shown clearly, in that same conversation with Queen Esther. Mordechai asks Esther to speak to the king about the decree against the Jews, and Esther explains that if she went to the king she could be killed. Mordechai answers (verse 15):

“Even if you are silent now, the Jews will get relief and rescue some other way, and you and your father’s house will be lost. And who knows? Maybe it was for just such an occasion that you were made queen!”

Mordechai knew that Hashem would help. If not through Esther, then some other way.

Mordechai’s faith also gave him the conviction to add that perhaps Hashem had put Esther in that position so that she could help the Jews. The Talmud teaches that Hashem always prepares a means of rescue before He creates any problem that He gives us. The solution to any problem is always something already in existence, or it can be assembled from whatever is already in existence.

Thus, Mordechai knew that there were two things necessary for their rescue. They needed to approach the king to ask him to repeal or change the decree, and they needed to pray to Hashem that their efforts be successful.

That being the case, the second question is even more troubling. Why isn’t G-d mentioned in the Book of Esther? Why aren’t the prayers of the Jews explicitly recorded in the Megillah?

The Sages discuss this, and there are a number of answers. The Jewish way is to consider things from all angles, and to attempt to foresee all possible results. Thus, the Sages (in this case Mordechai and Esther) actually had a number of motivations for writing the Book of Esther as they did.

Two of the most paramount and salient reasons were the pragmatic reason and the moral reason. The pragmatic reason was because the Book of Esther was also archived in the royal annals of Persia and Media. This meant that pagans would handle the scroll from time to time. Most of the pagans in those days would not have accorded the respect to Books that contain G-d’s Name that Jewish Law demands. If the Book of Esther would mention G-d’s Name explicitly, the end result would be that G-d’s Name would be desecrated, in violation of an express Commandment of the Torah. Therefore, they omitted any explicit reference to Hashem’s Name.

In addition, it would not have been politic to place too much emphasis on the Jewish faith. Anti-Semitism was not dead, in the Persian Empire. Thus, they make no overt mention of Jewish practices, such as the reason for Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman — which was because of the idol worn around Haman’s neck. Most of the people in the Persian Empire worshiped such idols, and the Jewish refusal to do likewise would have offended them.

And so, Hashem’s Name could not be mentioned explicitly in the Megillah. Nevertheless, Hashem’s Name is found in the Book of Esther hundreds of times, hidden and encoded in various fashions. It is the custom to concentrate on these allusions while reading the Megillah (Book of Esther) on Purim.

One example is where the words Yavo Hamelech V‘Haman Hayom — Hebrew for “Let the king and Haman come today” (5:4 in the traditional texts) form an acronym of the Tetragrammaton. There are many other examples of this.

Indeed, the Sages say that every time the Megillah mentions the word “the king,” without specifying Ahasueraus, it is obliquely referring to Hashem, and telling us something that was going on in heaven. When Esther “stood before the king” (5:1) we are being told that she also prayed to Hashem and was granted a divine experience.

And this leads us to the moral lesson in the Book of Esther. Why indeed is Hashem found only covertly throughout the Book, and not overtly as in the rest of the Tanach? Why indeed do we find no miracles and open prophecy, only a few hints to prophecy? Where indeed was G-d when everything was going so well, when our enemies were vanquished and our lives were spared?

Where was G-d? The same place G-d is when people ask “Where was G-d when the evil decree was passed against us in the first place?”!

As I mentioned above, Hashem always prepares the cure before the disease, the means of rescue before the trouble. Therefore, Hashem manipulated events so that Esther would be made queen (against her will, by the way) many years before Haman decided to kill the Jews.

The turnabout of Purim was a miracle just as mighty as the miracle of the splitting of the sea. The difference was that the splitting of the sea happened through a miracle that defied nature, and the turnabout of Purim was a miracle that USED nature. Hashem was there the whole time, but behind the scenes. Hashem was manipulating everything that happened. Just as Hashem made Haman conceive of the plan and King Ahasueraus approve it, in order to warn us that we had sinned by attending the king’s party, so too did hashem manipulate world events so that we would be saved when we repented.

