At sundown on February 25, we begin the holiday of Purim. As Jews, we have many exciting Purim traditions. We dress up in costumes, attend carnivals, and put on plays that make fun of not only the story of Purim, but also popular culture and politics. One tradition tells us that we are supposed to have so much wine that we can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman. It is a general day of topsy-turvy merriment.
However, there are also four mitzvot (commandments) that we are obligated to perform on this joyous holiday. As the study of Purim does not come from the Torah, but rather from the K’tuvim (the Writings), they are not considered to be part of the 613 mitzvot that G-d gave us in the Torah; rather, they are rabbinic mitzvot that have become so ingrained in our observance that they are just as important as Torah mitzvot. The four mitzvot of Purim come from chapter 9 of Megilat Esther:
9:20 And Mordechai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahashverosh, both nigh and far,
9:21 To establish this among them, that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, yearly,
9:22 As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.
As stated in this text, we celebrate Purim on the 14th of the Jewish month on Adar. Since Megilat Esther also prescribes celebration on the 15th of Adar, certain walled cities, such as Jerusalem, celebrate Purim the following day. The first mitzvah, which we glean from this text, is that we must hear the story of Esther every year. Traditional communities host public readings of Megilat Esther both on the evening of the 13th of Adar and on the morning of the 14th of Adar.
The other three miztvot are outlined above in verse 22. The second mitzvah is to have a day of “feasting and joy.” According to Maimonides, such a feast should include meat, which would have been expensive and special at the time of writing, and should be as extravagant as a person’s means would allow. The corollary to this mitzvah is that a person should drink so much wine they can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman.
The third mitzvah is to send gifts, or “portions,” to one another. The Hebrew term for this is Mishloach Manot, literally the sending of portions. Mishloach Manot are typically sent to friends and acquaintances. According to Maimonides, these should include two types of special food for each person. Today, it is common to send hamantaschen, along with other baked goods or sweets. The fourth mitzvah is to send gifts to the poor, known in Hebrew as Matanot La’evyonim. It is traditional for these gifts to be monetary, though giving other needed items to those less fortunate also fulfills this mitzvah. According to Maimonides, one should spend more money on these gifts for the poor than on their own celebration.
Due to the pandemic, it will be necessary to find creative ways to fulfill these mitzvot this year. One way to fulfill both the mitzvah of hearing the story of Esther and the mitzvah of celebrating is to join us on Zoom on Thursday, February 25. We will be presenting our Purim shpiel, #Esther, reading some megillah, and generally having a great time. Bring food and drinks and join us in celebrating Purim!
Cantor Sara Kheel