Purim is a holiday that fits the stereotypical joke about most Jewish holiday themes, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Set in the Persian Empire, a key advisor to the king sets his sights against the Jewish community. Esther and Mordechai step up to foil the plot, and the community unifies behind them, fasting and praying, but also raising their consciousness about politics and the precarious existence in a Diaspora community.
It is fascinating how the Scroll of Esther records the Jewish community’s triumph and the establishment of a holiday celebration for the ages. Purim, the holiday named after Haman’s lottery that picked the day of the Jewish community’s destruction, can be a metaphor about life and security. It is to be celebrated by reading the story in the Megillah, Scroll of Esther, having a holiday feast and through the exchange of food gifts between neighbors. Plus, the Megillah adds, Purim celebrations will only be complete with the giving of gifts to the needy. What a statement of inclusion and caring: a community’s joy and unity cannot be complete until all are able to participate.
Food plays a major role in this holiday. The story opens with a royal feast, which sets the scene for Esther rising to the position of queen, and much of the action takes place around other parties, large and intimate. Persian culture, often consisting of diverse satraps and ethnic groups, recognized that “party power” helped a population stay loyal to a centralized king. And who can argue with a nice midday meal that celebrates survival and is a form of a “renewal of vows” of the covenant between God and the Jewish people? Another important part of Purim is, mishloach manot, the exchange of food gifts between neighbors, and matanot la’evyonim, the giving of money and food to support the needy.
In the Encyclopedia of Religion, Thomson Gale wrote “The exchange of gifts is one of the most telling characteristics of human culture and, according to some authorities, may form the original basis of economics. From a religious perspective, gift giving has two primary aspects…. First, gift giving is incorporated in a variety of ways within the religious customs and sanctions that regulate social behavior. Second, in the sense of offering, gift giving is an essential aspect of sacrifices ritually presented to a deity or deities.”
Today we have substituted sacrifices to deities with food-based deeds of righteousness. This exchange of gifts and food, so familiar to us during Purim, recalls potlatch, a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it was the primary economic system and method of sharing wealth. Folk etymology has derived the term “potluck” from the Native American custom of potlatch. And so we are back to community sharing of food and celebrations.
Purim occurs 30 days before Passover, another food-heavy holiday. Another tradition developed to collect money call maot chittim, literally money for wheat, meant to ensure that all those who are needy can have the resources to bake matzot and purchase the special kosher-for-Passover food needed for the seder and week-long holiday.
We must find ways to live, learn, work and celebrate together, or our joy cannot be complete. Food is one attractive way to “bring people around the table,” and every holiday is another opportunity for each of us to join in this holy task. An ancient rabbinic saying states, “When all the other festivals will be abolished [in messianic times], Purim will remain (Midrash Mishle 9:2)”—perhaps because a celebration of the past was turned into a tool for a more just future.