This is alluded to in the very name of the Book itself! The word Megillah (literally “scroll”) is related to the word “galuy,” which means “revealed.” The word Esther is related to the word “hester,” which means “hidden.” The turnabout of Purim revealed to us that Hashem is behind the scenes at all times, “hidden,” so to speak. And thus the name of this Holy Book is Megillas Esther, the “Revealing of the Hidden.”

It is therefore appropriate that the Name of Hashem is hidden throughout the Book, instead of openly revealed.

A Pair of Queens

The Dual Nature of Queen Esther

A question I received by email recently:

«What can we learn from Queen Esther and her character, that we can teach our daughters today? What application might our children find for their lives today?»

The first thing to understand about Queen Esther was that she was extremely righteous. She was, in fact, a Prophetess, which demands a very high level of spiritual self-development. She and Mordechai together composed the Book of Esther; the only Book in Tanach (the Jewish Bible) that a woman directly composed. (Several women
are quoted, such as the Prophetess Deborah in Judges, but she did not compose the Book of Judges itself. The song she composed comprises one chapter in the Book of Judges.)

Let us look yet deeper. One of the clues to understanding Biblical figures is their names. Names are not given by accident. Our Rabbis tell us that whenever Jewish parents give Jewish names to their children they are granted a certain measure of Divine Inspiration, and thus they give each child the name that is appropriate for that child’s soul.

This was all the more true in the times of the Jewish Bible. This is why the Talmud (BT, Chullin 139b) asks «Where is Queen Esther hinted at in the Five Books of Moses?» Every event and every personage in Jewish history is alluded to in the Five Books of Moses, if only you know where to find it.

Where indeed, is Esther alluded to in the Torah, and what is the significance of that particular allusion?

In the case of Esther things are slightly more complicated, because she had two names. The name given to her by her parents was Hadassah. The name given to her by the Gentiles when she became queen was Esther. The Gentiles called her some form of Ishtar or Astarte, but in Hebrew and Aramaic it came out as Ester. (In English, for some reason, it is spelled Esther.)

Despite the fact that Esther was a name given to her by Gentiles, that is the name to which she is alluded in the Five Books of Moses. The name Esther means «hidden,» and indeed, Esther’s true identity was hidden in plain sight, so that as queen of Persia she could effect salvation for all her people. She had to be forcibly taken to the king’s palace in order to accomplish this. (Had she gone of her own free will to marry this gentile, king or no king, she would no longer have been righteous, and she would thus no longer have been able to effect that sort of salvation for any of her people.) For many years, no one knew that Queen Esther was Jewish. Because, as the Megilah tells us, «Esther did not reveal her race or nationality, because Mordechai had ordered her not to» (2:10). This was necessary, because Mordechai foresaw the impending calamity, and also foresaw that Esther would be the instrument through which Hashem would save the Jews.

Esther was uniquely suited to this purpose. Esther had inherited a great quality from her ancestor Rachel, the wife of Jacob. Esther was from the Tribe of Benjamin, Rachel’s second son. As we know, each of the Pillars of the World (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, and a few others) exemplified certain characteristic traits. They did this by acquiring and developing these traits within themselves to such a degree that their level of achievement in this area was incomparable. And they acquired these traits so deeply, that they merited being able to instill these traits in their descendants. These traits became hereditary, so that all their descendants, and all those who join the Jewish People, can acquire them.

This is not entirely unique to the Children of Israel. Descendants of Ishmael have a tradition of hospitality that they have inherited from our common ancestor Abraham. Esau respected and honored his father Isaac greater than any man ever honored their father, and many of his descendants inherited that potential. Going further back, many descendants of Yefes (the oldest son of Noah) inherited the blessing Noah bestowed upon him. The Greeks were descendants of Yefes, and they inherited the primary quality of that blessing: their entire culture was saturated with beauty. Their language was beautiful, their architecture was beautiful, and so on.

Thus, a Jew, whether by birth or by choice, has the ability to acquire certain traits at levels we would not imagine possible. (This is demonstrable, and can be witnessed, if you know where to look. Admittedly, such great, righteous people are few and far between, but they do exist.) Why are we able to do this? By the merit of the Pillars of the World, our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. How are we able to do this? With a great deal of hard work, and after many years of effort.

