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Celebrating Purim

While living in Phoenix, I had the great fortune of working in an Orthodox Jewish Day school as one of their “secular” teachers.  It was one of those moments in time that truly captured that common, but trite, adage, “I was teaching them, but they were really teaching me”.  Being immersed in a completely unfamiliar culture obviously comes with its own set of challenges, but overall, the experience was one of absolute exhilaration.  For the first time in my life, the feasts, fasts, and holy days of Scripture came to life in my everyday work experience.  After 6 years of working in this community, I found that I had come to love many of the festivals, as much as I could love them in my still limited understanding of what they involved.  Purim was one holiday I looked forward to with absolute giddiness every year.

Purim takes place on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (for 2019, that means sundown on March 20 until sundown March 21).  At our school, it was celebrated the entire week with costume parties, candy, and carnivals.  Like every Jewish holiday, special foods are reserved for this time. Hamantashen (literally: Haman's pockets or Haman’s ears - recipe here) are the standard treat for the week, typically filled with apricots or raspberries.  Leading up to Purim, it is customary for all adults (meaning bat and bar mitzvah’d children and older) to fast as a commemoration of Esther and the Jewish people’s fast before she asked King Xerxes to spare them.  The Jewish people also pray, just as Esther did, that God would deliver his people- even today.

Along with outside festivities in their schools and homes, sundown on Purim kicks off the public reading of the “Megillah”, or the scroll of Esther.  Here, the story is brought to life in synagogue as children gather around their Rabbi- they cheer as Mordecai and Esther enter the story and hiss and boo every time the evil Haman shows up.  The public reading is followed by the sharing of Shalach Manos, a small gift that is passed out door-to-door in the Jewish community (typically baskets filled with honey, candy, pastries, and fruit); it is tradition- a way to ensure that every family in the community has enough for the Purim feast to follow.  Purim is also one of the most charitable times for the Jewish community, where they donate money to the poor. Late that evening, the feast begins: food, music, and wine flowing freely.  In the morning, everyone once again gathers at synagogue for the reading of the Megillah, typically followed by what feels like a large Halloween party- complete with costumes and carnival games; Queen Esther’s costume is a common favorite for the little girls of the community. At the party, they joyously celebrate the end of Haman -and though it seems morbid to our Western sensibilities- it is not uncommon to see Haman hung in effigy.  Rather than shielding their children from the truth of the story, they see the great lengths Yahweh went to in order to redeem their people from annihilation.  God delivered them and crushed their enemy- they do not forget nor allow their children to forget.  

As a Christian, I reflect on this holiday and how little attention I ever paid to it until my time in the Jewish community.  As a child, it is almost certain that Jesus went into his synagogue, sat with his friends, and heard the story read from the scroll.  He likely cheered for Mordecai and Esther.  He possibly fasted the day before Purim and recited prayers, asking his father to deliver his people.  He did this because he is Jewish- fully man and fully God. Some Biblical scholars believe we even have a recording in scripture of Jesus celebrating Purim.  In John 5, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for an unnamed Jewish festival; because of the timing of this feast, speculation is that he likely was in Jerusalem for Purim, as it was certainly a minor holiday (of which we know he celebrated at least some, as we have recording of him observing Hanukkah, also a minor holiday (John 10)). How beautiful it is to think that Jesus sat, read of the heroine Esther, and thanked God for the salvation of his people- sitting on the floor of his synagogue as a child- the incarnate Salvation.


Emily Thien is a part of the community at Common Ground Northeast. She is a wife and the mother of 4 boys. She loves working with women and has a heart to see them become spiritually competent and confident in theology, scripture, and biblical community.