Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Purim (And Why We Eat Hamentaschen)

Many Jewish holidays celebrate the same theme: they tried to kill us but we survived.  L'chaim - raise your glass!  Here, the Maccabeats can tell you the story of Purim.

Actually, though, the tale contains enough political intrigue, feuds, revenge, genocide, sexism, and strong women to fill an HBO miniseries.  It's a fascinating one, so settle in...

More than 2,000 years ago, there lived a king named Ahasuerus, who ruled over Persia.  Soon after he took the throne, he threw a massive party to celebrate his might and wealth.  On the seventh day of the festivities, Ahasuerus drunkenly boasted about the unsurpassed beauty of his queen, Vashti, and he commanded her to come before his guests so that he might show her off.  Vashti refused and, furious, the king ordered Vashti's death.

Ahasuerus then held a pageant to find his new queen; he had his men seize all of the beautiful women in Persia so they could compete for the the king' eye.  One of the girls bought before the king was named Esther; she was Jewish, but her uncle Mordechai advised her not to tell anyone about her faith because the Jews were considered outcasts.  Esther won the contest and became Ahasuerus' queen, but she kept her identity secret even from the king.

Every day, Mordechai would wait outside the palace gates for news from Esther.  One day, he overheard two of Ahasuerus' men discussing plans to assassinate the king.  Mordechai reported the plot and the two traitors were hanged, but, though it was recorded in the Royal Book that the king's life was saved by a Jew, the matter was soon forgotten.

Then Ahasuerus appointed the richest man in the empire, Haman, to be his Prime Minister.  Haman hated the Jews.  The king decreed the everyone should honor Haman by bowing down before him, but Haman wore a large medallion engraved with an idol on a chain around his neck and Mordechai refused to bow because it would mean bowing to the idol, too, which is forbidden in Judaism.

Haman was beside himself with anger and went straight to the king to complain.  With Ahasuerus' approval, he sent out decrees announcing that all of the Jews in the empire would be killed on the 13th of Adar, a date picked by casting lots - or, in Hebrew, purim - to find an auspicious day.

Mordechai tore his clothes when he heard the news.  He sent a message to Esther, beseeching her to intercede with Ahasuerus.  Even though it was forbidden to approach the king without an invitation, Esther agreed to try, but she asked Mordechai to gather all Persian Jews for three days of praying, repenting, and fasting so that God would be with her when she appeared before Ahasuerus.

On the third day, Esther went to the king.  He asked her what she wanted, and she replied with an invitation for Ahasuerus and Haman to join her for a private banquet in her apartments.  They went and had such a great time that, at the end of the night, the king again asked Esther if she had any requests, but she only invited the two men back for another feast the next night.

Haman was so proud to be honored in this way by the queen and the king, but on his way out of the palace he passed Mordechai, who still wouldn't bow to him.  His pride turned to anger and he built a gallows for Mordechai that night in his own courtyard.

Ahasuerus couldn't sleep after the banquet, so he called for his servant to read to him from the Royal Book.  The book fell open to the recounting of how a Jew had saved the king's life by reporting the assassination attempt, and Ahasuerus asked if Mordechai had been rewarded.  "No," came the reply.

At that moment, Haman appeared to request permission to hang Mordechai before killing the rest of the Jews.  "Haman," asked the king, "what shall be done for a man the king wishes to honor?"  Thinking the king meant him, Haman responded, "Bring royal garments and a royal horse. And let one of the king's nobles dress the man and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, 'So is done for the man whom the king wishes to honor!'"

"Wonderful idea!" cried Ahasuerus, and he commanded Haman find Mordechai and do all of that in thanks for saving the king's life.  Humiliated, Haman did so.

The next night, Ahasuerus and Haman returned to Esther's apartments for the second feast.  Afterwards, the king asked the queen if she had any requests of him, and this time she begged him to spare her people.  When the king realized that his beloved queen was Jewish and that the Jew Haman wanted to kill first was the same man who had saved the king's own life, Ahasuerus ordered Haman hung from the same scaffold Haman had built for Mordechai.

The decree approving the extermination of the Jews was reversed and, on the 13th of Adar, the Jews in Persia killed all of their enemies.  On the 14th of Adar, they celebrated, and that is why we celebrate Purim today with a feast and the retelling of Esther's triumphant story.

The whole thing is kind of screwed up, right?  But it's actually one of the most joyous holidays in the Jewish calendar and is treated as a huge boozy costume party; during the reading of the story, we're supposed to drown out Haman's name by making lots of noise whenever it's spoken aloud.  And, in memory of Haman's tricorn hat, we eat Hamantachen on Purim - which is this Saturday!.

(I used a recipe from TheKitchn.com - my only suggestion would be to not add all the flour/salt, because the dough was almost too crumbly to work with!)

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  1. That looks so delicious! And I love all the history you provided. :)

  2. I loved the history for provided! However, I am sadly ignorant in regards to most religions/religious holidays. This might be a stupid question but why eat a likeness of his hat? x

  3. Baking AND narrative! Best combination.

  4. with my sister's help, I found the answer for you in Google: http://kosherfood.about.com/od/purimfoodfaq/f/why_hamantashen.htm
    (because I didn't know. haha!)

  5. I should have googled that myself. (Doh! Laziness) But I love that explanation you found. Do you feel more strongly about one of the 4 explanations? x

  6. I hadn't heard the other three before - we were only taught the one about the hat in Hebrew School! my main memories of Purim from growing up are that we ate Hamantaschen to symbolize eating Haman's hat, we got dressed up in costumes for the Purim party, where they read rom the Scroll of Esther, and we made lots of noise with gragers (a noisemaker) to drown out Haman's name because he was a bad man. (This is actually a really complicated story to teach children because there's so much grown-up horribleness in it. For instance, it wasn't just that Ahasuerus wanted Vashti to appear before his guests... some interpretations explain he wanted her to dance for them wearing ONLY a crown. Yikes.)

  7. Fascinating! I feel like this SHOULD be an HBO miniseries... :)

  8. I just recently read the chapter about this in "A Year of Biblical Womanhood." I always loved read the book of Esther as a child. Yes, I was a blossoming feminist who read Esther and Ruth over and over and over again during church services! The bravery of both Vashti and Esther is absolutely remarkable, and I think it's a shame that Christians don't celebrate them.

  9. This was such a fun read! I always enjoyed the story of Esther and how God used her to save his people. I think God is so faithful. Thanks for sharing that story on your blog.

  10. Thank you for explaining all the "We Purim, You Drink 'em" parties I have gone to :)

  11. HAHAHAHA and I am so glad you have been celebrating :)

  12. he is - but also vengeful, which is kind of scary!

  13. haha of course you did :) from what @Beka Johnson says, it sounds like some do!

  14. omg I know - there's all this backstory about the tribe that Haman came from, which was descended from Esau and is ALL OVER the Hebrew Scriptures as being enemies of the Jews! crazy stuff.

  15. Very cool. Thanks for the history lesson and recipe. :)

  16. This is so interesting! I mean, I know the story of Esther, but the rest of it was fun to read. Thanks for sharing :)


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