JERUSALEM, Israel - This year, the festival of Purim began just as the Sabbath ended, at sunset on Saturday, Feb. 27. Because Jerusalem is one of Israel's "walled cities," Purim is celebrated for two days.
But whether for one or two days, the holiday symbolizes the victory of the Jewish people over anti-Semitism wherever it may be found.
Purim is a festive holiday, when children and adults dress up in all kinds of costumes and eat a triangular, fruit-filled pastry, which Israelis call oznei haman (Haman's ears) and Diaspora Jews call hamentashen.
Many Israelis observe the Fast of Esther, commemorating the fast described in chapter 4 (of the Book of Esther). It usually takes place the day before Purim, but this year that would fall on Shabbat (the Sabbath) so the fast will take place on Thursday.
The Book of Esther
Most biblical historians place the Book of Esther in the fourth century BCE, during the reign of King Ashasuerus, the Persian emperor, also known as Xerxes I.
The events recorded in this book have strengthened and encouraged communities of Jews throughout centuries of persecution and pogroms in the countries to which they were exiled.
The story begins with a lavish feast hosted by the king in the third year of his reign. When Queen Vashti refuses to appear before him and his guests "wearing her royal crown," Ahashuerus banishes her from her position.
Eventually, the king chooses a new queen, Esther, a Jewish orphan raised by her cousin, Mordechai. Their family had been "carried away from Jerusalem" by King Nebuchadnezzar during the Babylonian exile.
Haman Becomes Prime Minister
When Ashasuerus appoints Haman the Agagite as prime minister, he commands all his subjects to bow down before him.
Mordechai refuses, infuriating Haman, who decides to avenge himself by destroying all the Jews in the Persian Empire, which at that time stretched from India to Ethiopia.
Haman tells Ashasuerus of a people living among them whose "laws are different" and who do not keep the king's laws. The king gives him free reign to destroy them.
Though the name of God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, His divine intervention and perfect timing is evident from start to finish. In the end, Haman's wicked plot is exposed and he is hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordechai.
"On the day that the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, the opposite occurred, in that the Jews themselves overpowered those who hated them." (Esther 9:1b)
A Modern-Day Haman
Today, there's another Persian ruler, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with a similar plan in mind - to wipe the State of Israel and its people off the world's map. Like Haman, Ahmadinejad speaks openly of his distain for this peculiar people.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks on Jewish people are increasing dramatically in almost every nation in the world, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa to name a few.
That's why this year, perhaps more than ever, the story of Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai will help Israelis and Jews worldwide to trust in God's unseen hand to protect them against those seeking to hurt them.
*Originally published February 23, 2010.