On Monday night, March 9, and Tuesday, March 10, we will celebrate Purim – a holiday we often think of as a day for kids, when we dress in costume, go to Purim carnivals, and eat more hamantaschen than we probably should. However, I have come to realize that Purim has a much deeper meaning than all the merriment would make it seem.
Purim has many traditions, but only five commandments: joy, reading the megillah in the evening; reading the megillah in the morning; enjoying a festive meal; mishloach manot, giving gifts of at least two different types of food to at least one person; and mat’not la-evyonim, giving money to the poor – traditionally, enough money for two people to each buy a meal. And so, the question is: Why did the rabbis decide that these five commandments are a necessary part of celebrating
Purim? What is the common theme that ties these acts to the central message of Purim?
One thing that binds these commandments together is the Book of Esther itself. Toward the end of the megillah, we read that Mordechai wrote a letter to all the Jews, explaining what had happened and telling them to “make days of feasting and gladness, and sending portions to one another, and giving gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). These commandments, then, are about re-creating the original Purim.
Contained in this same verse from the megillah is another theme of Purim that unites these commandments: Mordechai tells the Jews to mark “the month in which things switched from sorrow to joy and from mourning to celebration.” We bring joy to ourselves and others by feasting, sharing food with our friends and the poor, and by retelling the story of Purim, knowing our happy ending from the very beginning.
But these verses containing Mordechai’s commands and the theme of joy are not the only things that unite these five commandments. There is one other theme that unites them: revealing the hidden.
The Book of Esther is unique in that it is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God’s name a single time. This was so strange that there is a discussion in the Talmud about whether the Book of Esther should even be included in the Bible. And the rabbis were not the only ones who found this troubling – in Christian versions of the Old Testament, there are several verses added to the Book of Esther simply to include God’s name in the story.
As we all know, Esther was included in our Bible in the end, and without God’s name. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t there.
The rabbis saw a connection between the name Esther and the Hebrew word hester, or hidden. They saw the meaning of Esther’s name, combined with the absence of any explicit mention of God, and took this as an indication that the Book of Esther is about that which is hidden.
Although we don’t find God’s name explicitly mentioned, Jews have always understood the story to be one in which God acts in hidden, subtle ways. It is because of the hidden presence of God that Esther becomes queen, that she is able to gain favor with King Ahasuerus and that she is ultimately able to have the king overturn Haman’s evil decree. God may not be explicitly there, but God is present. It is as if God is a stagehand, dressed in black, working behind the scenes to make sure that everything goes as it should.
Esther herself is also hidden – she hides her identity as a Jew from the king and most of his court. It is only because of this that she is able to get Haman and Ahasuerus to attend the feasts she has prepared, and to ultimately overturn Haman’s plan. And it is both because she hid her identity and because she ultimately revealed it that she was able to save her people.
The story of Esther, then, is about the hidden and the revealed. But what does this have to do with the commandments of Purim?
The connection to reading the megillah should be somewhat obvious. If the megillah is about the hidden presence of God, then reading it through our interpretive lens is about reading and experiencing God’s hidden presence and the way God acts behind the scenes. The blessings we recite both before and after reading the megillah explicitly bless God for being the one who saves us, revealing God’s hidden presence in the megillah through the blessings that bracket it.
The three other commandments are a little less obvious. At first glance, it may seem that giving gifts to the poor has little to do with the hidden and the revealed. However, there is actually a strong connection between the two. Although giving tzedakah is always a mitzvah, in reality, the poor are often ignored and marginalized to the extent that we no longer see them.
Generally, tzedakah can be given either directly, straight into the hands of the person who needs it, or indirectly, through an organization or an individual appointed to distribute funds to the needy.
On Purim, however, we are asked to give as directly as possible, and are even encouraged to go out of our way to encounter people to whom we can give. Commanding us to give money to the poor in the midst of one of our most joyous holidays forces us to see those whom we may have been ignoring, to reveal the hidden in our community.
There is also sensitivity to the fact that those who are poor might be so well hidden that we do not know who they are. And so, in case there are people in our community whose needs have not been revealed to us, we give gifts of food to everyone. We also partake in festive meals, in which we feast with others in our community. These meals are a mitzvah, a commandment, so that the community is obligated to provide these meals and no one can remain hidden from the joy that permeates Purim.
Perhaps the main message of Purim, is that we must reveal that which is hidden in our midst. We must make sure that we do not overlook those in want in our communities. We must seek out and include everyone in our feasting and our gift giving, so that, for at least one day a year, no one will be hidden from our community. In this way, too, do we help to reveal the hidden presence of God by recognizing the spark of the divine that exists in all of us, by affirming the sanctity of each and every person.
This Purim, I encourage you to pay attention to those who have been hidden from you. Who is in need that you haven’t noticed – in your immediate community, in the greater Jewish community, in the global community? How can you reveal those who are hidden to yourself, and to others? How can you make their needs known, and draw in those who are marginalized?
May we all fulfill the specific commandments of Purim – listening to the megillah, feasting, giving mishloach manot, and giving gifts to the poor, and may we do so in a way that also fulfills the spirit of revealing that which is hidden.
RACHEL ZERIN is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.