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12 things to know about the Jewish holiday Purim

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Queen Esther portrait by Minerva Teichert. The Jewish holiday of Purim celebrates Esther's courage.

Queen Esther portrait by Minerva Teichert. The Jewish holiday of Purim celebrates Esther’s courage.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I love the Jewish holiday Purim, partly because it is the story of a woman and partly because I am named after a woman who was named after that woman. Chag Purim Sameach, or as that phrase loosely translates from Hebrew to English, happy festival of Purim!

Here are 12 things to know about celebrating Purim, which in 2013 will be commemorated Feb. 23-24:

The woman

Purim is a Jewish holiday that reminds us of how Queen Esther of the Old Testament delivered the Jewish people by simply remembering who she was. She remembered her God, regardless of those around her, and she knew that it was God who placed her in the position of queen. She stayed true to herself, and to her God, and in this way an entire people were rescued.

The history

Esther lived during a time when the Jewish people were under the rule Ahasuerus of the Persian Empire. He gave a six-month month party for his army, closing with a party for the common people. Many people were drunk, and the king tried to show off his wife. The queen — who may be a silent hero for all women in this moment — refuses, and the king fires her as queen. He orders that all the young women be presented to him so that he can choose a new queen. Esther is an orphan girl who has been raised by her cousin, Mordecai. When the king chooses her as his new queen, she does not tell him that she is Jewish.

The culture clash

Since Esther was Jewish and was married to a non-Jewish king, she wanted to practice her religion — but it was dangerous for the Jews at the time. Megillah tradition says she had seven different maids, and used one for each day of the week. Accordingly, no maid noticed that her behavior was any different on the Sabbath than other days. The Talmud says that because she had no access to kosher food, Esther ate only fruit and nuts and seeds.

The plot

After the king and Esther are married, Mordecai uncovers a plot where some courtiers plan to kill the king. Mordecai catches them; they are hung on the gallows; and the king knows Mordecai is on his side.

However, the king’s prime minister, an antagonist named Haman, does not like Mordecai. He knows Mordecai is Jewish because Mordecai won’t bow down to Haman. This makes Haman so angry that he wants not to just kill Mordecai, but all Jews. Haman gets permission from the king to kill all the Jews, and starts building the gallows to hang Mordecai.

The intervention

First, Mordecai and Esther tell all the Jews to repent, to fast, and to pray for three days. Then, on the third day, Esther goes to the king — while Haman is there — and invites him to a party.

The night before the party, the king cannot sleep. He tries to bore himself to sleep by having records read to him, and in this way he is reminded of how Mordecai saved his life. He asks about this, and is told that Mordecai was never rewarded for this great service and never received any recognition.

The twist

At this very moment, Haman shows up, trying to flatter the king. The king looks at Haman, and asks him what the king should do to honor a faithful man. Haman thinks the king is talking about him, and so he says that the man the king wishes to honor should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and be taken around on the king’s royal horse. Haman is mortified when the king then orders him to do this for Mordecai!

The big reveal

The next night, both the king and Haman go to Esther’s party. It is then that Esther finally reveals to the king that Haman's plan to kill all the Jews would include both her and Mordecai. The king, who has just honored Mordecai that day, is angry! Haman’s plan backfires, and the king hangs him on the gallows built for Mordecai.

The win

The king cannot stop the decree against the Jews, but lets Mordecai and Esther write their own decree giving the Jews permission to defend themselves. The Jews win the battle, but do not take any spoil from the battles, only fighting for their lives and right to worship.

Mordecai takes Haman’s place as the new prime minister, Esther remains queen, and the king approves an annual holiday to celebrate the day the Jews were saved.

The celebration

Because this was a political plot, and the people as a nation were saved through good politics, it is more a national holiday than a religious holiday for the Jewish people. However, many Jews do go to the synagogue for a public reading of the Book of Esther, during which there is a tradition to use noisemakers to drown out the name of Haman anytime it is read. There are also gifts of food, gifts to charity, and a festive meal shared.

The play

It is also custom to re-enact the Purim story as a play, the "Purim Spiel," which is popular with children especially in Jewish schools. These are usually funny plays, comedies, and may teach anything about Judaism — not just the story of Esther.

The parties

Because Esther delivered her people by throwing a party for positive politics, Purim is a festive holiday. Many wear masks and costumes to honor Esther, who disguised her religion so that it could be revealed well and at the right time, and to remind them that God “disguised” his presence behind unfolding politics.

The challenge

In celebration Purim, think about ways God is protecting you, delivering you, governing you — even when those ways look like natural or political events. Ponder the context in which you live, or the position in life in which you have been placed. Who around you are you able to rescue, deliver or help in some way? This is righteous dominion — to use your position or authority or resources for good.

Emily Christensen, PhD, lives with her husband Nathan in Owasso, Oklahoma. Her doctorate is in marriage and family therapy. Her blog is www.housewifeclass.com, and she can be contacted at housewifeclass@gmail.com.