At sunset on Wednesday 28 February, Jews all around the world begin the festival of Purim until sunset on Thursday 1 March. But what is Purim and what should Christians know about this important Jewish festival?
1. Purim is based on the biblical account of Esther
Purim is defined in the book of Esther, where we read the extraordinary miracle story of God’s protection of the Jewish people from the genocide sought by hateful Haman. Haman was a top official in the ancient Persian empire under King Xerxes I – also called Ahasuerus in the Hebrew language – who ruled Persia and much of the Middle East from 486-465 BC.
2. Purim literally means “lots”
Purim means “lots” in ancient Persian. The holiday was thus named since Haman had thrown lots to determine when he would carry out his diabolical scheme.
3. Purim is a day of celebration
Purim is one of the most fun-filled holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim with children (and adults, if they desire) to dress up in costumes. On the day itself a festive meal is shared. Gifts are given to friends and the poor. The origin of these customs is the biblical passage instructing Jews to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:22).
“as the days on which the Jews had rest from their enemies, as the month which was turned from sorrow to joy for them, and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, of sending presents to one another and gifts to the poor.” Esther 9:22 (NKJV)
4. Jewish people fast the day before Purim
The day before Purim is a fast day, commemorating Esther’s decree that the Jews fast before she appeal to King Xerxes to spare them.
The Book of Esther is read on the eve of Purim and then again the following day. Before reading the passage, three blessings are read aloud (see below). In keeping with the lighthearted atmosphere of the day, listeners boo, hiss, stamp feet, and rattle noisemakers whenever the name of Haman, is mentioned in the service.
5. Food is an important part of Purim celebrations
A traditional Purim food is hamantaschen (or oznay Haman), three-cornered pastries bursting with poppy seeds or another sweet filling. It is also tradition to send gifts of two kinds of food to at least one person.
6. Purim reminds us of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people
Haman hated the Jews simply for being Jewish. But the account of Esther reminds Jews and Christians that God has His hand upon the Jewish people. Esther’s bravery and willingness to stand up for her people reminds us that we must not be silent in the presence of evil, but must confront and eliminate it. Furthermore we are reminded that while oppressors come and go, God’s promise and covenant with his people, Israel, is everlasting. The Jews of the Persian Empire, after all, were saved, reminding us that God never deserts His people.
7. Purim provides an important lesson for today
The ancient problem of anti-Semitism exists in our world today. The Jewish people are hated by some groups simply for being Jews. Furthermore, the Jewish nation is surrounded by enemies that seek its destruction. However, God watches over Israel. And whether Christian or Jewish, we can follow Esther’s example by not remaining silent when confronted by evil and standing for Israel “for such a time as this”.
“For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14 (NKJV)
- Pray for the Jewish people at this Purim. Pray that their holiday will be filled with joy.
- Pray for the protection of Jewish communities in the UK, Europe and around the world.
- Pray against the rise of anti-Semitism.
- Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray that God will protect Israel and that threats by her enemies will fail.
Here are the three blessings read prior to reading the book of Esther in synagogue. You may like to say one as you pray for the Jewish people: