A Day When Everything is Backwards
Purim ("poor-EEM") is another of the holidays that can truthfully be called "Jewish", for it, too, originated after the division of the Kingdom.
This holiday recalls YHWH's deliverance of the Jews in exile in Persia in the time of Queen Esther/Hadassah, when genocide was threatened by a high-ranking royal advisor named Haman, who was a descendant of the Amaleqite king Agag, whom King Sha'ul was commanded to kill. Since Haman and his henchmen drew lots to determine the date of the destruction of the Jews, the festival is called Purim ("lots"). The lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, in late winter. Mordechai, Hadassah's cousin and custodian, however, recognized that she had been raised to the throne "for such a time as this". He warned her, though, that if she did not act on her people's behalf, deliverance would come from elsewhere, but she would miss the benefit.
Hadassah had been chosen by the king as the most beautiful, noble, and worthy woman in the empire. Still, it was not without great risk; the king had not summoned her in a long time and anyone who approached him without invitation stood to be executed. But she used all her charm and much to everyone's relief, he was pleased to give her an audience. She invited the king and Haman to a series of banquets when she revealed to the king that she was a Jew (for she had kept her identity hidden until now), and Haman fell into an indiscreet pose while pleading with the queen for his life. The king's mistake about what he was doing brought the justice more swiftly than it might have otherwise come, and though the law allowing people to slaughter the Jews could not be repealed, a counter-measure that gave them the advantage was also enacted, and they both survived and became the most highly-favored people in the empire, to the point where many people converted to their faith.
Purim is celebrated on the fourteenth of the twelfth month, the day after the date Haman had chosen by lot for the Jews' destruction, because on this day they had rest from their enemies. In the city of Shushan (the capital), where it took an extra day to remove the threat from their enemies (Esther 9:22), the feast is celebrated on the fifteenth. So that a foreign capital would not receive more honor than Jerusalem, this "Shushan Purim" is celebrated there as well, and also in some other formerly-walled cities in Israel.
This is not a festival commanded by YHWH. In fact, Esther is the only book of the Jewish canon that was not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. At first, this cast doubt on whether the book was considered important during second Temple times, but then it was realized many of these repository caves were in fact genizoth--storage places for worn-out scrolls that could not be discarded because YHWH's name appeared in them. His name is nowhere in the story of Esther overtly, which is why no copies of it were found there. However, His name does appear in many equidistant letter sequences as were brought to public awareness by the much-publicized "Bible codes". And YHWH's hand is clearly visible in the outcome of the story, for He weaved together an intricate series of events that made nothing turn out the way it naturally would have had He not intervened. For this reason one of the nicknames for Purim is "the day when nothing is as it seems".
This insight is especially important to understanding Purim's significance, because YHWH had sworn eternal enmity against Amaleq (the descendants of one of Esau's sons), the people from which Haman came. (Exodus 17:14-16) Why? Because since it is said that they "encountered" Israel on their way out of Egypt. (Deut. 25:18) This word means "to happen upon" or "meet by chance" or coincidence, and all of these reflect a philosophy that events occur simply at random or by accident, with no plan or design behind them at all. Amaleq took advantage of this philosophy and considered their victories to thus be "strokes of luck". All of this goes completely against the Torah's emphasis, exemplified so well in the story of Esther, that YHWH is in control of every event and that He turns things about either to bring favor or chastening to His people.
Rabbi David Fohrman points out that the holiday may not, after all, be named after the tool the enemy used against the Jews, for the word Pur is not the Hebrew term for "lot", but the Persian. Numbers 30:13ff speaks of a woman’s husband annulling vows she has made which he foresees will be problematic to the overall good, but he has a limited time frame in which to do so; if he held his peace past that time, the vow would stand. But the term “her husband”, without one dot which appears in the last letter, is the same as the word “a woman”, and since those dots do not appear in the actual ancient Hebrew scrolls, it can be read either way, with the alternate reading, “Every binding vow to afflict the soul [often an idiom for fasting], a woman may establish it or a woman may annul it.” Mordekhai urged Hadassah not to hold her peace (4:14) lest the king’s order stand. The weapon she used to accomplish this was fasting (4:16). The word for “annul” in Hebrew is parar (sometimes actually appearing in the form pur), which means to defeat, frustrate, nullify, make void, disappoint, dissolve, or cause to cease--i.e., the "turning everything back" as in the title of this page. Since this is what Hadassah did (8:5) multiple times in the story and the word purim is plural, it appears that the name of the holiday is actually rooted in the Hebrew word for "bring to naught" instead of (or in addition to) the Persian word for “lot”.
The fact that the hanging of Haman's sons appears twice in the story tells us that it has two fulfillments. In the list of his sons there are three letters that are smaller than the rest, and their numeric value adds up to 707. When a year is being discussed in Hebrew, the "thousands" column is left out, just as prophecies in the Tzohar ostensibly about this year say only "769" for 5769. The 707th year of this millennium, as counted by Judah, began late in the year of 1946--when ten of Hitler's top men were also hanged for the very same reason--conspiring against the Jews! One of them, just before the block was kicked from under him, shouted "Purimfest 1946!" He had studied the Jews inside and out in order to know his enemy, and apparently he even saw this prophecy, but it brought no consolation to him!
Miraculous turn-around of events
National deliverance from the threat of annihilation
YHWH hidden in history, working behind the scenes
Boisterous celebration within the walls of the synagogue
Joining with the Jews (The festival is for the Jews and "any who wish to join them", Esther 9:2.)
Reading the whole megillah (scroll of the book of Hadassah/Esther), with every mention of Haman's name obscured by noisemakes called groggers.
Pastries called Hamantaschen ("Haman's pockets") are enjoyed at a celebratory meal, as well as kreplach (meat-filled dumplings served in soup) and other special dishes.
This is a very light-hearted time, and people often dress up in costumes or masquerade as characters from the story of Esther.
Torah teachings with a variety of comedic and linguistic twists.
Some include a comedic drama called Purimspiel or burn Haman in effigy. Liturgical prayers are even sometimes sung to popular tunes.
Some say one should "get so drunk that he cannot tell the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman"--though there is actually no difference between the two! Frivolity is allowed in regard to serious matters which at other times would seem an irreverent sacrilege, as a way of grappling with deep and troubling themes.
Seeds and nuts are eaten because of a Talmudic tradition that Hadassah ate only these foods when living in the Persian palace since she did not have access to kosher foods.
Since Mordechai established that this festival should be, in part, a time for "sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22), the giving of charity has become one of the most prominent features of this holiday. Everyone above bar or bat mitzvah age, even if poor, is expected to give something to those needier still. Ready-to-eat foods (often sweets or wine) are also sent to friends that are not so poor.
There is a time of reflection on how the Jews' remaining in exile when they were free to return to the Land delayed the building of the second Temple.
If one of the days of Purim falls on a Sabbath, an extra day called Purim M'shulash is added because some of this kind of festivities could not be done on the Sabbath.
In Hebraic leap years (when a thirteenth month is intercalated to keep the lunar cycle in synchronization with the seasons so the festivals, which often have an agricultural connection, can continue to occur at the right time), Purim is celebrated in the second Adar, because the thirteenth month is considered to be added before the twelfth.