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Go For the Gold
Whether your Purim greeting is “Happy Purim,” or in Yiddish, “A freilichen Purim,” or even Hebrew, “Chag Purim Sameach,” one thing is for sure-you’ll be heading into the happiest, busiest day on the Jewish calendar. You’ll hear blasting Purim music in the streets of Jewish neighborhoods, and see costumed people rushing down the street.
But there’s a spiritual side to Purim other than color and noise. Behind the Purim songs and general boisterousness is a day of prayer and holiness. Many people try to get up early on Purim, so they have the time to say Tehillim (Psalms.) Torah sources tell us that prayers are very powerful on Purim. Just as prayer helped bring about the Purim miracle so many years ago, so too our prayers on Purim can effect miracles today as well.
Giving is a also big theme on Purim, with a special emphasis on donations to the poor. That’s because we want to be as happy as possible on Purim, and it’s giving to others that brings us true happiness. It’s a joy that lasts so much longer than indulging in physical pleasures.
Preparations for Purim
When it comes to early Purim preparations, the first thing that comes to mind is Purim costumes. What will you be dressing up as this year? Some people love to think of original and creative Purim costume ideas. Purim brings three-legged people walking down the street or a live refrigerator that’s actually running. Funny costumes for Purim are perfectly appropriate, like a man in the yellow hat with his son dressed up as Curious George. Other people will dress up with a Purim theme, such as being characters from the Purim story. Queen Esther is a favorite costume for little girls, while boys can be proud Mordechai Hatzaddiks.
After everyone’s decided what costume they’d like to wear, and it’s been bought or sewn or glued together, make sure all the parts (hat, shoes, nose or socks) are put away in a safe place. That way you can just pull out the ready costume when Purim arrives.
Then you can hit the stores in search of goodies for the Purim gift baskets, called mishloach manos. Your gift baskets can be fancy or cute or plain, as long as they fulfill their purpose: to make the people who get them happy! From nosh to wines to home-baked goods, Purim gift boxes can hold any foods at all. There’s just one rule to keep in mind: Purim gift baskets need to have a minimum of two kinds of foods.
The Fast of Esther
The day before Purim is called Taanis Esther, the Fast of Esther. As its name connotes, the Fast of Esther is a
fast day that commemorates Queen Esther’s prayers and heroic dedication on behalf of the Jewish people. When a death decree was issued against the Jewish nation, Queen Esther went against strict royal directives — risking the death penalty — and approached King Achashveirosh to plead for her people. At the same time, Queen Esther asked that all the Jews fast and focus on teshuva as a merit for her success.
As Queen Esther approached King Achashveirosh, she recited Chapter 22 Tehillim, beseeching Hashem to save her from her enemies. In the beginning of this Psalm, Esther describes feeling lost and abandoned, unsure of Hashem’s salvation. But the end of the chapter praises Hashem gloriously. It’s perfectly appropriate for the Fast of Esther, during which we fast to remember Esther’s danger, and ultimately, the entire nation’s salvation.
In memory of Queen Esther’s fasting and prayers, the Fast of Esther has been designated as a day of fasting and prayers for generations. Reciting Tehillim 22 on Taanis Esther is a powerful way to tap into the power of Queen Esther’s merits. The fast concludes on the eve of Purim, with the reading of Megillas Esther. Going from abandonment to salvation expresses what Taanis Esther and Purim are all about.
Purim Is Here!
There are a lot of mitzvahs and customs to fulfill on Purim-and you don’t want to miss any of them! So here’s a quickie outline of how to celebrate Purim.
Hilchos Purim details four main mitzvahs of Purim:
1. Listening to Megillas Esther
2. Giving mishloach manos
3. Handing out matanos l’evyonim (donations to poor people)
4. Eating a festive meal and being joyous
These four mitzvahs make for a packed schedule. Purim is definitely not a day for wasting time. Here’s how to celebrate Purim with each of the four mitzvahs.
Megillas Esther and Booing Haman
Megillas Esther (the Book of Esther) is the story of Esther and Haman. It’s the story of how Hashem saved the Jewish nation from complete annihilation. The Megillah is read with a special cantillation (tune) by a person who’s learned to read it properly. Your local shul will post the times for the public Megillah readings. One will take place at night, after the conclusion of the fast, and the second will be Purim morning after the daily morning services.
When you go to shul, make sure to bring along a gragger! This little noisemaker is used after every time the Megillah reader says the word Haman, to drown out the name of the evil person. There are lots of Hamans in the Megillah, so there’ll be a lot of banging going on. Not surprisingly, this is one of the Purim customs that kids love!