Rachel embodied many good traits, of course, but she is perhaps most famous for what she did for her sister Leah. Jacob worked for Laban for seven years, in exchange for which Laban was to allow Jacob to marry his younger daughter Rachel. But Laban pulled a fast one on Jacob, and gave him Leah instead. (She was wearing a veil.) Then Laban forced Jacob to work for him another seven years for Rachel.

Now, when Laban pulled the switch, where was Rachel? Why didn’t she step forward and put a halt to the proceedings? Why didn’t she speak up and warn everyone at the wedding ceremony that Laban was tricking Jacob?

The answer is that speaking up would have embarrassed Leah terribly. Judaism teaches that it is better to be thrown into a burning fire than to embarrass someone publicly. Thus, Rachel kept her silence, and told no one.

Can you imagine that? Can you fathom how a person could wait for the love of her life for seven years, and then give him up in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, so that her sister, her rival, should not be embarrassed publicly? Not many people would act that way.

And thus this characteristic trait, that of silence and discretion, was planted in the national identity of the Jews, and most especially in the descendants of Rachel.

And thus, Queen Esther had a place from which to draw such strength. For Esther was herself a righteous Pillar of the World (though she is not considered one of the Matriarchs). And therefore her adopted name was also appropriate for her, in that it not only portrayed the status of Hashem’s relationship with the Jews in Exile, that Hashem performs miracles for us in a hidden manner, it also indicated Esther’s personal nature. Indeed, like all of the events that took place in the Megillah (Book of Esther), it was quite ironic in its own way, especially since the Gentiles gave her the name that indicated that she would not tell them that she was not a Gentile!

This concept of self-control, as epitomized by Rachel and Esther, to keep silent when necessary, is a trait all of us should learn and develop.

This is why the Talmud finds Esther’s name alluded to in the Tanach (Jewish Bible) in the verse «astir panai,» which means, «I will hide My face….» (Deuteronomy 31:18). When we are not worthy of miracles that involve disturbances of nature, such as the Splitting of the Sea and so forth, Hashem works using hidden miracles, such as the Miracle of Purim, where Hashem works anonymously, so to speak, behind the scenes of what we humans think of as «natural» means.

The name Hadassah comes from the word «hadas,» which means myrtle. The myrtle is a rather plain-looking plant, but when its leaves are bruised and crushed they give forth a very sweet fragrance. Esther, the Talmud tells us, was actually not very good-looking. It was, in fact, a miracle that everyone who looked at her thought she was beautiful. This was a necessary element of the overall miracle that saved the Jews from annihilation.

Let us take a look at Esther’s life. There she was, in Shushan, living with her husband Mordechai. These were two of the most righteous people alive at the time. They lived a life of holiness together, and certainly did not welcome Esther being dragged away from home and forced to become the wife of a Gentile. At no time did Esther ever encourage the king in their relationship. Yet nevertheless, the king loved her and kept her as queen for all his life.

King David composed Chapter 22 of Tehilim (Psalms) with Queen Esther in mind, seeing prophetically what would take place some 450 years later. Esther would often pray this Psalm. Remember, also, that Esther was a prophetess, and was often granted Divine Inspiration. The Book of Esther says that «On the third day of the fast, Esther dressed in her royal clothes, and she stood at the king’s inner court….» (Esther 5:1). The Talmud (Megilah 15a) says that this means she dressed in spiritual royalty, and was granted Divine Inspiration at the time. But on her way to the throne room she had to pass the
Persian idols that the king worshiped, and so of course the Divine Inspiration left her, since holiness will not visit where there is such impiety. In anguish, she cried out, from Psalm 22, «My G-d, my G-d, why have You forsaken me?» and continued praying the rest of that Psalm.

Esther was forced to remain in the palace for many years, and the agony was incomparable. Esther, who was orphaned at a young age, now had to live her adult life in misery as well. Esther lived at the king’s palace for nine years before the events of Purim took place, without knowing why Hashem had placed her there. But there is never pain without purpose. Hashem never allows anyone to undergo suffering without a reason. And whenever there is suffering, Hashem’s purpose is to elevate and improve people, starting with the person undergoing the suffering, and often spreading out to others.

