Celebrating Purim in West Marin

by Susan Hilsenrad Tacherra

Every year as the season shifts from dark winter to vibrant spring, the fascinating Jewish holiday of פּוּרִים Purim takes place. The story of Purim is found in מְגִלַּת אֶסְתֵּר Megillat Esther —the Scroll of Esther— which is in the כְּתוּבִים Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Bible.

The מְגִלָּה Megillah, which is read aloud on Purim, involves a diabolical plot to exterminate the Jews by the wicked arch-villain הָמָן Haman (ptui, ptui, ptui!). But through the heroic efforts of that dynamic uncle / niece team םָרְדֳּכָי Mordecai and Esther, Haman’s plans are foiled and he is thoroughly and totally defeated. The Jews are saved and wrongs are righted. And the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of אֲךָר Adar —at the time of the full moon and close to the time of the Spring equinox— was proclaimed a day of joy and celebration from then on!

Some scholars believe Purim was based on an actual historical event, others believe that the events recounted in the Megillah did not actually occur but are based on more ancient Babylonian stories of Ishtar (Esther?) and Marduk (Mordecai?).

Regardless of its historical authenticity, and despite the fact that it is a minor festival from a religious point of view, Purim remains a special favorite. There are intriguing and unusual customs and obligations associated with the holiday. It is customary to dress in costumes with masks and veils, reflecting the hidden intrigue of the story and that things are not always as they appear.

Purim is notorious for its plays and shpiels, dramatic acting out of the the story. Tricks and playfulness are the order of the day. Joy and playfulness to the point of ecstasy is encouraged. One is supposed to celebrate so much that it becomes difficult to know the difference between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordecai.”

A highlight of Purim is the reading of the Megillah. The obligation to “blot out” Haman is taken seriously and every time the reader pronounces Haman’s name, everyone makes a noise by yelling, whistling, stamping feet, banging two rocks together, etc. This is the only time during the reading of Biblical writings where you are “commanded” to make noise… and a lot of it. The traditional instrument for this is a grogger, or noisemaker, but anything from a cowbell to a can full of nails will do.

A beautiful tradition on Purim is sending gifts of food to at least one friend or relative. It is also a special mitzvah to give not only food to the needy, but also a cash donation.

It is customary to have a large and leisurely meal in the afternoon. Some traditional foods are kreplach (filled dumplings) and hamantaschen —fruit or poppy-seed-filled triangular shaped cookies— for dessert, both symbolizing something hidden.

—from our March 1997 Newsletter

Copyright © 1997 Susan Hilsenrad Tacherra