Note: Some of this information applies to Purim 5763/2003 only - Monday, March 17, and Tuesday, March 18
THE HISTORY OF PURIM
The original Purim story happened 2,300 years ago.
The situation seemed bleak. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed seventy years earlier, the Jews were exiled to Babylon and then to Persia, and the Land of Israel lay in ruins and desolation.
Dispersed throughout Persia (today's Iraq and Iran), many Jews lost faith in the prophecies predicting their eventual redemption from exile and return to Israel. Instead of taking pride in their Jewish heritage, they became impressed by alien kings and lifestyles, palaces and parties, losing vision of their own future.
Introducing Purim's main characters:
At this point, the vicious Jew-hating Haman became the Persian Prime Minister, and schemed to solve "the Jewish problem," by annihilating every Jewish man, woman and child. A shrewd and devious manipulator, Haman received the King's approval for his wicked plan.
MORDECHAI AND ESTHER
Haman's horrible plan almost worked, were it not for the intervention of Esther, the heroine, and Mordechai, the righteous Jewish leader.
Sensing the danger, Mordechai wore sackcloth and ashes and cried through the streets, rallying Jews to return to G-d through Torah and Mitzvot.
By Divine Providence and exceptional circumstances, Mordechai's niece, Esther, was chosen as the new Queen. Mordechai urged her to go the King and plead with him to save her people.
Before approaching the King, Queen Esther proclaimed a fast, prayer and penitence. She then went to the palace and invited the king to a party.
That night, the restless King was reading his memoirs. As the pages turned, he recalled a forgotten episode, how Mordechai the Jew had saved the king's life from two plotting courtiers trying to poison him.
The King immediately ordered Haman to pay public tribute to Mordechai by dressing him up with the royal garments and parading him on the Royal horse through the Capital.
Queen Esther pointed out Haman as the arch villain, and King Ahasuerus ordered Haman hung on the same gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.
The Megillah scroll describes the courage of Queen Esther and Mordechai, and ultimately of all the Jewish people. That whole year, not even a single Jew chose to leave his people by converting out, even if it could have saved his life.
The fortunate turn of events aroused the Jews to return to their heritage and unite with their traditions, faith and observance. They rallied against their enemies on the 13th day of the month of Adar, the day chosen by Haman to execute his "final solution." The Jews eventually returned to the Holy Land to rebuild the Second Temple.
The Megillah vividly describes how "The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, joy and exultation," so shall it be to us. May we, too, merit salvation and the ultimate Redemption, speedily in our days.
To relive the events of Purim, we listen to the reading of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) both on Monday night, March 17, and on Tuesday March 18, during the day.
It is important to listen carefully, and hear every word of the Megillah. We twirl "gragger" noisemakers when Haman's name is mentioned and stamp our feet, to "eradicate the name of Amalek," Haman's ancestors who attacked Israel after the Exodus.
IN THOSE DAYS, IN OUR TIME
The Talmud states:
A person who reads the Megillah 'backwards' (in the wrong sequence) did not fulfill his obligation."
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus, explains that we must not read the Megillah 'backwards,' as an old once-upon-a-time story, for the Purim events are relevant and current to this day. The Megillah is not just about our ancestors in the past, but also addresses us in the present.
It was Jewish unity that saved the day, so we send each other food gifts to express our unity.
We give at least two kinds of ready-to-eat foods to at least one friend, through a third party, on Tuesday March 18. Men send to men, and women to women. Children are encouraged to exchange gifts, and the more the merrier.
It is customary to masquerade, for we 'rejoice on Purim until we don't know the difference between Haman and Mordecahi.' An esoteric reason explains that Israel's true inner identity had been covered when they strayed from Torah, causing Haman's evil decree.
GIFTS TO THE POOR
Giving charity is a year-round Mitzvah with added significance on Purim, to at least two poor persons. If it is not possible to deliver the contribution personally, the money can be placed in a charity box (Pushka) for later distribution.
THE PURIM FEAST
The festive meal eaten on the Day of Purim expresses our holiday spirit. Three cornered Haman-tashen pastries filled with poppyseeds, prune, apricot or other jams are a favorite. We celebrate joyfully with family and friends, and toast a joyous L'chaim!
MORE PURIM OBSERVANCES
THE FAST OF ESTHER
To commemorate the prayerful fasting before the Jews fought for victory, we fast on Monday March17. The fast begins 72 minutes before sunrise until 40 minutes after sunset.
THE HALF SHEKEL
In Jerusalem's Holy Temple, every person contributed "half shekel" coin to participate in the services. It is customary today to contribute the equivalent of a half shekel (3 half-dollar coins) to charity.
On Purim, we recite the "Al Hanissim" prayer, thanking G-d for His miracles of deliverance. We also include the "Al Hanissim" when we say Grace After Meals.
During the morning service in the synagogue, we follow a special reading from the Torah Scroll describing the war with Amalek, before the Megillah is read.