It is therefore fitting that King David should compose (also with Divine Inspiration) the words that Queen Esther would later say so often in prayer. There has seldom lived a righteous man so beset with troubles as was King David, a man who spent much of his life running away from one person or another, including his own children. Yet King David produced the Books of Psalms, the greatest prayers and praise of Hashem ever composed. One thing that is unique about King David and his Psalms is that he composed psalms both when he was at peace, and when he was in trouble. He never ceased to praise Hashem, and he never ceased to beg Hashem for consideration and mercy.

It was indeed the troubles he underwent that helped shape King David into what he was. In all his life he has never been accused of more than one error, and even that is greatly misunderstood to be much worse than it was. Indeed, his greatness, and thus his fragrance, like Queen Esther’s centuries later, was shaped at least in part by being crushed and bruised.

King David and Queen Esther do not stand alone. They stand as pillars for us to hold on to and emulate. They teach us what we must know of life. Just as the hadas must be bruised and crushed in order to smell its sweetest, so often must each of us undergo suffering in order to fully develop. Our sweet smell is inherent, but it is not always manifest until brought forth through difficult times.

And the two names of Queen Esther work hand in hand in this message: Hashem’s salvation lies waiting for us in secret. Somewhere, whatever trouble we may be going through, for whatever reason we may need to be «bruised and crushed,» like the hadas, there is always an ester, a hidden salvation waiting for us, that Hashem has prepared for us long before the troubles began.

Why do people dress in disguises and costumes on Purim?

There are a number of reasons for dressing in disguises on Purim. The simplest one is that it is a remembrance and thanksgiving of how G-d saved us while still staying anonymous. How behind the scenes G-d caused a miracle. G-d was “masked,” so to speak — disguised as “nature” — so we also disguise ourselves, to remember this.

Another reason is to highlight the concept that even the Gentiles disguised themselves, pretending to be Jews. The Megillah thus says: “And many of the people of the land professed themselves to be Jewish, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.” (8:17) They pretended to convert to Judaism, but didn’t actually. We know this because the term used in that verse is “misyahadim,” — “Judaized,” instead of “misgayarim,” — “converted.”

They merely masqueraded as Jews. Thus, the custom has arisen to masquerade ourselves on Purim, to commemorate the miracle, whereby a complete turnabout caused the Gentiles to fear us and not kill us, as they had originally planned.

Why do People Make Parties on Purim?

The purpose of parties is to fulfill one of the important duties of the day: to publicize the miracle that Hashem performed for the Jews during the events of Purim. Hashem (G-d) turned around the day from anticipated tragedy to victory and joy, and saved all the Jews of the world from annihilation.

Parties are deeply rooted in the Tradition of Purim. Most of the significant events that took place in the Book of Esther happened at parties. King Achashverosh (Ahasueraus) made a party to celebrate the fact that Hashem had not rebuilt the Holy Temple. The Jews attended, and were thus liable for punishment.

But at that party, Hashem also made certain that events would take place that would eventually protect the Jews from their annihilation. At that party, the king had his wife killed, and this resulted in Queen Esther being appointed queen.

Twelve years later, Haman invited the king to a party, and there convinced him to kill all the Jews.

Three days after that, Queen Esther invited the king and Haman to two parties, at which she revealed that she was Jewish and that Haman’s decree would have her and her people killed.

Thus, making parties and drinking wine are strong reminders of the miracle that Hashem did for us.

We must remember that just as Hashem worked on our behalf behind the scenes, we must also keep a part of ourselves under control as well, even as we drink and be merry. We party to celebrate the miracle, not to act with wild abandon.

How is Purim celebrated?

Remember that in Judaism, the night always precedes the day, so every holiday begins the night before, and ends at nightfall the next day.

