Purim is a strange holiday – fun and “funny” at the same time. It is not commanded by the Torah, it lasts only one day, it has neither prohibitions nor Hallel (Psalms of praise), and God’s name is not mentioned in Megillat Esther, the reading of which is the focus of the celebration. The name Esther itself suggests “hidden,” we disguise ourselves with masks, and the story of the Jews being saved is nahafoch hu, a turning of the tables and quite the opposite of what Haman had planned. As we shall see, even Purim’s fate is different from that of the other holidays.
Purim is well known for the joy with which it is celebrated. The mood starts ahead of time – simcha is welcomed from the beginning of the month of Adar (Source #1). The Megilla reading is interrupted noisily each time Haman’s name is mentioned and the “mitsva” of drinking alcohol until one cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” is also “fulfilled” with enthusiasm by those with little connection to Torah and mitsvot. Even those who come to hear kri’at haMegillah often lose interest once the ten sons of Haman have been hung and the Jews have defeated those who sought to destroy them (Esther 9:1-17). The drama is over, the rest seems dry; administrative details. Yet the second half of Chapter 9 is fascinating because it gives us the genesis, the creation, of the holiday we now celebrate, step by step, including the four central mitsvot of Hag HaPurim: 1) Mikra Megilla (reading the Megilla); 2) Seudat Purim (the festive meal during the day); 3) Mishloach manot ish l’re’ehu (sending portions/gifts to one’s friends; and 4) Matanot l’evyonim – gifts for the poor.
A close reading of verses 16-28 (Source #2) reveals three stages. From vs. 16-18 we see that the Jews celebrated their victory in “real time,” by “resting, feasting and merrymaking” the day after defeating the enemy, on 14 Adar in the provinces and 15 Adar in the capital, Shushan. Verse 19 is wonderful – “Thus Jews living in unwalled villages made (make?) 14 Adar a day of merrymaking (simcha) and feasting (umishteh) and a holiday (yom tov) and an occasion for sending gifts one to the other (mishloach manot).” The verse suggests that the Jews of the villages spontaneously celebrated the anniversary of the miraculous redemption they had recently experienced, a “grass-roots” contribution to the origin of the holiday. And a new element has been added – mishloach manot, the exchange of gifts as part of the celebration. With whom is not mentioned – presumably with family and friends as we do today.
The joyous commemoration of the defeat of Haman was formalized in verses 20-23. Mordecai, “second in command” in place of Haman, sent “dispatches” (sefarim) to the Jews of the kingdom instructing them to observe these dates annually as days of feasting and gladness, and to send portions (gifts) one to another, and gifts to the poor (matanot l’evyonim)” (vs.20-22) And the Jews indeed agreed to take this upon themselves (v. 23).
The mitsvot of seudat Purim and matanot evyonim are variations of standard elements of most holidays. A festive meal is part of simchat hag (and even Rosh Chodesh –Source #3). And the custom of making sure that the poor take part in a holiday dates from the Torah (Source #4). Mishloach manot, the sharing of gifts, is unique to Purim. It is apparently intended to promote camaraderie on this holiday, even amongst those who do not have financial need. The Talmud sets the minimums for these (Source #5).
Unaccounted for so far is Mikra Megilla, the reading of the Megilla, perhaps the most central and special of the Purim mitsvot. The Talmud equated the reading to Hallel, the Psalms of joy (113-118) recited on other festivals (Talmud Megilla 14a), or to pirsum ha’nes (publicizing the miracle), as is done by lighting the menorah on Hanukkah (Talmud Megilla 18a). While not mentioned expressly, the Rabbis learned the duty to read Megilla from “and these days are recalled (nizkarim)” in verse 28, which, Rashi defines (Source #3, last line) “by reading the Megillah.” The Talmud explains that that is to be done from the text and out loud(**Source #6).
As noted, Mordechai added matanot l’evyonim (gifts for the poor) to the celebrations which came from the people, and the Talmud upgraded it, compared to the “standard” tsdaka (Source #7). Over the years a hierarchy has developed amongst Purim’s mitsvot. Maimonides says it is preferable to spend more on matanot l’evyonim than on the holiday meal or mishloach manot (to friends/relatives), “for there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the converts” (Source #8).
When 15 Adar falls on Shabbat, those who live in “walled cities” (Jerusalem, Shushan, etc) “spread” the mitsvot of Purim over three days, what is known as Purim meshulash. The festive meal and sending portions to friends is delayed till Sunday, the 16th, but the gifts for the poor are given early, on Friday the 14th, when the Megillah is read, lest the poor, who know Purim by when the Megillah is read, be disappointed and perhaps left hungry (Source #9).
The rabbis have assigned Purim a unique fate in the future – even after all the holidays are cancelled, presumably “in the end of days,” Purim shall continue to be celebrated (**Source #10). A holiday that includes the strangers, the poor, the orphans and the widows is indeed one that deserves to remain forever.
** Sources so marked are either tangential to the main subject of the shiur or are more difficult and may be skipped if too challenging or to save time.