SALT LAKE CITY – Purim, not Hanukkah, is the original gift-giving celebration for Jews.
A joyful holiday, it commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination by the Jewish queen of Persia, Esther, and the primary commandment of the holiday is the reading of the book of Esther, called the Megillah.
Celebrations are generally held within the synagogue to accommodate the reading of Esther, and also to encompass the notion of being together as a people in community.
At Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami, the congregation will celebrate Purim on Saturday, March 15 with a service focusing on the reading of the Megillah, followed by a party, in which members are encouraged to let their hair down a bit, according to Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman.
The celebration continues on Sunday with a children’s party, featuring games and “silliness,” Swartzman said.
This year’s theme of the children’s party is, “May the Swartz be with you,”with participants dressing in Star Wars costumes.
“Each year we have a different theme,. It’s nice to be a little silly together,” Swartzman said.
While some compare Purim to Mardi Gras, “I’d be hesitant to liken the two,” Swartzman said.
Mardi Gras is the festival before Lent marked by some Christian denominations С a last fling before they prepare for something more serious, penance, Swartzman said. Purim does not carry that serious aftermath.
“It’s a fun and very festive day,”
Jews are given four commandments with regard to the holiday: giving to the poor, giving gifts to friends and family, reading the Megillah and sharing a festive meal, “celebrating it’s said, to the point participants don’t know the protagonists from the antagonists,” Swartzman said.
While most people not of the Jewish faith, and indeed, some Jews think of Hanukkah as the major holiday to exchange gifts, Jews “followed our Christian neighbors in that regard because of Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas,” Swartzman said.
The rabbi has found deep meaning in Purim and the reading of the book of Esther.
In Passover, God plays a very active role in directing Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, Swartzman said.
The book of Esther is different because God isn’t even mentioned. For Swartzman, the message is “Even when God is not explicitly present, he is implicitly present.”
In the book, Haman, an advisor to the king, plots to destroy the Jews, but Mordecai, Esther’s cousin (according to Hebrew scriptures), persuades her to speak with the king on their behalf.
The request is dangerous not only because the king is unaware that Esther is a Jew, but because anyone who came into the king’s presence without being summoned could be put to death, and Esther had not been summoned.
Esther fasted for three days and then went into the king. He welcomed her and she told him of Haman’s plot to kill her people.
The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.