The night of Purim we read the Book of Esther in the synagogue immediately after the nighttime prayers. Each time the name of Haman (the bad guy) is mentioned, we make noises, stomp, yell, that sort of thing. We call this practice Klopping Haman — “Hitting Haman.” It is done to remember the commandment of “You shall blot out the name of Amalek.” (Haman was an Amalekite, and that was his real motive for hating Jews. It was an “inherited” racism.)

Afterwards, we go home and eat a festive meal. The custom today is to visit one’s Rabbis or anyone who has taught you Judaism lessons. In many places people (often students in a yeshivah) put on plays, usually funny plays, but not always. In general, the theme is fun and happiness. A lot of singing and dancing goes on, but it is forbidden to act wild or dangerous. This happiness is a requirement by Law, except for people who are, G-d forbid, in mourning.

The next morning, after the morning prayers, we read the Book of Esther again, doing the same thing at the evil Haman’s name. Afterwards, we eat a festive breakfast meal, and begin the day’s other observances. The day’s obligatory services constitute a number of things, including the giving of charity to at least two poor people. This is called Matanos lo’evyonim. It is a requirement and an obligation, and one of the Commandments we are required to fulfill on the day of Purim.

The Law, however, is that we should give to anyone who asks, and we pray that G-d do likewise to us, to give us whatever we ask just for asking. It is known that Purim is the best day for raising charity, because everyone gives what they can and often more.

Also among the day’s obligatory services is the requirement to give at least one friend two food items that are already prepared and are ready to be eaten. This is called Shalach Manos (though to be grammatically correct it should be called Mishlo’ach Manos, but few people bother with grammar these days, so never mind).

You can read about these in the Megillah, the Book of Esther, Chapter 9, verse 22: “…as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and the month which had been transformed for them from one of sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festivity. They were to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, and for sending delicacies to one another, and gifts to poor people.”

We celebrate by having joy and happiness. That’s why we make plays, that’s why we spend the day in never-ending singing and dancing, going around giving our friends and relatives baskets of goodies and sweets, dressing in costumes, cracking jokes, getting tipsy, giving charity, things like that.

The primary Festive Purim Meal is eaten in the late afternoon on Purim, after Minchah (the afternoon prayer). One must eat bread (washing as Jewish Law dictates), at least one cooked food, and drink at least one cup of wine. We call this the Purim Seudah.

The drinking of wine is significant, because many of the events of Purim happened through wine. Ahasueraus got drunk and killed Vashti, paving the way for Esther to be made queen. Esther gave wine to King Ahasueraus and lowered his defenses, which resulted in his killing Haman. Thus the Megillah tells us that we should celebrate by “feasting.” The Hebrew words for “feasting” means bread, cooked food, and drinking wine. The Talmud therefore tells us to drink on Purim “more wine than we usually do.”

During this meal, it is customary to begin the study of the Laws of Passover, which is just one month away.

The day before Purim, the Fast of Esther, we do not eat from morning until after hearing the Megillah at night, because of the fast that Esther ordained.

At the afternoon service before Purim it is customary to give three coins (preferably silver, and preferably coins with the number Ѕ on them) to charity in memory of the three “half-shekels” given to the Temple. In many synagogues the coins are provided as loans. We donate one-and-a-half dollars to the synagogue, to purchase the coins. We then pick up the silver coins so that we can take possession of them, and then donate them back to the synagogue. This is called Mach’tzis Hashekel, The “Half-Shekel.”

It is correct not to engage in business or go to work on Purim, if this is possible.

Before and during Purim we wish each other “ah fraylechin Purim” — a joyful Purim.

What is the Meaning of Purim?

A. Essentially, Purim is about how G-d is hidden in everything. G-d performs miracles for us, all behind the scenes.

The “official” story of Purim, as written for both the Persian royal archives of that time, and the Holy Torah, can be found in the Biblical Book of Esther. It would pay for you to read that Book. There’s a lot of information that is not stated openly in that Book, but the Prophets Mordechai and Esther managed to write it in such a way that it alludes to all the relevant information, and they recorded the explanations of their coded phrasing in the Talmud, which we still have today. These days you can find even English translations written by Rabbis, with the Rabbinic explanations on the bottom, just as can be found in the printed Hebrew texts.

