Mar 122017

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, known as Reminiscere Sunday from the introit Reminiscere miserationum tuarum Domine, which in English can be rendered:

Remember, O Lord, Thy compassions and Thy mercies, which are from the beginning, lest at any time our enemies rule over us: deliver us O God of Israel, from all our tribulations.

I could write a whole post about this time of Lent, but today is also Purim in the Jewish tradition which, by coincidence, exactly reflects the sentiments of the introit which is taken from Psalm 24. This is a day on which Jews celebrate deliverance from persecution. So, whilst being mindful of my overall desire to unpack Easter, I’m going to shift my focus to Purim (folding together the ideals of the Lenten and Jewish traditions). As is true of Jewish celebrations in general, Purim actually began yesterday at sundown and ends at sundown today. Therefore a lot of the parties would have already happened. But in some places, notably Jerusalem (for reasons explained below), Purim begins a day later, which is sundown today. So somewhere in the world all day today there is a party.

Unlike pretty much every other Jewish annual celebration, Purim is just party time these days, although there are a few (minor) solemn notes as well. It has most of the characteristics of Carnival, and, like Carnival, it moves around the Gregorian calendar in the general vicinity of Spring.  I am slightly ambivalent about the holiday. Yes, it celebrates the deliverance of Persian Jews from the hands of the wicked and anti-Semitic Haman, but . . . in the process Haman, his ten sons, and over 75,000 of Israel’s enemies are slaughtered, and I don’t see this as a cause for celebration.

Purim commemorates the events recorded in the Book of Esther (מגילת אסתר‎).  The Hebrew פּוּרִים‎ (plural of פור‎ (pur) related to Akkadian: pūru) refers to lots that are cast by Haman to determine the date on which he planned to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. According to the Book of Esther, Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus/Achashverosh (presumed to be Artaxerxes I of Persia, “Artakhsher” in Old Persian), planned to kill all the Jews in the empire, but his plans were foiled by Mordecai and his cousin and adopted daughter Esther, who had risen to become Queen of Persia. The day of deliverance became a day of feasting and rejoicing.

Based on the conclusions of the Scroll of Esther (Esther 9:22): “… that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor,” Purim is celebrated among Jews by:

Exchanging reciprocal gifts of food and drink known as mishloach manot

Donating charity to the poor known as mattanot la-evyonim

Eating a celebratory meal known as a se’udat Purim

Public recitation (“reading of the megillah”) of the Scroll of Esther, known as kriat ha-megillah, usually in a temple

There are also special additions, known as Al HaNissim, to the daily prayers and the prayer after meals

Other customs include drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage (often to excess), wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebration.  One of my orthodox Jewish students, who was extraordinarily prim and proper, once announced to me that it was her solemn religious duty to get drunk on Purim.

Purim is celebrated annually according to the Hebrew calendar on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (and on Adar II in Hebrew leap years that take place every 2 to 3 years), the day following the victory of the Jews over their enemies. In cities that were protected by a surrounding wall at the time of the Biblical Joshua, Purim is instead celebrated on the 15th of the month of Adar on what is known as Shushan Purim, since fighting in the walled city of Shushan continued through the 14th  day of Adar. Today, only Jerusalem and a few other cities celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar.

The Book of Esther begins with a six-month (180-day) drinking feast given by King Ahasuerus (sometimes identified with Artaxerxes) for the army of Persia and Medea and the civil servants and princes in the 127 provinces of his kingdom, concluding with a seven-day drinking feast for the inhabitants of Shushan (Susa), rich and poor, and a separate drinking feast for the women organized by Queen Vashti in the pavilion of the royal courtyard.

At this feast Ahasuerus gets thoroughly drunk, and at the prompting of his courtiers, orders his wife Vashti to display her beauty before the nobles and populace, wearing only her royal crown (i.e. naked), Due to a skin condition she refuses. Her refusal prompts Ahasuerus to have her removed from her post. Ahasuerus then orders all young women to be presented to him, so he can choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is Esther, who was orphaned at a young age and was being fostered by her first cousin Mordecai. She finds favor in the king’s eyes, and is made his new wife. Esther does not reveal her origins and that she is Jewish. Shortly afterwards, Mordecai discovers a plot by two courtiers Bigthan and Teresh to kill Ahasuerus. They are apprehended and hanged, and Mordecai’s service to the king is recorded in the daily record of the court.

Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his viceroy. Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman’s disfavor because he refuses to bow down to him. Having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordecai but the entire Jewish minority in the empire. Obtaining Ahasuerus’ permission and funds to execute this plan, he casts lots (“purim”) to choose the date on which to do this – the 13th of the month of Adar. When Mordecai finds out about the plans, he puts on sackcloth and ashes, a sign of mourning, publicly weeping and lamenting, and many other Jews in Shushan and other parts of Ahasuerus’ empire do likewise, with widespread penitence and fasting. Mordecai requests that she intercede with the king on behalf of the Jews but she replies that nobody is allowed to approach the king, under penalty of death. Mordecai warns her that she will not be any safer in the palace than any other Jew, and suggests that she was elevated to the position of queen to be of help in just such an emergency. Esther has a change of heart, says she will fast and pray for three days and will then approach the king to seek his help, despite the law against doing so, and “if I perish, I perish.” She also requests that Mordecai tell all Jews of Shushan to fast and pray for three days together with her. On the third day, she seeks an audience with Ahasuerus, during which she invites him to a feast in the company of Haman. During the feast, she asks them to attend a further feast the next evening. Meanwhile, Haman is again offended by Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him; egged on by his wife Zeresh and unidentified friends, he builds a gallows for Mordecai, with the intention to hang him there the very next day.

That night, Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia, and when the court’s daily records are read to him to help him fall asleep, he learns of the services rendered by Mordecai in the earlier plot against his life. Ahasuerus asks whether anything was done for Mordecai and is told that he received no recognition for saving the king’s life. Just then, Haman appears, and King Ahasuerus asks him what should be done for the man that the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the king is referring to Haman himself, Haman says that the honoree should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and led around on the king’s royal horse. To Haman’s horror, the king instructs Haman to render such honors to Mordecai.

Later that evening, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther’s second banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, which includes her. Ahasuerus becomes enraged and instead orders Haman hanged on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. The king allows Mordecai and Esther to write another decree as they wish. They decree that Jewish people may preemptively kill those thought to pose a lethal risk. As a result, on 13 Adar, 500 attackers and Haman’s ten sons are killed in Shushan. Throughout the empire 75,000 of the Jewish peoples’ enemies are killed. On the 14th another 300 are killed in Shushan. Mordecai assumes the position of second in rank to Ahasuerus, and institutes an annual commemoration of the delivery of the Jewish people from annihilation.

Like many modern Biblical scholars I doubt the historicity of this narrative, just as I don’t believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Even so I celebrate Christmas (at great length), and I see no reason to downplay the celebration of Purim just because its roots lie in historical fiction. Tradition is tradition.  It is the bedrock of culture.

(AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Many foods are associated with Purim, but the most widespread are hamentashen a filled-pocket pastry recognizable by its triangular shape. Hamantashen can be made with many different fillings including prune, nut, date, apricot, raspberry, raisins, apple, cherry, fig, chocolate, dulce de leche, halva, or even caramel or cheese. The most traditional, however, is poppy seed. The pastry varies considerably also.

The name hamantash, comes from Yiddish, and is commonly viewed as a reference to Haman (translated as “Haman’s pockets”). This use of “-tasche” in reference to filled pouches of dough is common in modern German, e.g. in “Teigtasche”, “Apfeltasche”, “Maultasche”. Another possible source of the name comes from folk etymology: the Yiddish word montashn and the German word Mohntaschen, both meaning poppyseed-filled pouches, transformed to hamantaschen to associate the pastries with Haman. In Israel, hamantaschen are called oznei Haman (אוזני המן‎‎), Hebrew for “Haman’s ears.”

Here is a recipe for a traditional poppyseed filling.  Use a sweet pastry for the hamantashen that suits you. Cut it in circles and place some filling in the center.  Then fold the pastry to make triangles and bake until golden. I’ve put a good instructional video after the recipe.

Poppyseed Filling


1 cup poppy seeds
½ cup honey
½ cup milk
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla extract


Finely grind the poppy seeds in spice mill or mortar and pestle.

In a medium saucepan place the ground poppy seeds, honey, milk, lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Bring slowly to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring often, until the mixture has thickened.  The best test that the filling is done is to drag a spoon across the bottom of the pan. It is ready when it retains a visible trail for a few seconds. This may take between 5 and 10 minutes (or more). Stir in the vanilla extract and let cool.

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