Listening to the Megillah is a way to tune into the deeper meaning of Purim- the day that commemorates a great miracle that happened to the Jewish nation. This is the time to give thanks to Hashem for saving us all those years ago, and saving us from all our enemies since. A poignant prayer starting with the words Shoshanas Yaakov expresses this message. It’s said at the end of the Megillah reading and can be found in your Megillah book.
Mishloach Manos: Purim Gifts
Purim is a day to visit family and friends to wish them “A Freilichen Purim!” Bring along your Purim gift baskets as you make the round of neighbors and cousins, giving each one a prepared package. Your stash of baskets won’t get any smaller, though- at each stop, you’ll be getting a gift basket in return!
The mitzvah of mishloach manos requires giving two people a gift basket of food. It can be anyone at all, but it’s especially nice to give the Purim gifts as a token of appreciation. You might want to send a gift of appreciation to your kids’ teachers in honor of Purim.
On some of your stops, you may find an empty house. Your friends may have just left to distribute some mishloach manos as well. No worries! You can leave the gift basket at their doorstep. Just make sure your baskets have happy Purim cards on them, with your name written on it. That way they’ll know you were there.
Matanos L’Evyonim-Donations to the Poor
Investing more money into matanos l’evyonim than mishloach manos is a way to use your giving power to bring maximum Purim joy into the world. While your family and friends may appreciate the gift baskets you deliver, the poor people you donate to are in desperate need of your help. When they receive that gift, their excitement knows no bounds.
To fulfill the mitzvah of Purim, it’s required of every person to give Purim gifts to two needy people, at the basic minimum. These funds need to be given to the poor on the actual day of Purim, to bring joy on the holiday and to help with food for the Purim feast.
Giving tzedakah without the recipient being aware that you are the giver is preferable, as it’s more dignified for the poor. There is no requirement for matanos L’evyonim to be given personally. For these reasons, many Jewish tzedakah organizations have a holiday fund set up. If you donate to these organizations, they will distribute the funds on Purim day on your behalf so that you can do the mitzvah properly.
Some organizations send Purim packages to Israel instead. Donating funds there is a wonderful merit. If you are counting this tzedakah as part of your mitzvah of matanos l’evyonim, just make sure that your gift will be given out during the day of Purim in your time zone, so that your mitzvah is done the right way.
The verse states regarding Purim, “On Purim, anyone who stretches out their hand is given!” That’s why Jewish streets are filled with collectors. Young men often collect with their friends in groups, while private individuals may go from door to door, fundraising for tzedakah organizations in need.
If you’d like to have a part in making this verse come alive, it’s useful to keep small cash in your pockets on Purim. As you pass collectors in the streets, you can give each one a donation. In the merit of being open-handed and generous with others, Hashem is open-handed and generous with us.
The Purim Feast
Hosting a large, festive meal for family and friends makes for a very lively Purim. Traditional Purim foods vary according to your community. Stuffed cabbage or meat-stuffed kreplach are two traditional dishes that are customary Purim foods. Serving stuffed foods is reminiscent of the Purim salvation, which was hidden in seemingly natural occurrences.
That brings us to the most famous food for Purim-hamantashen! These are triangle-shaped pastries, which were traditionally filled with poppy seeds, in keeping with the custom of serving stuffed foods. Today, these pastries are usually filled with something sweet. Apricot, date, prune or strawberry jam are popular, and chocolate filling is also a biggie.
Incorporating the hamantash shape into your menu for Purim will give your food a unique Purim flavor. But most of all, you want to serve your guests lots of delicious food so they can fulfill the mitzvah of eating a celebratory meal in honor of Purim. Don’t forget the wine!
A Truly Freilichen Purim
Why do we dress up in costumes on Purim? It’s not just because it’s so much fun. We dress up in costumes that hide our real selves to hint at the Purim miracle, which was hidden in what seemed like natural happenings. It almost didn’t seem like the miracle it was.
This theme is very central to Chag Purim, the Purim holiday. There’s so much meaning in Purim. Looking at the surface, you’ll see a lot of drinking wine and acting boisterous. But just like the miracle was hidden in natural events, the meaning of Purim is also hidden. It’s hidden by all the physical eating, drinking and making merry.
But behind that frivolous costume Purim dresses up in, Purim is a holy day. Using it properly can bring a person to a level higher than the holiness of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we fast and abstain from everything physical, focusing on the spiritual instead. But on Purim, we’re busy all day with physical pleasures. Finding the spiritual hidden in the physical is harder than simply abstaining. But because it’s a more difficult task, it makes you into a far greater person.
Spending time on tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) on Purim day can help you keep your focus on the spiritual. The tzedakah we give on Purim gives us a lot of merit, which makes your tefillah even more powerful. It’s a day to get your prayers answered.
That’s a guaranteed way to have a Freilichen Purim!