Q: What does the word Purim mean?
A: The word Purim literally means “lots.” The holiday is named Purim because it looks back to a time in Jewish history when the “lot was cast” and the fate of the Jewish nation literally hung in the balance.
Q: What is the historical background to Purim?
A: The events associated with Purim are recorded in the Book of Esther (c. 450 BC). During the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), king of Persia, many Jews lived comfortably throughout the Persian Empire, having been exiled from Judea approximately 65 years earlier by the Babylonians.
However, an evil government official named Haman rose to power and insisted that his subjects bow down to him as a public act of worship. The book of Esther tells us that the only person who refused to bow down to Haman was a servant of King Ahasuerus, a Jewish man named Mordecai, who had previously foiled a plot against the king and saved his life (Est. 2:21-23).
“When Haman saw that Mordecai did not bow or pay him homage, Haman was filled with wrath” (Est. 3:5). Then Haman cast a lot (pur in Hebrew) to set a date for the annihilation of all Jewish people living in the Persian Empire (Est. 3:13).
Q: Who was Esther?
A: By a divine coincidence, it just so happened that a Jewish woman named Esther, who was actually the niece of Mordecai, had been chosen by King Ahasuerus from among all the virgins of the land to be the Queen of Persia.
When Mordecai discovered Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people, he appealed to Esther to plead the case of the Jewish people in the presence of the king, telling her that she had been promoted in the kingdom for “such a time as this” (Est. 4:13-14). Although Esther was in a position of prominence in the Persian Empire, still anyone who approached the inner court of the king without direct permission would be put to death. In preparation for her decision, Esther told Mordecai to have all the Jews in the region fast for three days.
Q: How does the story end?
A: On the third day of the fast, at the risk of her own life, Esther put on her royal robes and entered the inner court of the king’s palace. When the king saw her, he extended his golden scepter. This was a sign that he was accepting her into his presence and would not have her put to death.
Esther then requested of the king that he hold a banquet and invite Haman to be present.
Later that night, the king could not sleep. He resorted to reading the historical chronicles of Persia and discovered that Mordecai had never been honored for saving his life.
At the banquet Esther told the king of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people. The king then ordered that Haman be hanged on the very gallows that he had originally built for Mordecai and issued a decree effectively preserving the Jewish people from annihilation.
Q: How is Purim celebrated today?
A. Purim is commonly celebrated today with one day of fasting, followed by a day of rejoicing. Other Purim traditions include reading the scroll of Esther at home and in synagogue, dressing up in costumes, giving gifts to the poor, and eating traditional Jewish cookies called “hamantaschen.”
Q: Is there a prophetic significance to Purim?
A. Purim reminds us of the spirit of antisemitism that has sought to annihilate the Jewish people for thousands of years, and ultimately of God’s divine providence in preserving His chosen people.