It was during the time that the Jews were in Exile in Babylon, after the destruction of the first Holy Temple. Cyrus, king of Persia, had permitted the Jews to rebuild the Holy Temple. His usurper/successor, King Ahasueraus (Xerxes), put a halt to the rebuilding. He felt it would diminish his own power. He began to consolidate his kingdom, and when he was done with that he made an enormous party for all his subjects. He also exhibited the utensils from the Holy Temple and boasted about his own prowess. The Prophets and Sages declared it was forbidden to attend the party, because of this denigration of the Holy Temple Vessels, but most Jews attended it anyway, out of fear of the king. As a result, G-d decreed a warning against them as a reminder of their duties to G-d.

But G-d always prepares the cure before the hurt. At this party, the king got angry at Queen Vashti, and he had her killed. He searched for a new queen, and finally chose Hadassah, a Jewess. The Persians of the palace, however, called her Esther, after Ishtar/Astarte/Easter, who personified, to the Persians, beauty. What they did not know was that G-d had manipulated them in giving this nickname as well, for in Hebrew “Esther” means hidden. We shall soon see the significance of this name.

Then G-d created the punishment: Haman came to power. The king appointed Haman as viceroy. Haman decided to have all the Jews killed. It seemed to him and to many other people that it was all the fault of Mordechai, the righteous prophet who defied Haman’s laws. Haman, after all, wanted people to bow down to him. He hung a symbol of an idol around his neck, so that people would be bowing down to both. Jewish Law forbids bowing down in such a situation. One must rather accept death, before bowing down to anything idolatrous. Mordechai therefore refused to bow or kneel before Haman. Haman got very angry, and decided to kill all the Jews. (This is often cited as the classic case of anti-Semitism. Perhaps it is, but I think that ignores the real point.)

Haman declared his decree, but kept its exact nature secret. The public decree merely stated that everyone be prepared to fight and kill one nation on the 13th of Adar. The private decree sent only to the satraps and governors throughout the kingdom explicitly marked the Jews. Mordechai, through Divine Prophecy, found out about the details and informed all the Jews, and they began fasting and repenting. They acknowledged that they should have obeyed the Rabbis, and not attended the party, nor bowed down to Haman.

Because they repented, G-d’s decree against the Jews was annulled and reversed. Ahasueraus changed his mind about Haman, and killed Haman instead. The king’s change of heart seemed to come about because of Esther, who suddenly revealed she was also Jewish, and would therefore also be killed by Haman. The king got very angry at his favorite minister, and ordered him killed. The tree that Haman had prepared for Mordechai’s hanging was used instead to hang Haman.

Thus the turnabout nature of Purim. The reversal of the attitude of the Jews. The reversal of Ahasueraus’s mind and heart, at least to some degree. The reversal of the decree itself.

The decree: The 13th of Adar was to be the day that all the Gentiles were permitted to kill and despoil the Jews, and the Jews were forbidden to defend themselves. The king changed the nature of the decree only to the extent that the Jews were to be allowed to defend themselves. That change, along with the news that Haman had been hanged by the king, threw consternation into the hearts of the enemies of the Jews. Well, not all of them. Many still arose to kill the Jews on the 13th of Adar, but the Jews defended themselves and won the battle with great victory, though of course it would have been better never to have had to fight at all. Thus the day itself was reversed in intent and purpose.

Through it all, we see the hidden Hand of G-d, manipulating events from beginning to end. Many things were hidden and then revealed, such as Queen Esther’s nationality. The name Esther itself shows this, since in Hebrew “Esther” means “hidden.”

Esther’s original name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther by the Persians, because of her beauty. The name Esther was derived from the name Ishtar (a supposedly beautiful pagan goddess), which in itself originally derived from “Istahar,” a very bright star, and in some cultures, the moon.

Nothing happens by coincidence. For Esther was the bright star that the Jews needed in that time of darkness. For in Hebrew “Esther” means “hidden,” and the very lesson of Purim is that G-d is hidden in everything that happens. And from darkness, arose this morning star.

The whole lesson of Purim is that G-d also does things in a hidden way, but it is still G-d behind everything.

And that is the meaning of Purim.